I'm a Mom (Thanks to My Sister)
06/02/2008 at 01:00 AM EDT
"Sis-ters. Sis-ters! There were never such devoted sis-ters ... "
Rachel Schwartz and Deb Brenner giggle as they try to recall the rest of the Rosemary Clooney tune their grandmother sang whenever the two sisters bickered over Barbies and baby dolls in their suburban Philadelphia home. "She would tell us, 'Girls! Don't you know how lucky you are?,'" recalls Rachel, 36. "'Your sister is your best friend.'" The lesson holds true today, after a journey full of both anguish and exhilaration, one that would lead to two babies for Rachel, born five months apart.
Children of a schoolteacher mom and college professor dad, Rachel, the more bubbly, outgoing older sister, and Deb, the quieter, emotional one 2 1/2 years younger, shared everything—clothes, moods and even, when Deb needed comforting, the same twin bed. They also shared a dream: children of their own. "We played Mommies," says Deb, now 34. "It was all we ever wanted to be."
For Rachel, that dream all but died in September 1999, when a doctor told her the lump in her groin was a soft tissue sarcoma. Cancer. Rachel was 28 and single, and was warned she might never conceive or carry a baby. Two dozen radiation treatments destroyed her right ovary, and several surgeries left her with severe lymphedema (chronic swelling that can lead to dangerous blood clots) in her right leg. Deb—by then 25 and a newlywed teaching kindergarten—punted husband Randy to the guest room after each of Rachel's four surgeries and cared for her sister, with all her tubes and drains, in their bed. She brought macaroni and cheese, cuddled through favorite TV shows and whispered an important promise: "You know I will always carry a baby for you if you can't."
It proved a tough promise to keep. Deb's body did not ovulate naturally. She conceived her son Lenny, now 6, after 14 months of fertility treatments. Daughter Kailey, now 3, was born after in vitro fertilization. "It's emotionally exhausting," says Deb. "All those pills and procedures." At Kailey's birth, Rachel cut the umbilical cord. "I wanted her to be part of something so special," says Deb. But in the delivery room, Rachel "looked at Kailey with that look, like, 'Will I ever have my own baby?'"
Rachel was ready. She had met Danny Schwartz, a family physician, on a blind date. "The way she looked, the way she was speaking, I thought to myself, 'I would love this woman to be the mother of my kids,'" says Schwartz, 38. They married 19 months later, settled into a house minutes from Deb's place in their childhood neighborhood of Lafayette Hill, Pa., and Rachel tried to get pregnant knowing, as Danny put it, the radiation had essentially left her with the reproductive system of "a 50-year-old woman entering menopause." On Valentine's Day 2005 Rachel's doctor said that her levels of the FSH hormone, which helps encourage the growth of a woman's eggs, were dismal and advised her to consider an egg donor. "That's when the real depression hit," says the sisters' mom, Maris Delano, 65. "But there was determination."
Rachel hit the books (Rachel and her doctor swear by Inconceivable and The Infertility Cure) and the Internet (fertileHOPE.org), looking to improve her FSH level. She became a fanatic about organic foods, wheat germ, acupuncture, herbs and yoga. Still, her fertility specialist Dr. Frances Batzer ruled out IVF, saying Rachel's lymphedema and radiation damage to her uterus made a pregnancy too dangerous. Deb stepped forward for surrogacy duty—just eight weeks after delivering her own daughter Kailey.
Both women spent months taking hormone shots—Rachel to produce eggs to be fertilized by Danny's sperm, Deb to prepare her body for the embryo. On Feb. 23, 2006, a catheter delivered three embryos into Deb's womb. "Finally we had a chance at a baby," says Rachel. Doctors eventually heard two heartbeats. Only one fetus survived the first trimester, however. And so Rachel lectured Deb to get enough rest and eat right, as she was doing herself.
At the five-month mark in Deb's surrogate pregnancy, something unexpected happened: Rachel became pregnant, in defiance of everything her doctors had predicted. "All I can say is that God was smiling on her," says Dr. Batzer. On Nov. 10, 2006, at her four-month mark, Rachel was in the delivery room watching her sister about to give birth to Emma, the child conceived with Rachel's eggs. "The doctor said, 'You made this baby, go pull her out,'" Rachel remembers. "I felt like I had won the lottery—twice."
Rachel gave birth to Jake five months later with no complications. Son and daughter are both the apples of their mother's eye. "I don't feel any different about them," says Rachel. "They are both of my body." Strangers often ask if the babies are twins. "Yeah," says Rachel, "our own unique version." These days she sings "The Noble Duke of York" to them, as her mother sang it to her and Deb.
Last November, on Emma's first birthday, Rachel and her husband sent Deb and her husband on a trip to Aruba as a thank-you gift. Deb came home pregnant. "Another miracle," says Deb. Rachel calls the baby, due in July, "God's gift to Deb for giving to us." As a sister should.