“Yes, Nigel?” the teacher said. I lowered my hand and glanced back at Nigel’s vacant desk. He had stayed home sick that day. Realizing her mistake, the teacher laughed sheepishly.
“You all look so alike," she said. "There’s no way I’ll ever be able to tell you apart.”
“I have braces,” I replied with a metallic grin. “Nick and Nigel wear glasses. And Zach is the tallest.”
It was no use. We were four boys who shared one face.
Being a quadruplet had its perks. It gave me an instant identity as a “Wade Brother.” It also made me something of an expert at sharing. We share birthdays. We share bedrooms. We share a 2006 Toyota Camry. More importantly, Nick, Nigel, Zach and I share a struggle to establish ourselves as individuals. Growing up, I felt as if I were a detail that people overlooked in favor of some bigger picture. To a few, I was Aaron Wade. To most, I was “one of the Quads.”
Music taught me that my brothers and I don't share everything. One day, while we were roughhousing in the basement of my family’s old house, I caught sight of something I had never noticed before: an old, dusty, upright piano. I walked over to the instrument and mashed down on its keys, watching in astonishment as the notes evoked a cascade of colors in my mind’s eye. I pressed the keys again, this time glancing back at my brothers, who took no notice. I was perplexed. How could something so wonderful fail to captivate them? For the first time in my life, I had found something that was entirely my own.
With the help of my piano, I began to forge a self-image that was undiluted by circumstance. Even more accessible was my voice—I sang so much that my brothers grew to despise the sound of it. “You sing and dance around the house constantly,” my mom commented.
“Why don’t you perform for anyone else?”
I was hesitant, considering that my only audience up to that point had been my brothers, whose reviews were less than positive. But my mother was right. There still existed a disconnect between my personal and public identities; I couldn’t help but wonder if performing was the way to reconcile them. So I signed up to sing at my school’s talent show.
The audience grew quiet as I walked onto the stage. “Is that a Wade?” I heard someone remark. Struggling to keep my nerves at bay, I tapped my feet to the cadence of the horns in Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke.”
Then I started to sing.
The words came out shakily at first. By the end of the first verse, though, the weight of my anxiety had been lifted. There was no audience, as far as I was concerned. There wasn’t even a stage. There was just me, doing what I loved. And it felt amazing.
"Just because a record has a groove
Don’t make it in the groove.
But you can tell right away at letter A,
When the people start to move."
They were moving, all right. So was I—snapping, clapping, spinning, moonwalking. Only when the music stopped did I hear the clamor of an ovation. Only then did I notice that the crowd was standing, that a chorus of cheers had filled the auditorium. My gaze fell upon my brothers. Of all the applause, theirs was the loudest; plastered on their faces was a look of pride.
“Quadruplet” will always comprise a part of my identity. Although it was once a barrier to individuality, it is now one of the many things that makes me unique: a badge of honor I don as Aaron Wade.
“Wade. Wade. Wade. Wade,” shouted my football coach as he called roll at breakneck speed.
“Here,” we sounded in unison.
A chorus of laughter erupted. Every day, the coach made this joke, and every day, the whole team laughed as if it were the funniest thing ever. I never found it funny. But I always smiled and laughed, as if to fool them into thinking that sharing a last name with three other brothers, all born in the span of ten minutes, was something to laugh about, rather than something I’d struggled my entire life to reconcile.
When people learn that I am a quadruplet, their eyes widen. Women invariably say, "Your poor mother." Neighbors, teachers, and friends seldom use my first name. They perpetually refer to me as “one of the Wade boys.” Or they say, “Wait, which one are you?” People think of me less as individual and more like one in a set of matching luggage. Because the world did not see my individual identity, I grew up thinking I didn’t have one. It would take a long time to form a clear sense of self, to be something other than a Quad.
My quest to establish my identity started in high school. Clubs looked like the answer. I joined Latin, Tech, Robotics, Art, and Spanish Clubs. But they all felt like fillers. Only one club remained. The Cultural Club. Why would I want to want to learn about other cultures when I couldn’t even figure out my personal culture?
But, it felt like my last option to be more than just one of the Wade boys.
The Cultural Club gave me direction. It incited a curiosity that could only be satiated by learning about the trials and triumphs of people worldwide. I began to follow all things international relations. Since conflict in the Middle East often made headlines, the Cultural Club became involved with aiding Arab communities. We volunteered and created care packs for refugees abroad. As a personal project, I began working at Cincinnati's refugee resettlement agency.
I wanted to continue building upon this foundation. But how?
Arabic was my answer. I studied independently, but I felt it wasn’t enough. So, I scoured the web. Eventually, I dug up the email of a Foreign Service Officer. Her advice led to a State Department scholarship to study Arabic in Morocco. When I was accepted, I was ecstatic. For the first time in my life, I would embark on a journey completely independent of my brothers. I would be going to a place where no one knew about my multiple birth status. In Morocco, I wouldn’t be “one of the Wade boys.” I would be free to establish who I was, and who I could be.
I was caught off guard in Morocco. I found myself immersed in everything, from the food (a really cool mix of French and Arab cuisine) to race relations (being African-American, I was called Obama more than my name). I got bitten by a beggar on the street and fell off a camel in the Sahara, all while trying to learn the notoriously difficult and beautiful language that is Arabic. I did all of this not as a Quad, but as myself.
Back home, I sat with my siblings on the porch, reveling in the glory of the last evening before we returned to school. We laughed and joked, trading stories from the summer. In that moment, I realized that while we share genes, a name, and a love for one another, we didn’t share everything. My experiences, Arabic skills, and ambitions were mine alone. As I sat with my brothers on the porch that evening, I realized that I could get more joy out of being a Quad now that I was better at being Nick.
The chance that my mother would give birth to quadruplets.
The chance that this woman striding towards me and my brothers was about to make me feel like the black sheep.
She turned to my brother Aaron first, “Your mother told me that you’re like Beethoven on the piano and that you have already composed three songs.” She then faced my brother Nicholas, “And you young man, going to Morocco to study Arabic!” She gave an appraising look to my brother Zachary, “I can see why you took second in discus at districts.” Finally she laid her eyes on me, “Nigel,” she began “... So glad to meet you.”
I don’t blame her. Honestly I don’t. I was used to being compared to my brothers. I suppose to some extent our family is part of all of our identities. But it is different when you’re a quadruplet; your family doesn’t just become part of your identity. It destroys it.
I tried to break away from my brothers. But for a quadruplet, there were logistical limitations. My parents could not drive me to every single activity I wanted to try or shell out money for every sport I was interested in because there were three other boys they had to worry about. My dad put me in football, but I never truly loved it. I tried drawing and music, but that was more of my brother’s niche. Even track, one of the few things that brought me solace, left me feeling as if something was missing.
That all changed when my father brought home a rather peculiar book. It was three feet tall and about two feet wide and titled Human Anatomy. From the second I cracked open its spine I fell in love. Before me were gigantic images of the nervous system, microscopic bacteria blown up to the size of my hand, a network of veins and arteries beautifully depicted, and the wonders of the human body explained as if they were ordinary occurrences rather than miracles. I was instantly hooked.
I wanted more. Biology, neuroscience, anatomy, psychology … any field that could enhance my understanding of the human body I devoured hungrily. But I couldn’t just stop there. I continued my journey by taking as many science classes as I could. I earned the highest grade in anatomy class and an award for almost every science class I took.
The success drove me to the next level. I wanted to see how the textbooks applied to the real world. During my junior year, I got an internship with the biomedical engineering company, Ethicon, where I learned how to build devices that could cut, suture, and cauterize all with one button, It was amazing. But still I wanted more.
An internship at the West Chester hospital allowed me to shadow medical professionals for a couple of weeks. One day stood out. Allowed to enter the operating room, I saw a patient who had spontaneous pneumothorax and needed to have the hole sealed. The surgeon on duty entered and briefly looked at the patient. I waited for the background music to come on as it typically does for operations but the room remained silent. The lights dimmed and she made her first cut. From that moment on, she was engrossed; she had no hesitation, no doubts, only focus.
There was a look of peace on her face that I had never before witnessed.
And then it clicked. I knew how I was different than my brothers.
It still hurts being compared to my brothers. And it might continue until people call me Dr. Wade, but in the meantime I know with 100% certainty that I am on the right path and will be more than just one of four.
“Change your shirt,” I said.
My brother Aaron looked across the breakfast table, past my cereal bowl, and fixed his eyes on my black-and-white Lakota East High School sweatshirt. He then looked at his chest… a black-and-white Lakota East High School shirt. He sighed through his nose, cereal still in his mouth, and walk upstairs to find a different shirt.
Some kids would be thrilled to have someone twinning with them. When you are a multiple, it feels a bit different. My teachers often called me by my brothers’ names, even after being in school for a month. Instead of trying to learn our first names, teachers would refer to us as “Mr. Wade.” Learning my name isn’t too much to ask, even if I am a quadruplet. Is it?
Being a quadruplet has advantages. I never have that awkward feeling of showing up to a party by myself. More importantly, my brothers always find a way to bring out the best in me. Competition is what drives me to do better, and there is never a lack of it in the Wade household. They push me to work harder. It is not all positive, though. People view us as the same person even though we aren’t identical. Becoming more than “One of the Wades” has taken a long time.
High school is when I first tried separating myself from the group. I was selected to be part of the Student Athlete Leadership Team, or S.A.L.T. This group is made up of student athletes who display leadership skills. As the only Wade in the group, I thought this would be a great opportunity to let people see me as an individual. I thought my mission was going well. Then I ran into a S.A.L.T. member at United Dairy Farmers while she was working. We chatted for a bit and when I finally departed, I heard her coworker ask who I was. I then heard the phrase
I had tried so hard to eliminate. “One of the Wades.”
Track presented the possibility of a better solution. Two of my brothers are phenomenal sprinters, I was just mediocre runner Therefore, I decided to do something different. I looked in the direction of field events and fell in love with discus. Not only did I love discus but also I was actually a decent thrower. My ability led me into a world separate from the one in which my name was always followed by three others. To the other throwers, I was not part of a group. I was the only Wade they knew. When they talked to me they used my name. They called me Zach.
In our conference, the GMC championship meet is big. Teams bring their very best athletes. I had befriended a thrower from a rival school over the course of the season. We both knew the fight for gold would be between us. The whole meet we went back and forth, each throw being farther than the last. It came down to my last throw; I was in second place, behind by only inches.
I entered the ring, focused, and began my spin. I drove across the ring turned my hips and let the discus fly. I watched the discus soar and heard the mark: “142 feet 9 inches.” That was my personal best by five feet. I was ecstatic until a minute later when I heard “143 feet 7 inches.” Even my best was not good enough to get first.
Later in the season, I qualified for regionals and was named the Lakota East Field Athlete of the Year. My accomplishments earned me prizes ranging from medals to little trophies. However, my favorite prize was the one that I won at the first meet. A shirt to call my own.
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