When I was little, my mom would go out a couple times a month to play bridge with a bunch of girlfriends at my godmother’s house. Though infrequent, I dreaded these outings. A worrier by nature, once the sun set I started to imagine worst-case scenarios. What if she got in an accident on the way back? Mom was a notorious nervous ninny behind the wheel, and I was convinced that her too-tentative method of merging would be her doom. What if she got mugged walking to her car in my godmother’s sketchy neighborhood? I whipped myself up into a panic that was somewhat quieted by two (okay, maybe three) “check-in” calls to my godmother’s house. But the angsting did not subside until I heard Mom’s key slide into the lock of our side entrance. Until that moment, I stayed awake, vigilant, as if encouraging my gut churn would keep her safe. I prayed silently and obsessively, like a mantra or a compulsive tic: “Please, God, let her come home. Please, God, let her come home.” These moments made clear that Mom was the only real thing to me. I wasn’t comfortable with anyone else. If she died, where would I go?
One of these evenings my hand was hovering over the phone for another check-in call when it rang.
“Hey there! How’s it going?”
“Oh good, I was just about to call again. When are you coming home?”
“Wha-- ? Oh no, honey, I’m sorry. This is Lynn.”
Lynn is mom’s identical twin. When they were little, they dressed in matching outfits and white-blonde pigtails. Even they can’t always tell who is who in old photographs. As an only child for most of my adolescence, I was captivated by Mom’s twinship. She and Lynn spoke almost every day. They often had the same dreams. In elementary school, they would switch classes, each pretending to be the other. They also have the same voices — the same timbre, the same slightly Southern cadence, the same hearty laugh. This wasn’t the first time I’d confused Lynn for Mom on the phone, but the audial illusion never ceased to surprise me. And freak me out a little.
If Mom dies, I used to think, 99.95643 percent of her DNA will be living in Boise, Idaho. I imagined how much it would hurt to hear Mom’s voice on the line, the false hope it might inspire, if Mom died and Lynn called me.
In addition to sharing most of their DNA, Mom and Lynn display matching personas. Exuberant, optimistic, easy to laugh, and quick witted, being in their joint company felt a bit like watching a sitcom. They were two halves of the same brain, a near-constant stream of mirth and/or argument. Though their twin lexicon was heavy on inside jokes and shared experiences, you were never excluded from their banter. They seemed to be aware of how fun they were as a pair and wanted everyone plugged into the experience.
Lynn’s presence validated my unconventional relationship with my mother. Growing up, I somehow knew that Mom wasn’t regarding me as other moms did their daughters. She spoke to me like an adult and often didn’t shield me from adult realities. I’ve long said that I was raised to be Mom’s friend or confidant, but remembering how she was with Lynn, it’s obvious that I was filling the void of her twin’s absence. Even when they weren’t getting along, Mom and Lynn were always close, but they haven’t lived in the same state since before I was born. Being a twin was in Mom’s bones, and physical distance didn’t stop her from feeling like one half of a whole. The relationship she nurtured with me was informed by her twinned experience, the imprint of her sister a blueprint for every relationship she had.
Mom and Lynn turned 57 on Saturday. With Mom in a Florida nursing home and Lynn now living in Nevada, they are still separated by several states. Over the years, Mom’s dementia has rendered them singletons. Lynn is bravely if not reluctantly redefining what it means to celebrate a birthday, one that is no longer shared with a functioning other half. Though Lynn will never replace my mom, she has been an unexpected gift in my grieving. Over the past five years as Mom has rapidly deteriorated, Lynn and I have become closer, sometimes talking a few times a week, sharing and comparing stories about Mom, providing updates on her condition. Lynn has become a surrogate mother to me, and her likeness to mom — in both looks and humor — is a comfort I can’t articulate. We are bridges between the sister and mother of our youths and the memory she is becoming. As more years pass since the last time Mom was able to speak to me on the phone, Lynn’s voice on the line is less a copy and more an original. I see distinctions in their personalities that I didn’t detect before. Her voice lets me remember my mother’s, the voice that was imprinted on me, and allows me to speak to it as I learn to let it go.