An essay by Kimberly Brock, author of The River Witch
I was born terrifying everyone, bursting onto the scene. I was weeks too early, whisked away to an incubator to soak up enough heat to stay alive. And over and over through the course of my life, I’ve imagined that moment when we were separated so completely, when a silence fell. Each of us was left to fend for ourselves, dazed, confused, alone. We knew an emptiness from just then, that in some ways has not left us and never will, my mother, my sister and I. It is as simple as this: I had a twin. And then, I didn’t.
My mother was wise enough to never keep my sister a secret from me, so I’ve always been able to name this curious sense that something or someone was just a step ahead of or behind me, an expectation or a breath held or a glimpse of eternity caught in my peripheral vision. From my first inklings of childhood, I’ve been busy working something up in my mind, an ever-changing version of this lost girl, a ghost of myself. She died just hours after we were born, breathing long enough to say she lived a day, so that her birth date and death date differ on the little stone that marks where she rests. I have stood there and wondered how many hours have passed since then. I’ve counted up the days I have outlived her and marked every milestone in my life with gratitude, tempered by the knowledge that she never had those chances. It seems strange to consider how easily it could have gone the other way. Our fates might have been switched, or I might have joined her. Or she might have lived and grown up to fight with me over Barbies and clothes and boys and all the usual things that go on between sisters.
As a girl, I was impatient, curious and precocious. I was likely to be found either tap-dancing on my grandmother’s polished coffee table or bossing my siblings around, making them sit for long stretches of time while I wrote endless plays for them to perform. Imagination should have been my middle name and I lived to tell stories. I dreamed of a life on the stage and believed anything was possible. When there was no one else to listen, I sang show tunes to the cows in my grandfather’s fields.
I was a happy kid. More than that, I was a kid with an incredible capacity for faith. And I credit that to my sister.
Sometimes I wrote letters to her in a notebook, as if she could sneak into my room at night and read the secrets I was sharing. Or I named baby dolls after her, or practiced writing her name. I would sit in the yard at dusk, watching the sun sink behind the hills that cradled our farm and try to be so still that I might feel her beside me. Sometimes, I thought she might have been. I thought I might have loved her. I thought I might have hated her. I thought we could have been the same or opposites, like writing reflected in a mirror. And always, I listened for her. What would she have to say? I needed to know and feared I never would.
My grandmother sensed this uncertainty in me. She tried to make sense of my sister’s death by saying on more than one occasion that my life had been spared for a reason. She said this was because there was something special I would accomplish with my time on Earth and my sister was watching over me. It was a reassurance to me as a child, to think there was some bigger reason I’d lived. To be honest, it’s a reassurance, still. It brings a sense of relief, because if there was a reason, then that also means it isn’t my fault that I’m still marching around happy and healthy while my twin died. But as I grew up, I started to feel the blessing of an ordained purpose become more like a burden.
I spent years searching desperately for ways to make my life extraordinary enough, deserving. I had to dance faster, sing stronger, be wiser. I had to deliver. I had to be more than me. And sometimes, I was all of those things. Sometimes, I was almost more than myself - when I got the starring role or the best awards or graduated college to teach. When I married my husband and when each of my three children were born. I swear I almost heard her then. But sometimes I was none of those things. I struggled as a young mother and wife. I disappointed friends. I failed to have faith. I put on fifteen pounds. I was unappreciative, when every moment is a gift. And then her silence was deafening. What did any of this mean about me?
To say I’ve dealt with my share of survivor’s guilt would be true.
Maybe I was listening, but I was also betraying her. And myself. Because for all the time I spent imagining her, the thing is, I rarely talked about her or even the idea of her. Real life – my very good life - was with my living family, a loving and attentive mother and father, sister and brother, working in the garden with my grandparents, an endless string of pets and school friends, Vacation Bible School and Christmas musicals, piano lessons, band camp, braces, boyfriends, a learner’s license, theater awards and scholarships. I was a girl, growing up like every other girl. To look at me, you couldn’t tell she’d ever been there. Every year my birthday came with celebration, and the day after slipped past without being marked, although I watched my mother from the corner of my eye. I could not imagine her thoughts. Except this one, because it was also mine: She was here.
All grown up now, I still wonder what you’ll think of this confession.
Grief is funny that way, how easily we use it to judge one another. My mother and I didn’t seem to believe we could say, oh, how we miss her. We couldn’t say what an ache she left inside us. It would have sounded ludicrous to say any of that as if she were a person we had known. She was barely an infant, only existing in this world for the blink of an eye. How could that compare to the loss of an actual person? One who had lived a life full of events and memories and choices and consequences? Perhaps I couldn’t hear her because she had no voice and I had no courage to give her one.
Granted, if I chanced to share I was a surviving twin around a campfire or over drinks, it sounded very dramatic. People would lean in to hear the terrible story. But once they understood she’d died in infancy, they always seemed at a loss. They might offer sympathy, but usually also looked at me as if I’d come a bit unhinged. What had we shared, really? Nothing but the womb. That’s where the conversation ended because there were no memories for me to recall or any evidence of this person I was grieving.
It seemed like I asked myself that question forever. Until one day I realized the evidence of her life is my own. It turns out, if you spend enough time listening for an unheard voice, you’re likely to hear it. I don’t mean in a schizophrenia kind of way, but in a more subtle sense. You might even discover the voice you’ve been listening for, is your own. I became aware of the obvious ways this loss, this life that ended just as my own began, influenced and in some cases, inspired me.
My sister is heard throughout the choices I’ve made, both good and bad. She is heard loud and clear in the way I view the world, who I love and how I give of myself. Her voice is strong and true in the stories I tell my children and the readers who read my work. And I find such hope in that. I also find forgiveness for my weaknesses or short-comings. I find myself more willing to be forgiving of others, too.
Could it be that she is the reason I’m always a ready champion for the misunderstood, always inspecting the flip-side of an idea or a character? I think so. The gift of perspective has become an important theme in my writing and my world view, realizing all the ways that make us different, also make us the same. This is my sister’s voice, her gift to me. And while I know I will always yearn for her, in my heart this is what she whispers: I am not singular, but plural. I am part of a we. Something more.
Isn’t that what we’re all listening for?
Kimberly Brock is the author of multiple short stories and recipient of the Georgia Author of the Year Award 2013, for her debut novel, The River Witch. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and three children, where she is at work on her next novel. She also serves as the Blog Network Coordinator for the national online book club, She Reads . Visit kimberlybrockbooks.com to learn more about her, or follow her on Twitter @kimberlydbrock.