FARGO, N.D. – Abbigail and Isabelle Carlsen are back home, no longer conjoined, able to be rocked to sleep in their own living room and to be fed in their own kitchen.
Their parents, Amy and Jesse Carlsen, are hoping for more normal lives with their 6-month-old twins.
The Carlsens flew home Tuesday from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where they had been staying since February. Doctors separated the girls, who were born attached at the diaphragm, pancreas and liver, in a lengthy operation May 12.
"I just want to thank everybody for all your support and prayers," Amy Carlsen told the group who welcomed them at the Fargo airport. She said she was looking forward to a family life "not living out of hospital or a room the size of my bedroom."
In the Carlsen home, Amy's father, Bill Burrows, rocked baby Belle in the living room. Amy balanced Abby in the crook of her arm while both of them finished lunch at the kitchen's breakfast bar. Otto, a gray long-haired cat, wandered from room to room.
Doctors have reported steady progress since the twins' separation surgery last month. The girls, who were born Nov. 29, will continue therapy in Fargo and return to Mayo for checkups.
Jesse Carlsen said his daughters still are close, and sometimes go back to their former ways.
"When we sit them on our laps and they're within arm's reach, they go right for other's mouth, nose," he said. "They're reaching for fingers and hands and stuff, and they hold hands a lot."
The experience of the past six months has made him and his wife stronger, he said.
"Any parents anywhere, when their kids need you the most, you'll step up to the challenge and be there for them the whole way," Carlsen said.
Signs and balloons welcomed the family home to Fargo.
Among the well-wishers Tuesday was Eunice Peterson of Dilworth, Minn., who said she did not know the Carlsens personally, but hearing about the twins' progress was uplifting news.
"This makes a person feel happy," she said.
Kevin Gorder of the North Dakota Department of Transportation also was there. Jesse Carlsen works for the agency, and his co-workers across the state donated nearly 650 hours of vacation time so he could stay in Rochester with his family.
"We're a close-knit bunch," Gorder said. "That's what we do."
"We are blessed to live in this area," Jesse Carlsen told the crowd at the airport. "The outreach and support and love has been felt even in Rochester."
He gave a special thank you to members of St. John Lutheran Church, the Fargo congregation that has served as their surrogate family because the Carlsens' families live in Montana and eastern Washington.
Earlier in the day, the family left Rochester on a donated medical flight.
While they waited for the car seat bases to be installed on the plane, the family posed for a photo on the maroon doormat in front of the steps leading into the jet. It was taken for a friend who teased them about their "red carpet treatment."
At 11:45 a.m., the jet made its way down the runway, headed for Fargo. About an hour later, they were welcomed on the tarmac there by Amy's parents and her sister, Christy Burrows.
After a brief public appearance, the Carlsens drove home in a vehicle filled with luggage and stuffed animals.
Inside, Amy's mother had chicken salad sandwiches and cake ready.
The lawn was decorated with pinwheels and a sign hung over their garage: "Welcome to a new beginning."
The lead surgeon who separated Abbigail and Isabelle Carlsen, Doctor Christopher Moir, says the twins are going "out into a life of light and wonder."