The myth and mystery surrounding our twinhood fascinated my brother, James Luke, and me as we grew up. It wasn’t the idea that we were twins (Mom always told us she sat out one night and prayed for us, and, of course, fertility drugs helped). It was the idea of twins themselves. Twins were special. The line between fact and fiction is very flimsy for children up to a certain age, and there was such a plethora of both to feed off of. We were the Wonder Twins. We were Luke and Leia Skywalker. We were Thing 1 and Thing 2. We were one person in two bodies. We could read each other’s minds. We were put together in the womb because God knew we couldn’t live without each other. To us, everything was true.
I remember reading a book sometime in elementary school in which one twin felt physical pain when the other twin died. On August 2, 2019, I found out that wasn’t true.
Even all these years, past the point where I should have determined fantasy from reality, I still thought I would have felt something. We really did speak for each other as children. James Luke kind of squawked around, and I would pronounce wise words to my parents: “He wants Cheerios” or “Tuck us in.” I thought I would always know what he wanted. You’d think I would have known he wanted to end his own life.
In my valedictorian speech in high school, I said, through tears, “Sometimes, life really, really sucks. Live anyway.” One of our classmates had died to suicide during our sophomore year. But I don’t think I realized at the time how hard that living could be. Not with James Luke looking me in the eye in the front row, smiling and shaking his head slightly at his crazy, emotional sister.
Since middle school I was always the more emotive of the two of us. If I was sad, the people who needed to know knew that I was sad, and if they didn’t, I learned to tell them. I’ve been vocal for a while now about my occasional struggles with mental health and depression, at least to the people close to me. At least to James Luke.
He never told me anything.
Throughout the past few weeks, I’ve searched everywhere to try to find the signs I had been missing, the reason, the explanation. I’ve been through every text message. I’ve scoured his room. I found his old Twitter, and I stalked his Instagram. I’ve read all his English papers from his first year at college that were sitting out next to his bed. There’s no enlightenment here. There wasn’t a note, there wasn’t a sorry, there wasn’t an “I love you, sis.” I don’t have one single idea what he wanted, or why he wanted it. But it wasn’t this.
Because James Luke didn’t just end his own life: he ended half of mine.
He wrote the final chapter at the end of a million happy memories. James Luke and me singing along to “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” in the backseat of the car on the way back from visiting our grandparents in Florida. James Luke and me playing hide-and-seek at Bookie’s house on Wednesday nights and crawling through the doggy door to escape to the backyard. James Luke scoring the winning goal at our soccer game. James Luke and our cousins in the basement as I filmed our Epic Battles of Randomness with my first iPod touch. James Luke and me winning first place in a speech competition going into freshman year by a combination of playing the saxophone and wearing color coordinating outfits. James Luke stealing my phone in the car to hijack my Spotify on our way to school every morning senior year. James Luke and me making daily summer runs to Dairy Queen and me always paying for his Oreo Blizzards. A million family board game nights. A million family movie nights. Nineteen years of decorating the Christmas tree as my mom sang to “Jingle Bells” and my dad added on his own, less appropriate, verses. James Luke and me at four years old on our tiptoes in our bathroom, mixing different soaps in a cup in the sink to give to my mom as “soup,” and her smiling as she pretended to drink.
I was born alongside someone with a lifetime to love him, a lifetime to fill with love. Nineteen years isn’t one fourth of a lifetime. I only got to give him so much. There’s so much more I could have done.
And so much more that we were supposed to do. Share a drink at 21. Graduate from our respective colleges and attend each other’s graduations. Find an apartment somewhere for a while, one just the right distance from home so there would be the right jobs, but close enough so we could visit Mom and Dad any time. Watch each other fall in love. Be in each other’s weddings. Raise each other’s kids. Go on a vacation together, just the two of us.
Everything in me and around me is screaming to me, I should have known. I should have been there. I shouldn’t have been 13 hours away in Philadelphia the whole summer; I should have been where my home was, where my heart was, where my best friend was. I should have called more. I should have made him respond to my texts. I should have come downstairs and watched that terrible movie with him at the start of June instead of going to bed early. I should have told him how much he meant to me every single damn day. I should have known. I should have known. I should have known.
There’s no good in this kind of grief, no words for this kind of pain. Because how do you carry someone in your heart when they were half of it? What is left of the world when your world is gone? It’s an ocean without the water, the Sun without the moon, a field without the flowers, an orchard without the apples. It’s all of these and also none of them. Because this is my grief. And it’s mine alone. And there’s not one way of knowing how it feels unless James Luke McGee was your twin, and he wasn’t. He was mine.
I can’t imagine a world with him gone, but here I am, living in it. I can’t sleep without seeing him in every dream, and I can’t go a day without crying, and I can’t run to him to comfort me like he always used to, and I can’t ever watch an episode of Gravity Falls again, and I have no clue what I am going to do for our birthday this year.
But I can still be a McGee twin. I couldn’t change that if I wanted to. And there’s not one thing I would change about having him as a brother. If I am heartbroken for the next 100 years, the 19 years I got with James Luke were worth it. Those 19 years will always be worth it.
Maybe that’s what matters. Maybe that’s what James Luke left behind. Love. Not a note, not an explanation, not a why. But love.
Boy, did my brother love. He loved sunsets and walks. He loved apples and blankets. He loved tennis and movies and our mother and our father and me. If there was one thing the four of us did right all these years, it was telling each other “I love you.” I can’t remember a conversation we had this summer that didn’t start and end with an “I love you” and have at least one “I miss you” thrown in somewhere in-between.
In our eighth grade year at the tiny middle school we went to, the year’s theme was “Leave a Legacy.” I think love is a pretty good legacy to leave behind.
So I’ll remember the love in yesterday and I’ll feel the love in today and I’ll look for the love in tomorrow. I’ll hug my dad extra hard. I’ll take my mom on vacation with me. I’ll write my friends letters on how much they mean to me, and I’ll look at every sunset just a bit longer than normal.
This won’t go back to normal. There is no normal without my brother. Sometimes, life just really, really sucks. But I’ll love anyway. For him, I will.
If you need to talk to someone, please refer to:
- Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS): Call (609) 258-3141; for emergencies: (609) 258-3333. An on-call counselor is available every day after hours.
- CONTACT of Mercer County: Call (609) 896-2120 or (609) 585-2244.
- Princeton Peer Nightline: Call (609) 258-0279; visit http://princetonpeernightline.com, open Tuesdays and Fridays 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.
- Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1 (800) 273-8255.