Identical twin sisters, both adopted from China to different Ontario families have been given a rare oppurtunity to grow up together. Video and article courtesy of The Star.

The drop-off takes place on a wet winter night at a roadside coffee shop near Hamilton.

A girl with a curtain of jet black hair sits at a table by the window, waiting, parents at her side. When headlights flash across the parking lot, she beams.

Seconds later, the door bursts open and heads turn as a grinning girl with the same curtain of dark hair walks in — an unmistakable clone of the first.

She’s come with an overnight bag and a pillow. And, curiously, she’s come with two parents of her own.

“Gill!” sings the sitting family. Smiles all around as she gives the other girl an affectionate slug on the shoulder.

The four parents have driven a combined six hours through snow and rain and rush hour to meet in between their two towns. In a few minutes, one pair will turn around and head back, this time with both girls in tow.

All this so that two 12-year-olds can have a sleepover.

It’s an enormous effort for what will amount to an 18-hour visit, but it is an effort spurred by a promise made years ago, when the parents discovered their adopted daughters had a startling connection.

They were identical twins.

The girls were born in China, separated by circumstance and parceled out to two different families. Whether by fortune or design – no one will ever know – the couples who adopted them were both from Ontario. And they figured it out.

Kirk and Allyson MacLeod adopted their daughter, Lily, 12 years ago and brought her home to Keswick, north of Toronto. Mike and Lynette Shaw adopted their daughter, Gillian, 12 years ago and brought her home to Amherstburg, just outside Windsor. When the parents discovered the connection, they vowed to raise them as sisters.

The situation is as rare as it is fascinating: Lily and Gillian are one of only a handful of twin pairs in the world known to be growing up in this way — apart, yet together. They are an accidental experiment, giving researchers a new window into human behaviour by allowing them to study the effects of nature and nurture in real-time. For science, Lily and Gillian are a treasure.

And for the people raising them — strangers thrown together by extraordinary circumstances — the unusual arrangement has made them pioneers of a whole new kind of blended family. They are making up the rules as they go.

The photos came by courier on a cold Christmas Eve in 1999. An early gift.

At their home in Keswick, Allyson and Kirk MacLeod tore open the package and stared in awe at the little girl who would soon be theirs. Tiny hands balled into fists, a sleepy gaze.

Allyson and Kirk, in their early 30s, had been trying to have a baby for years. After two miscarriages — the second at five months — they decided to adopt. More than anything, they wanted a family.

The babe in the photo wore a white dress with blue polka dots. Her cheeks were chubby, eyebrows arched in surprise, lower lip settled into a perfect porcelain pout. A patch of dark fuzzy hair, sparse in front, grew thick at the crown of her head. They named her Lily.

In a town 400 kilometres away, Mike and Lynette Shaw, at home with their two young children, opened their own package.

Mike and Lynette, also in their early 30s, had always wanted a house full of kids. Nearly two years before the package came, Lynette had given birth to a third child, Jonathan, who was born with a rare heart defect and died when he was only 17 days old. Another pregnancy could be difficult, both physically and emotionally. So Lynette and Mike decided to adopt.

The babe in their photo wore a pale pink sleeper with buttons up the front. She had chubby cheeks, arched brows, a perfect pout and a patch of dark fuzzy hair; sparse in front, thick at the crown. Her name would be Gillian.

The Shaws and MacLeods had met once, three months previous, at a gathering of couples adopting through the same Ottawa-based agency. They were part of a small group of parents-to-be who would travel to China together in February to pick up their children. When the photos arrived on Dec. 24, an excited email exchange ensued.

But when the Shaws saw the photo of Lily, they were taken aback. Mike put the two pictures together, scanned them and sent the split-screen image back to the MacLeods with a brief message: Notice anything similar about these two?

They did. Allyson and Kirk had been thinking the same thing.

The two families contacted the adoption agency and asked coordinators to look into the matter. At first, the parents were concerned the orphanage may have inadvertently assigned one baby to two different families. Adoption documents even gave the girls the same birthday. If there were two of them, could they be twins?

Word came back from the orphanage a few days later: there were indeed two babies. Workers said the girls were found in different locations, brought in separately. They were not twins, just look-alikes.

And so the MacLeods and Shaws found themselves, two months later, at a hotel in China’s Hunan province, waiting outside an elevator with three other couples. When the doors opened, five nannies stepped out with five little girls in their arms, babies bundled into so many layers of clothing they could hardly move. Only their heads peeked out of the hooded zip-up suits they wore.

It was immediately clear to all that two of the babies were identical.

Officially, the orphanage still insisted the girls, then 8 months old, were unrelated and could not be adopted together. If the parents didn’t take the baby assigned to them, they would go back into the adoption pool. And there was no guarantee they would end up together next time.

Maybe workers at the orphanage really didn’t know. Maybe they didn’t care. Or maybe, as the girls’ parents like to think, they couldn’t afford a DNA test and did what they thought was the next best thing: place the twins with families near each other.

“They could have easily sent one of the girls to Australia and one to Canada and nobody would have been the wiser,” says Kirk. “To put the girls together in the same group of people, I think the orphanage was saying to us, ‘please find out.’”

A DNA test would later confirm what the parents didn’t doubt for a moment. Lily and Gillian were twins.

Before leaving China, the Shaws and MacLeods made a pact — without having any idea what the commitment would entail — to raise the girls as sisters. The strangers were family now.

Like any parent faced with a unique child-rearing challenge, Allyson turned to the all-knowing internet for answers, emailing some of the world’s leading twin experts for advice. Could they, she asked, point her toward resources for parents raising infant twins apart?

When Nancy Segal read Allyson’s email, she was floored. As a prominent twin expert and former assistant director of the renowned Minnesota Center for Twin and Adoption Research, Segal had encountered a slew of unusual multiples over the years. But identical twins being raised apart, yet as sisters? It was unheard of.

The bad news for the parents was that there weren’t any how-to manuals. The good news — for science, at least — was that tracking the twins’ growth could lead to fascinating and valuable research.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of twins to genetic research. They have been called nature’s living laboratories, scientific treasures, the workhorse of behavioural genetics. Twins are the vehicle through which scientists have been able to study and decode the effects of nature and nurture on our behaviour, personality and disease vulnerability.

Identical twins, who come from a single fertilized egg that splits in two, are genetic photocopies of each other. By comparing them with fraternal twins — who come from two separate eggs and are no different than non-twin siblings, genetically speaking — researchers have been able to pinpoint what is genetic and what is not.

In the late 1970s, scientists at the Minnesota Center for Twin and Adoption Research began studying what was then a new category of multiples — adopted twins who were separated at birth and reunited as adults.

Perhaps the most famous of the twins studied were Jim Springer and Jim Lewis, identicals who reconnected at age 39 and found that their parents had unknowingly given them the same name. The “Jim twins” had both married and divorced women named Linda, remarried women named Betty and had sons named James Allan and James Alan. Both had dogs named Toy.

They were an anomaly, to be sure, but a mesmerizing one that inspired Dr. Thomas Bouchard’s landmark “Minnesota Study of Identical Twins Reared Apart.” The study shook the scientific community by demonstrating, across a number of traits, that twins raised apart are as similar as twins raised together.

The study’s evidence of genetic influence in traits such as personality (50 per cent heritable) and intelligence (70 per cent heritable) overturned conventional ideas about parenting and teaching. And findings of genetic influence on physiological characteristics have led to new ways of fighting and preventing disease.

Bouchard’s research on reared-apart twins used information that was gathered retrospectively — from the memories of twins reunited as adults and, if they were still alive, their parents. Now, twins like Lily and Gillian are giving researchers the opportunity, for the first time ever, to study reared-apart twins in real time — throughout childhood, adolescence and, if all goes well, into adulthood.

Over the past decade, Segal, now a psychology professor at California State University, has found about 15 more sets of adopted twin children being raised by different families, most of them Chinese girls.

Researchers attribute this phenomenon to China’s one-child policy, which led to the abandonment of thousands of female babies. Though China’s official adoption rules state that twins should be placed together, pairs like Lily and Gillian prove things don’t always happen that way.

Twelve pairs are part of Segal’s ongoing research on reared-apart twin children, a project that promises to open a new window into human behaviour. Every few years, for as long as they are willing, the twins and their parents will complete a giant questionnaire packet that tracks their behaviour, attitudes and health as they age.

Segal’s study includes a wide range of reared-apart twins. One set is growing up in the same city. Another set is separated by 8,000 kilometres of land and sea — one in California, the other in a tiny Norwegian village. One American family, after discovering their child had a twin, moved across the country so they could grow up together.

“The twin relationship, particularly with (identical) twins, is probably the closest of human social ties,” says Segal, who is herself a twin. This is why it’s so important for multiples to grow up together.

Segal marvels at the sacrifices parents of reared-apart twin children have made in order to nurture their bond. She has always believed strongly that twins should be raised together, but these families are the exception to her rule. “These parents have worked very hard to get these children, they are very loving families,” she says. “They immediately fall in love with these children and I think that you cannot ask them to give up a child.”

As babies, Lily and Gillian would crawl on their hands and toes, bums in the air. One day, seven months after Mike and Lynette brought Gillian home, she scooted over to the couch, grabbed hold of the edge, pulled herself up onto her feet and took her first wobbly steps across the room.

Lynette called the MacLeods and left the news on their answering machine. She knew Allyson and Kirk would want to know.

Hours later, the Shaws’ phone rang. It was Allyson. She’d heard the message just as she was about to call with news about Lily. Earlier that day, within hours of her twin, Lily had taken her own first steps.

Weeks earlier, the twins had met for the first time in Canada after spending several months apart. It was a hot day in July and the Shaws had taken a detour into Keswick on their way to Lynette’s family cottage in North Bay. The girls’ cheeks were flushed and they both wore sundresses.

When their parents sat them down on the floor, face to face, it was like plopping one in front of a mirror. The girls stared and stared at each other, puzzled and hesitant. “It was painful to watch,” says Allyson, chuckling at the memory. Many of their early visits started this way.

The parents later discovered that Lily and Gillian weren’t just identical, they were mirror-image twins: Lily is right-handed, Gillian left-handed; their hair whirls at the crown in opposite directions; both have an eyelid that droops when they’re tired, but on opposite sides. For the girls, staring at each other really was like looking in a mirror.

Growing up, Lily and Gillian were both picky eaters, both afraid of clowns and obsessed with dress-up. They loved drawing and would lie on their bellies on the floor together for hours, sketching and colouring pictures. When 2-year-old Gillian started grabbing soothers from other kids and whacking them on the head, Mike and Lynette assumed the aggressive streak came from having an older brother and sister. Then Lily came to visit and they saw she had developed flying fists of her own.

Being from small towns, both families knew when they decided to adopt little girls from China that they would have a lot of explaining to do over the years. The twin thing complicated the story further.

At school one day, Gillian was asked to draw a picture of her family. In one corner of the paper, she drew herself with her parents and older siblings. Up in the top corner, in heaven, she drew Jonathan. And off to the side she drew Lily, Allyson and Kirk. The teacher thought Gillian was confused. The picture required a parental explanation.

When Lily was six, a friend visiting the MacLeod home questioned her about Gillian.

“Where’s your sister?” the friend asked.

“She doesn’t live with me,” Lily replied.

The friend scoffed. “Then you don’t have a sister,” she said.

Lily fired back. “My mommy has a sister and she lives in Nova Scotia and they’re still sisters.”

When the girls were little, the first thing they did when one twin arrived for a visit was run upstairs, empty the contents of the visiting twin’s suitcase and have a fashion show. They would change 15 times a day.

The clothes swap was also a tool in one of their favourite games — tricking their grandparents into believing one was the other. “WHO AM I?” they would shout, bursting into fits of laughter when Grandpa Shaw or Nanny MacLeod guessed the wrong twin.

The girls revelled in their sameness. On one visit, Lily arrived in Amherstburg with her hair cut several inches shorter than her sister’s. This upset Gillian. She pouted until Allyson took her outside and chopped her hair to Lily’s length. Problem solved. They girls skipped off together, new bobs bouncing at their shoulders.

The twins loved being together, which made leaving difficult for everyone. They cried and wailed and sometimes stayed gloomy for days. The separation hit Lily hardest. Without Gillian around, she was an only child again. And a lonely one. It broke her parents’ hearts. “In an odd sort of way that’s really unexplainable,” says Kirk, “there was this sense of leaving part of Lily behind when we drove out of the driveway.”

Twin-laws . This is what some couples have dubbed the parents of their child’s lost and found sibling, the people with whom they must — for better or for worse — forge a relationship.

Siblings Far, a low-traffic, bare-bones weblog, is one of the few resources for families raising separated twins. It went up a few years after the MacLeods and Shaws brought Lily and Gillian home. The blog’s authors are blunt in their delivery of advice.

“This is a long-term commitment,” the site cautions. “You do not get to choose the family that has adopted your child’s sibling. It may or may not be a (compatible) match between the households.”

Jim and Susan Rittenhouse launched the website in 2004, soon after they discovered their 4-year-old daughter, Meredith, had a twin.

The Rittenhouses live in the Chicago suburbs. Their daughter’s twin was adopted by a couple in Birmingham, Ala. The twinship was discovered when Jim came across a photo of his daughter’s double on a blog. By coincidence, the girls are both named Meredith. “The story abounds in craziness. It really does,” says Jim.

In the past decade, through Siblings Far, Jim and Susan have connected with dozens of couples in similar situations. Jim says the experience with their own twin-laws has been positive, but they’ve heard from enough panicked parents to know that finding a lost sibling doesn’t always mean a happy ending. Once you’ve made the connection, they warn, you can’t go back in time. You can’t pretend not to know.

In Montreal, Anne-Marie Merkly, a 48-year-old single mom, is also raising an adopted Chinese daughter who has a faraway twin.

Flavie Merkly met her double on their seventh birthday in August 2008. The twin flew in from California with her parents for their first-ever visit, a trip that was years in the making after a friend of Anne-Marie’s discovered a photo of a girl on a blog who was unquestionably a clone of her daughter.

When they met, “Flavie and her sister literally just embraced, started to giggle and then took off running,” Anne-Marie remembers. “As if nothing had happened. As if one had gone shopping and come back.”

The families spent a wonderful week together. They spoke of future visits. Flavie’s twin sobbed when it was time to leave. But months after the reunion, the other family stopped emailing, stopped calling, abruptly cut off nearly all communication with Flavie and her mom.

Anne-Marie has no idea what happened. “It’s very much a big question mark,” she says. “We don’t understand it.”

In the beginning, the unanswered questions drove her crazy. Was it something she said? Something they did? Truth be told, the girls live very different lives: Flavie goes to private school, her twin is home schooled. Flavie travels a lot, her twin doesn’t often leave California. Perhaps the other family disagreed with Anne-Marie’s method of parenting. She tries not to think about it anymore. There is nothing she can do.

For Kirk and Allyson, Mike and Lynette, there was never any question about whether they would keep in touch, whether they would tell the girls what they knew.

“I think the only option that we all understood,” says Kirk, “was to say we will make the sacrifices to say this is going to work. We have to make it work.”

From the very beginning, the girls knew they were twins. And from the moment they came out of the elevator in China, the MacLeods and Shaws were family, bound by a promise to bring the girls together as often as possible. “It was like getting married all over again,” says Allyson. “All of a sudden you’re like, well, we’re hitched.”

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