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first person

Chelsea O'Byrne

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

I am sitting in the airport waiting to board when he approaches me.

“Hi, how are you?” he says and sits down beside me, explaining what had happened since we last talked. I have no idea who this person is. Sometimes when this happens I will pretend and reciprocate salutations in a friendly way. But today there is no avoiding it - he is sharing too much and fully expects a conversation. I will have to say it.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know who you are. I think you may have met my identical twin sister, Laurel.”

He is stunned for a moment, recovers, introduces himself, laughs, then awkwardly moves away.

These encounters are amusing to me now, as are the the list of questions that used to frustrate me as child by their sheer repetitiveness and inanity. “Have we ever tried to trick other people?” No, not really. “Can our parents and family tell us apart?” Yes, always, but not as infants. “Did we take each other’s tests in school?” No. I see little point in that when you generally have to each take the same test at the same time. “Do we like being twins?” Well, its all we have ever known and have no way of comparing it with any other life. “Do we have telepathic powers?” No, only years and years of shared experience, identical genetic material and an unmistakable relationship dynamic we find hard to define and examine even as adults.

A twin, despite what many people think, is not a best friend. A twin is a twin. There is no comparable relationship. Yes, twinship implies intimacy, but it is much more than a “best friend”; it is also more than a favourite sibling close in age. How do I describe what it is like to have shared almost everything from your earliest memory?

That is the first lesson of twinship: sharing. There is little you may take for granted that we haven’t learned to share. As children, we shared toys, and although there were certain toys and items unmistakably hers or mine, there was a great deal of back and forth trading for the majority of them. If she asked for one of my things, I instantly gave it. If I asked for it back, she instantly gave it back. Imagine our shock and horror when we discovered that our little sister did not share this philosophy. She knew exactly what was hers (unlike us to some degree) and if an item was voluntarily given, it was returned only when bartered back with inflation. When we were little, it had never occurred to us that the implicit “rules” and shared values we lived by would not necessarily be adopted by her. We tried to make her a “twin” in some sense, and ultimately failed. She was different; a beloved baby sister, but no twin. It took us years to grasp that, and even longer to fully value it.

But valuing our own differences has taken us longer still.

Maybe I can explain the anxiety of breaking our “twin code” by explaining the power that code gave us. We learned early on that as long as we were together, we could take on the world; that together we could make a powerful voting block. We used this understanding against friends, babysitters, teachers, even our parents.

Around the age of 6, I remember we flatly refused to go to school one morning. I don’t think there was any particular reason why we didn’t want to go. We sat at the foot of the stairs while our parents threatened, cajoled and then attempted to bribe us. Finally, in desperation – and probably realizing this was a battle she was not going to win – my mother gave us this final offer: “Fine; you can skip school today, but you have to promise to never do this again!”

Exhilarated by our success, we agreed to her terms. I now wonder if we accepted too quickly. We never did pull off another stunt like that, but whenever one of us was sick, the other would refuse to go to school, too. If she didn’t have to go, then why should I? We conveniently denied the clear fact that we had two, individual physical bodies. And so we shared each other’s sick days.

All for one and one for all. Loyalty was our highest virtue. This was at the heart of our implicit laws of twinship, the unspoken expectations for how we would relate. It was a deeply satisfying code of conduct for the most part. We used this bond to push each other forward in school, in our careers, in our dreams. She believed in me unwaveringly, and I in her. I don’t think I would have obtained the same success I have had without her.

But as we aged, the code became more difficult.

To say there has not been occasional tension in our relationship would be a lie. And it becomes more complicated as we get older. I am told this is natural for twin relationships, and is not uncommon as twins reach early adulthood.

Why the struggle? I don’t completely understand it myself, so I don’t expect others, especially non-twins, to understand. I intrinsically crave an identity of my own, but also fear the differences that this necessarily entails. If she feels or thinks differently than me, than is one of us right and the other wrong? If she likes something I do not, or is good at something I am not, then is there something wrong with me?

Maybe we automatically see difference as comparison. We have always been compared. Which of you is taller? Who is smarter? And, my all time favourite: Who is the good twin and the evil twin? Do we feel that individuality implies comparison, where one must be right, or better, and one less so?

I am learning slowly that differences do not subtract from our shared identity, but instead are absolutely necessary to allow it to be sustained. If this twin identity is defined by what we share, then it is surely only able to flourish by what we do not. Can we still have our lifelong twinship, while being strong individuals? I believe so, but it does take conscious effort. It requires a new code.

Heather Dawn Laakso lives in Barrie, Ont.