The End of Us

In the beginning, there were two—born 15 minutes apart, two halves of a whole. Now there is one. Richard B. Stolley looks back on life with his twin brother and ponders what it means to go from inseparable to separate.


Photo by Photographs Courtesy of Richard B. Stolley

It was October 3, 1928, a crisp fall afternoon. We were born 15 minutes apart; I was first. Our birthplace was a hospital in Peoria, Illinois, 10 miles from our small hometown of Pekin. We were fraternal and full-term, about five pounds each. Our appetites were so voracious that our petite mother could not accommodate us; she had to call in a wet nurse, a woman whose baby had been weaned but who was still producing milk. And so the Stolley twins came into the world: James Sherman and Richard Brockway.

Last May, 83 years and seven months later, Jim left this world. He seemed at peace. I was not. I was ill prepared for his departure. It was not possible to be ready, based on one indisputable fact: Losing a twin is more traumatic than losing a parent or an ordinary sibling, sometimes even a spouse. It is like losing a part of yourself, a cleavage, an abrupt end to a unique intimacy. The bonding begins in the womb, surely, and builds for the rest of your lives.

That’s how it happened with us. After a week in the hospital, we went home. Jim and I would live in the same room for the next 17 years. For the moment, we were put in the same crib. Collaboration began immediately. When my parents wrapped my thumb in gauze to discourage my sucking on it, Jim offered me his thumb.

We bathed together and dressed alike until we rebelled around age 10. We adored Mom’s meat loaf, but when she served liver, we dropped bites to the family Irish setter under the table. At school, we sat side by side, unless teachers objected, which some did, fearing the proximity would encourage twin misbehavior. We joined the Boy Scouts at a local church (though I often snuck out of meetings to visit a girlfriend nearby). In a Depression-era medical experiment, we both had our tonsils removed by our family doctor, not in his office, but at home on the kitchen table.

As twins we were emboldened to try things a single kid might not. We loved our first-grade teacher, Miss Bolton, so one day we invited her to dinner at home. Trouble is, we forgot to tell Mom.

The doorbell rang one evening, and there was Miss Bolton. Our stupefied mother, Stella, rallied valiantly, and Teacher made a fifth at the dinner table. George, our dad, was charming. (Miss Bolton years later said she always suspected she was a surprise.)