In the day-to-day grind of school runs, Spanish homework, cello practice and meal preparation in which all fruit and vegetables have to be disguised as Haribos, it's easy to lose sight of how beautiful and miraculous our children are.
For most of us this is normal life, and to be honest, some days, it's not all that easy. So how would we cope if 'normal' life consisted of spending 10 hours a day just feeding you children? Or spending each night awake with them in our arms screaming with pain the cannot be controlled or soothed? Or simply wondering whether or not they will make it through another night?
Those have been some of the features of 'normal' life for James and Georgie Melville-Ross since their twins Alice and Tommy were born at 24 weeks in the summer of 2003. In Two for Joy, James tells the story of Alice and Tommy's premature entry into the world, their fierce early struggle for life and their growing pains coping with severe dystonic, quadriplegic cerebral palsy. He also tells his story, and that of Georgie, and their lives as the parents of severely disabled children.
At this point I need to declare an interest. I've known James for about 15 years, first as a business acquaintance, later as a friend. It's difficult not to be a friend of James once you've known him a while; he's one of the most honest, decent and considerate people I've come across.
From our irregular meetings I knew something of the family's journey but as it turns out, I didn't know the half of it. I didn't know that Alice had spent 259 days in hospital and Tommy longer. Nor that Tommy had the last rites read to him by a priest when three days old and that both twins experienced a number of close shaves in their formative weeks and since. The feeding regime chez Melville-Ross after the twins have returned home are quite extraordinary as are the couples' efforts to give the twins as normal a life as possible.
So the first thing to say about Two for Joy is that it is an incredible story, so well told that is truly as gripping as most of the murder mysteries I review on these pages. I read it in one sitting, for the simple reason that I couldn't stop once I'd started. There is no shortage of knife-edge drama, nor of the types of characters that every good story needs. If you ever find yourself in trouble and need somebody to scrap by your side, you couldn't do better than Georgie Melville-Ross. Similarly the medical staff at St. Thomas's and the assortment of carers and therapists who wonder in and out of the twins lives. And of course to the extraordinary children, Alice and 'Titanium' Tommy whose battle against the odds is genuinely inspirational.
And what of the narrator himself? Well, what really makes Two for Joy really are two things. First, while it will take you into some fairly dark territory and to times when the default setting for James and Georgie must have been exhausted despair, but James never lets the story languish in the shadows. There is always the next day, another therapy, a smile from one of the children, their closeness as a family. And so throughout, the story always manages to be bright and uplifting and often funny (see the episode of grandfather getting stuck with a child covered with sick in his arms, unable to move - likely not all that funny at the time).
And then there is James' honesty, mentioned earlier but revealed here in an entirely different context. Two for Joy answers the questions you would want to ask (both of James and of course yourself, because there's no reading this book without putting yourself in their shoes). Such as: Is there not a moment when you thought it would be better that these children had died? How do you feel about the prospect of your life looking after severely disabled children?
Of course there were also moments where James was less than proud of conduct and attitude. He tells the story of one occasion on which faced with the children refusing to feed, he kicks out in frustration at an open over door, smashing it and scaring Alice. 'What a man. What a prick,' he writes.
It takes real courage to be that honest with yourself, never mind the world, but it makes the story real. James and Georgie are extraordinary in the way they have fought for and cared for their children, but they are not saints. The honesty is raw and emotional and gives the book a lot of power.
People will take different lessons from the book. Some that every life counts and is worthy living and fighting which is emphatically proven by this tale, and the joy James experiences in his children and their development. Others will get a necessary dose of perspective on their daily grind. And nobody will come away without a tremendous sense of admiration for James, Georgie. Alice and Tommy.
This is a wonderful book and you should buy it and read it. (Unless you're one of those people I regularly buy books for at Christmas: you're all getting it anyway).
Two for Joy was published by John Blake on June 2. It is available from Amazon.