My father celebrates his 95th birthday this Dec. 10. He is a fraternal twin to a sister, who was born first.
The two of them still argue about why she was born first. She says it's because he was so bossy, while he says it's because she was so pushy that she pushed her way around him and out into the world. Being the more reticent twin, my father came out with the help of forceps. He casually mentioned it to me during a visit a few years back, guiding my hand to the bumps on the back of his skull where the instrument left its permanent mark.
They have always been like this - him deferring to her more dominating nature when he goes to visit her in Edmonton, eating another slab of her excellent apple pie even though he is full - and not that keen on pie to begin with.
Being hard of hearing, the twins yell at each other in conversation, yet lean in conspiratorially as if no one else can hear them. We leave them to their privacy, trying our best not to listen in.
Over the summer, a visit was arranged for the two of them at my aunt's Edmonton home, as my dad is the more mobile of the two. The visit was timely, since my aunt was admitted to hospital two days after my dad left. She returned to her home diminished, yet remains a fighting, formidable force.
Their twin bond has sustained my father and his sister through life's ups and downs. They are the last surviving siblings, the fourth and fifth of seven children, born on the family farm two weeks before Christmas in 1915. They were toddlers in the middle of a worldwide flu pandemic, and entered their teenage years on the eve of the Great Depression.
My dad tells me that during those hard years, the best present he ever received was a pair of ice skates. Then he said that someone stole them when he left them on a snowbank near the edge of a pond. "I figured they needed them more than me," he says, Zen-like. He has always accepted everything with good grace.
They both served overseas (him in Italy, her as a nurse in the medical corps) during the Second World War. I look at pictures of them on bicycles in some unknown countryside - him in his uniform, her in her nursing cap, both smiling. I wonder how they coped. I think it's because they had each other.
After the war they both got married, and spent close to 50 years each with their spouses before being widowed in their turn.
My aunt remains stubbornly entrenched in her home of more than 60 years, the place she built with the love of her life, Sam, after the war. Theirs was the first house in the neighbourhood, which has crowded up around them. We take a driving tour of the area and she instantly recalls the names, occupations and other notable details of the families who live in each home. "Look at those gerbils," she says of the gargoyles that decorate a McMansion around the corner. "Isn't it ridiculous?"
She argues with her two 24-hour caregivers, resentful of this latest blow to her independence since her health began its decline in earnest last summer. She cannot be left on her own any more because of a stroke, and has no choice but to tolerate the intrusion on her privacy if she wishes to remain at home.
My father, with his paperbacks and peppermint patties, has lived in a nursing home outside of Saskatoon since a December, 2008, stroke almost took him from us. When I visited him in the hospital a few days after his stroke, I was devastated to discover he didn't know me. Even worse was his wistful comment to a nurse: "We have a daughter, but she moved away."
Despite the grim prognosis, he made a remarkable physical and mental recovery. He says that he came back to us mostly because he is "stubborn." He's been a favourite with the staff at the home since his arrival, with his twinkling blue eyes and undemanding nature.
On a recent visit, he told me he had a dream that he was fully recovered, but awoke disappointed. Despite this disappointment, my oldest brother recently took him to get his fall goose-hunting licence and a replacement watch battery. The old battery had a five-year guarantee, and my father didn't think he'd live to see it replaced. "Hah!" I say to him. "See?"
As their 95th birthday approaches, both families are hopeful these remarkable twins will reach this latest milestone, which was achieved by many of their aunts and uncles.
I will make the trip west to see my father in December to help him celebrate his birthday. In the meantime, I've encouraged him to push forward. "It's only five more years to 100 - why not go for it?"
"No way!" he says.
I think he is secretly plotting to surprise us.
Suzanne Taylor lives in Toronto.