To Love Your Sister Is To Grieve Your Twin

It’s impossible to explain what having a twin is like to someone who asks, but I am going to try.

My father prayed for twins. This is a fact my mother usually recites during birthdays, the impending new year, Thanksgiving, and other increasingly rare moments when mother, father, brother, sister, and I are all in the same room in the same time zone. He prayed for twins and we came.

First Dami, short for Oluwadamilola (which means “God has made me rich” in Yoruba), and then 25 minutes later, me, Tomi, Oluwatomilola (“God is my sufficiency”). My father prayed for twins, but the odds were in his favor. The Yoruba have the highest twinning rate in the world. Science cannot account for this strange phenomenon. Apparently it has something to do with the skin of the yams we eat or the high amount of a certain chemical found in the beans the women traditionally soak and cook in palm oil. Whatever the reason, Yoruba people — the vast majority of whom reside in the southern part of Nigeria — have a lot of twins. The rate is slowing down as Yorubas marry out and venture farther away from their ancestral homeland, but twins are still an integral part of the folklore. We’re supposed to bring good luck and prosperity to our families. Mothers of twins are honored with a special name, iya ibeji (literally mother of twins, so maybe not that special), and the child immediately following the birth of twins gets one too, idowu (addition, or increase).

My first conscious memory involves my sister. We’re sitting on Volkswagen potties in our little bathroom in Surrey, England, babbling to each other, trying to capture the tonal resonances of Yoruba and failing. Laughing.

We are not identical, but for the first maybe 18 years of our lives, we just say yes when people ask, because we might as well be. We have dark brown eyes that turn to slants when we smile. Milk-white baby teeth that gradually grow apart, widening and widening until we (I) demand braces and then I lose my retainer. My face is longer than hers. I am an inch taller. But our voices are the same timbre. When we talk on the phone, our mother can’t tell us apart. We say things at the same time in the same tone and then we laugh when that happens. We move around a lot, England, Gambia, Ohio, two to three years in each place, and so we are natural companions, drama kids who ham it up for the cameras, play elaborate games of make-believe, sing in school musicals, ask obnoxious questions, enamored of our own cuteness. “Can smoking kill you?” we’d inquire innocently to strangers lighting up pre–airport ban. Eyelashes batting.

“In the three decades or more since Sir or Lady—or SL—and I have been friends, I have felt myself becoming him [...] I’ve adopted his vocal intonations, his vegetarianism, and his candor,” writes Hilton Als in White Girls about a decades-long platonic friendship. “It’s almost as if I dreamed him—my lovely twin, the same as me, only different.” It’s an overused trope, sure, twin as metaphor. But there’s a subtlety Als captures about being a twin, about the myriad similarities and common interests encapsulated in someone who is not you. Twins as represented in the popular culture are usually one-dimensional carbon copies of each other, devoid of all individual autonomy, or cartoonish opposites, the contradictions emphasized to the extreme — Tia is smart, Tamera is dumb. Hot twins are the fait accompli of threesomes: a hot person, but two of you! (“If you had a twin, I’d still choose you,” Drake sings magnanimously in “Work.”)

We are at Aunty’s house. We are loving these meatballs Aunty has made — yes, meatballs. We want to have another, but we are afraid to ask. Finally Dami does the work. She asks and takes another one. I take another one. My older cousin silently observes and relays the information to our aunt, who calls me into the kitchen. “Why did you take that meatball without asking?” she asks. How do I explain the code by which we work? To save time, one request covers both of us. We alternate who will be the one to ask. Sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s Dami. I tell my aunt the code, inchoately, because I know the rules are flexible and can sometimes go badly. One twin won’t go to bed, both are punished. “That is not right,” my aunt tells me firmly. “You are two individuals,” she says, as if that settles it. “If you want another meatball, you ask for it.”

According to Yoruba folklore, the younger twin, Kehinde (literally "the one after next"), is actually older, or "senior" in Nigerian parlance. She’s the one who tells Taiwo (which means "having first taste of the world") to go out and see if the world is good. Her cry lets Kehinde know it’s safe. To this day, twins are given the names Taiwo and Kehinde at birth.

When we were 10 and in Kaduna visiting family, my cousin, my sister, and I went to the mall to meet my cousin’s friend. I don’t remember how we came to this decision — maybe I was hungry or had a headache — but it was decided that I would go home with my cousin and Dami would stay with the friend. So my cousin and I went home. An hour passed, then two.

“Where’s your sister?” my father asked.

I didn’t know.

Then the mangy dog that kept guard in the courtyard began barking. The bittersweet smell of diesel wafted into the living room.

In America, motorcycles are mild annoyances, bragging rights for insecure men, symbols of independence. In Nigeria, they are cheaper than taxis and more dangerous, mangler of limbs and purveyors of noise pollution.

The friend and my sister came back on a motorcycle and Dami was already crying, a preemptive measure because she knew how apoplectic my father would be. She was the center of attention that evening, Dami, bold impetuous Dami, always the one to trailblaze. Normally, in situations where one of us is in trouble, we exchange knowing glances, comforting looks. But I was stone-faced, seething with jealousy and admiration.

“Are you guys going to the same college?”

Yes. But not on purpose. We agreed early on that we would go wherever we felt comfortable. It just so happens that whenever Dami gets an idea in her head, she is very determined and singularly obsessive and I go along for the ride. We visit four schools and we both like the quirky one where the average verbal SAT score is higher than the math score and it’s in a big city that we have actually heard of, although at the time neither of us care about that that much. It will be the place where the untwinning starts to happen and we won’t even realize it.

First to go, Dami’s hair. After sitting through years of cornrows, extensions, relaxers, and quarterly sessions at the one black hairdresser that is sort of near us, Dami just gives up one day and says, "I’m cutting it permanently." She describes the shocked face of the barber as she tells him, "Shorter, shorter."

I don’t cut my hair. I keep it relaxed, and then when laziness takes over, I declare myself a member of the third-wave natural hair movement.

The second thing to go, her faith. It had been on the fritz before, in high school. Struggles with the usual questions — women, gay people, pain and suffering. There were shouting matches when she refused to go to church. I observed passively, like a typical middle child. My mother was worried we’d become atheists in college. But once we get there, I go to a Bible study and I like it. People are kind and thoughtful. Smart. Open. I join a campus ministry and convince Dami to join too, and being the loud, emotional drama kids that we are, we rise quickly through the ranks of leadership, until one day she flames out in spectacular, extravagant fashion (citywide conference, angry outburst, frightened freshmen, wan-faced leaders). Suddenly, I’m going to church alone, campus meetings alone, singing on the worship team alone.

Third to go, Dami herself, to France for 10 weeks. I am adamantly against it. I don’t tell her this. I feign lack of interest. Oh really? You’re afraid you won’t get your visa? Oh, Mum and Dad are worried about you going? Oh, they’ve relented. Oh you’re going? OK. Bye.

She comes back and things are different. So different that we can’t quite understand it. We argue often and virulently. I don’t remember what the arguments were about (surely something trivial), but I remember the tone vividly, the jabs, vicious jabs. It was misdirected anger, of course. We were changing and we didn’t know how to cope with the change.

After graduation, I moved to D.C. for an internship and she stayed in Chicago, until she decided to do an AmeriCorps program that took her across the country to California and I came back to Chicago for a full-time job. It used to be if we spent a day or two apart, we would regurgitate the day’s events to each other verbatim, afraid that if we left out certain details, the other wouldn’t have the complete picture, wouldn’t know what that person looked like, and in what tone that person made that comment. But now, a whole time zone away from each other for the foreseeable future, when things happened — roommate drama, a kiss, a surreal day at work — we told no one.

One consequence of moving so much is that you develop a numbing acceptance of change, and thus a tendency to avoid attachment. Don’t get too close; everyone leaves you in the end. That fear of loss is only heightened when you’re dealing with your twin, the person you have quite literally spent the most time with on Earth. She is my best friend, but that phrase doesn’t quite do the relationship justice. Our kinship is so binding that there are memories I have of us where I’m not sure if I was actually there or if she was there and I’m just hijacking the recollection. Growing apart, or becoming — as we now say to people who ask — sisters and not twins, was mostly horrifying, but sometimes it’s a relief. It means that my worst fear, her death, can’t possibly devastate me as much as it once could.

Over this past Thanksgiving break, we watched the 2015 documentary Twinsters, about Samantha Futerman, a Los Angeles actress who discovers that she has an identical twin sister living in Paris, Anais Bordier. They were born in South Korea and immediately given up for adoption separately, Futerman to a family in L.A., Bordier to a couple in France. In 2013, Bordier sends Futerman a Facebook message after watching a YouTube web series Futerman appeared in, wondering if perhaps, maybe, they shared the same birthday. Soon they are Skyping and texting and calling each other, and then they finally meet. When they meet, they cannot stop looking at each other. They hold hands and brush each other’s hair and lean on each other’s shoulders. At one point in the film, Bordier talks about her unhappy childhood, not due to any lack of parental love or affection, but because, Bordier now surmises, she was missing the twin she never knew she had.

I was on the verge of crying during the whole movie, but I could not bring myself to actually cry, because Dami was dry-eyed and to admit that I was affected by this documentary would be to admit feeling, emotion, attachment, sentiment. As passionate as both Dami and I are individually and with others, amongst ourselves, we are understated. I think it’s because the intensity of our love for each other is overwhelming. Loving someone that much is embarrassing.

We live in the same city now. It is a fortunate accident. Or maybe God ordained it. That’s what my mother would say.

We are a we again. It’s strange but exciting. If someone asks us if we are twins, we say yes at the same time in the same tone and then we laugh. It’s nice. My father prayed for twins. And we came.

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