In the UK, they are called Lone Twins. That seems to drive home the loneliness of the life too much for me. A friend of my father’s told me he was a half twin, a phrase that broke my heart. In the US, they are known as Twinless Twins. To me, that’s the least awful of the phrases used to describe a twin whose twin has died. I have one such child in my house. I tend to refer to him as my surviving twin. The idea of that life is so gloomy to me that I can’t bear to burden its designation with any more sadness than is semantically necessary.
Until I had a twinless twin, I did not realise there were so many in the world. Possibly the most famous is Elvis Presley. His twin brother, Jessie Aaron, was stillborn. Elvis often spoke about his brother and always felt that part of him was missing. It’s hard not to speculate that the miasma of sadness that seemed to hang over him derived from this early tragic loss. Another famous twinless twin was the entertainer, Liberace, whose twin brother died at birth. Liberace was renowned for his flamboyant persona and lifestyle and felt that the loss of his twin in early life fuelled his desire to “live for two.” He counselled the young Elvis about this unique loss many times. You can see that a similar ostentation and appetite for excess characterised Elvis’s later years and many feel this comes from
this same experience of twin loss. Also a twinless twin was Marlon Jackson of the Jackson
5. He was born prematurely and his brother Brandon was stillborn. Marlon spoke about Brandon at the funeral of their brother, Michael, and it is obvious that this loss is still very much with him. Heather O’Rourke, the child actress who starred in Poltergeist, had a twin brother who died at birth. She herself passed away suddenly at the age of twelve. The science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick, is another twinless twin. Like Marlon and Brandon Jackson, he and his sister, Jane, were born prematurely and she passed away six weeks later. This affected Philip very deeply and “phantom twins” were a recurring motif in his books. Another writer who was a twinless twin was Thornton Wilder, author of the classic American play, Our Town. The Mexican painter, Diego Rivera, was also twinless twin. His brother Carlos died two years after they were born. The legendary US TV host, Ed Sullivan, had a twin brother who died a few months after they were born. The Oscar-winning British actor, Jim Broadbent, had a twin sister who died at birth. David Jason, star of Only Fools and Horses, had a twin brother who died during child birth. The Broadway actor, Carl Anderson, star of Jesus Christ Superstar, had an identical twin brother, Charles Edward, who died of bronchitis at the age of eleven months. Another twinless twin from the entertainment world is Jay Kay, of the band Jamiroquai. His brother, David, died a few weeks after they were born in 1969. The New Zealand motorcycle racer and holder of multiple world records, Burt Munro, also had a twin sister who died at birth. He passed away himself in 1978 but many of his records still stand, including the under-1,000 cc world record set at Bonneville Salt Flats in 1967. It’s tempting to wonder if this desire for speed and to live on the edge stemmed from his twin loss early in life.
When my twin son,died, I found that while people were sympathetic to our loss, many seemed to feel it wasn’t quite as awful as losing a singleton baby. “At least you have your other baby” was a constant refrain. It is undoubtedly true that my surviving twin kept me functioning as a human in those early days and I did appreciate with every fibre of my being that I got to bring one baby home. But I resented people’s assumption that what I had lost was a kind of bonus baby and that it wasn’t a true loss. I feel I had two losses. I lost my baby and I lost the experience of raising twins. I wrote before in Moments about how certain I had been that I would one day have twins and how much I had looked forward to having them in my life. That feeling does not go away. I would have loved to have raised twins. I think I would have found it exhilarating and fascinating. And my surviving twin, like all those twinless twins, lost his brother but also lost the experience of being a twin. And he feels so special being a twin that it breaks my heart to think how much he would love if his twin were here today, playing with him, going places with him and so on. When the rare occasion arises that I have to say to people, “he’s a twin but his brother died” it seems to fill people with sadness and they look at him with such concern. The idea of a twinless twin seems so haunting to us. Even at his young age, this loss is a source of sadness to him. Once, at the age of four, he cried because he missed his brother. When I asked him why, he said, “Because he’s just like me.” And that moment nearly upended us both.
Sometimes I see the long list of people who are twinless twins and I think maybe this awful experience will spur my little man on to great things. Maybe he will have the drive and ambition to be a great writer or a musician or a sports star. He could be a human dynamo who pushes the boundaries in some way. Maybe someday he will appear on internet lists of famous twinless twins, alongside Elvis, Liberace and the others. But it’s not at all what I want for him. What I would really like for him is ordinariness. To be an ordinary boy with his twin beside him all through his life.
(This first appeared as a column in ‘Moments’, the magazine of A Little Lifetime Foundation – http://www.alittlelifetime.ie)