After my son had surgery, I was surprised by his twin's lack of empathy. It turned out we were all struggling.

  • My twin sons do everything together, but when Charlie had surgery, his brother, Thomas, ignored him.

  • To help ease Charlie's pain, I showered him with Christmas gifts, and Thomas seemed to understand.

  • I've realized the recovery was hard on everyone and we should have communicated our feelings more.

Throughout their lives, my 17-year-old twin sons, Charlie and Thomas, have done everything together. They've played on the same sports teams, attended the same schools, and made friends with the same group.

They both love playing Australian rules football. It's a rough game that's a mix of American football, rugby, and soccer. It involves a lot of tackling and physical contact, all without any helmets or padding.

Last year while playing, Charlie was tackled and landed awkwardly, hurting his knee. We took him to physiotherapy, where we learned he had dislocated his knee and would have to take a month's break from the sport. He was also told that if he kept up with his therapy, he would be back in time for the finals.

While Charlie was in pain, he was able to heal and returned for the grand final in August. Their team went on to win the title, and it was a testament to his dedication. But during a trip abroad in September, we learned that his injury was more extensive than we'd thought.

During a trip, Charlie's injury flared up

When we traveled to Texas from Australia for my wedding — which had been delayed for three years, thanks to the pandemic — Charlie experienced bouts of pain.

The author's twins
The author's twins.Courtesy of Ash Jurberg

On several occasions during the trip, Charlie bucked over, saying that his knee hurt. After several minutes of massaging the knee back into place, he was then able to continue walking. When we returned home, we saw a knee specialist, just to be safe. Unfortunately, the news was not good.

It turned out that the physiotherapist had misdiagnosed his injury — he had actually ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament and torn both menisci in his left knee. The specialist was amazed Charlie could walk properly, let alone play a football game. Essentially, Charlie's knee was nearly destroyed. We were advised to book surgery as soon as we could to repair the damage and hope he could one day return to playing sports.

His operation was scheduled at the worst time for a teenager — the last day of the school year, which runs from February to early December in Australia. He was spending his Christmas healing, and on top of that, the holiday season coincides with summer in Australia. Charlie spent the first few days of his time off in the hospital, then the entire break on crutches and in rehab.

While he could still enjoy some Christmas activities, we set up our Christmas tree before his operation, a few weeks earlier than we usually would have.

When Charlie recovered from surgery, his twin's reaction surprised me

Though I had complete faith in the doctors, seeing my child undergo an operation while under general anesthetic was hard. The surgery was supposed to last three hours, but the damage turned out to be extensive. I wound up waiting over eight hours in the hospital for updates. Charlie ended up having to spend two extra nights in the hospital.

Image of Charlie sitting on a hospital bed wearing a surgerical mask, gown and surgical slippers. He wears a white baseball hat and gives a thumbs up to the camera with his right hand.
Charlie right before he goes into surgery.Courtesy of Ash Jurberg

When Charlie was able to come home, it was like having a newborn again. We had to help him do things like shower, get dressed, and get in and out of bed. The pain meant round-the-clock care and a strict medication regimen.

While this was going on, Thomas seemed to be enjoying his summer vacation. He went to the movies with his girlfriend, headed to the beach with friends, and played basketball at the local gym like any other teenager. I didn't expect him to forego all summertime activities, but it didn't seem like he wanted to help or even spend time with Charlie. I was surprised by what seemed like a lack of empathy.

I thought he, as a brother, let alone an identical twin, would offer to care for Charlie or at least be present to help lift his spirits. It felt like we were all struggling in different ways, but neither Thomas nor Charlie wanted to discuss the situation.

To help ease Charlie's misery, I began overcompensating

With Charlie so miserable just days before Christmas, I began to go overboard with gifts. I contacted the football team that Charlie supported and got a signed card and cap from his favorite player. I also bought far more Christmas presents for him than I would during a typical year, hoping this could alleviate his misery. I didn't know what to do to cheer him up, so I sought to buy his happiness.

Photo of Ash Jurberg's sons, Charlie and Thomas, and his wife in front of a Christmas tree. One of the twins squats in front of the Christmas tree and is angled to the viewer's right, but smiles at the camera, wearing a white t-shirt and black shorts. The other twin stands behind his brother with his hands behind his back He wears a white baseball cap, white athletic shirt and grey shorts. Ash's wife Cecelia stands to the right of the Christmas tree and holds a black and white King Charles Spaniel dog. She wears a denim shirt, salmon pink shorts, and smiles widely. All three have dark brown hair and dark eyes.
The author's sons and wife by the Christmas tree.Courtesy of Ash Jurberg

On Christmas Day, when we opened our presents, I watched to see how Thomas reacted to the fact that his brother had a lot more gifts. While he was disappointed, I saw by his reaction and the look on his face that he understood the disparity. I think this also made him reassess his behavior during this time.

A week later, Thomas organized a beach trip with friends and made sure Charlie was included. He arranged for a chair to be transported to the beach so his brother could at least watch as the others swam. He also made sure that people hung out with Charlie so he wouldn't be left alone.

Charlie enjoyed this outing so much that, a few days later, Thomas organized a sleepover at our house. Friends all gathered to watch the soccer World Cup final so Charlie would have company to watch the game.

The recovery period was challenging for everyone

Balancing the attention I give to my sons has been difficult. While things have improved each week, it has been a juggling act for everyone. When school resumed, Charlie was still on crutches, so we had to rely on Thomas to help carry his bag and books around the school.

When the football season started, Thomas began playing again. It's been difficult for Charlie to watch from the sidelines. It has also been hard for me to find ways for Charlie to still be involved in the club and not feel left out.

Looking back, I feel like we all should have spoken about our feelings and how we could help each other get through a difficult situation. As identical twins, they're used to doing everything together, but this forced separation proved a challenge for all of us. The boys retreated, and I relied on buying happiness, which was only a short-term solution.

Eight months after the operation, Charlie was finally cleared to start exercising in the gym. He plans to return to football in March, provided the surgeon gives him the go-ahead.

Ironically, the week Charlie returned to the gym, Thomas fractured his arm playing football and wasn't able to play for two months. At least this time we had experience in dealing with the situation. It also proves they are identical in every way.

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