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.
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.)
There were three other sets of twins in Pekin—all identical. One pair of brothers ran the local dairy. The others were our age: A set of boys were skilled aerial gymnasts who trained on a rig in their backyard until one of them tragically fell and died the same week as our high school graduation. (Jim and I were stunned by our first experience with twin death.) The girls were the first and second clarinetists in the high school orchestra.
Jim and I tried the clarinet, without much success. The only time we were supposed to perform in public, I got sick, and he had to play the duet by himself. Later, he switched to oboe, which was worse.
Our claim to fame in Pekin was not music but exhibition boxing. We were always roughhousing anyway, and Dad thought some rudimentary lessons might prevent either of us from getting hurt. From there, we segued into public entertainment, beginning with Dad’s bridge nights at home.
When the cardplayers took a sandwich break, Jim and I would come out and pound each other for three minutes or so. The men applauded and threw their pocket change onto the rug. We slipped off the padded gloves, scooped up the coins, and retreated to our room to count the purse (usually a couple of dollars).
Our most prestigious venue was the Pekin High School gym, between halves of a basketball game, which in basketball-obsessed Illinois is the equivalent of prime time. The bigger the crowd, the harder we fought. Jim was then slightly smaller than me, but fiercer, and at least once I had to ask him to please stop hitting me so hard.
We later used those boxing skills to beat up two older boys who were bullying us. Together, we felt invincible. The first was a boy who had earlier hit me in the mouth and broken some teeth after I’d rolled a stone into his new bike. Our encounter with him took place, unfortunately, on the courthouse lawn in Pekin, and by dinnertime that day, a dozen spectators had telephoned our parents in dismay.
The other was on the beach at Lake Ontario, near Rochester, New York, where we spent part of the summer with our maternal grandmother. This boy was particularly mean, calling us “Illinois hicks,” and Jim had to pull me off when I held the boy’s head underwater.
In high school, Jim and I drifted apart a little. We performed in a couple of plays together, and joined the frosh-soph football team. But I already knew I wanted to be a journalist, and as a 15-year-old junior, I was hired as sports editor of the Pekin Daily Times. My predecessor had been drafted.
Jim and I took the same classes but rarely sat together anymore. He was as unsure of what to do with his life as I was sure of mine. He was also not growing as fast as me; I was taller and heavier. His smaller size enabled him to join the wrestling team and compete in the 104-pound class.
One of his matches forced me to make the most wrenching decision I can recall from our years together. I was covering the meet for the Times. Suddenly I heard a pop and saw Jim fall back on the mat, twisting in pain. His opponent had executed a “switch” and fractured Jim’s shoulder blade. The coach raced out to comfort him. The crowd was shocked. What did his twin do? I sat there and took notes. It was the professional response. Jim would probably have been embarrassed if I’d gone to his side; at least that’s how I have comforted myself ever since. When the coach got him into the locker room for transportation to the hospital, I finally went to him. He was hurting but glad to see me. He recovered uneventfully and dismissed my apologies in later years. It tortures me still.
As we approached graduation in 1946, Jim and I talked about the future. Without a whisper of disagreement, we decided we wanted to join the navy rather than go right to college. Somehow we also convinced our anxious parents; that’s the power of twin voices.
We enlisted on July 5. We were bussed to Springfield for the pre-induction physical, and there I endured a moment of genuine panic. The navy doctors pulled Jim out of our line of underwear-clad teenagers and took him away. There was some question about one of his legs. Was it slightly shorter, slightly deformed—possibly the result of mild undetected polio, the scourge attacking the Midwest? I was frightened. The thought of going forward without Jim was inconceivable. I was prepared to back out, too. In the end, Jim was approved, and we took the oath together.
But our days together were numbered. After three months of boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, north of Chicago, we were separated. I was sent to a ship in the Mediterranean Sea; Jim was assigned to naval air bases in the South.
Away from me and our parents, Jim grew up: He gained six inches and 30 pounds. He took an entrance exam for the most prestigious engineering school in America, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and was accepted. I was in awe when I heard the news. After the navy, that’s where Jim enrolled; I went to Northwestern University. On vacations, we tried to earn money beyond what our austere GI Bill benefits provided, and appealed to Dad for help obtaining a job. (While we were in the navy, he had been transferred by his company from Pekin to Peekskill, New York, where he was manager of a big Standard Brands plant that made yeast and bottled Scotch.
Dad cooperated, to a point. Never one to pamper his sons, he assigned us to the “yard gang,” which did the hauling, lifting, cleaning, and scut work at the sprawling factory on the banks of the Hudson River. Our first job was to break down a huge room full of shipping boxes, flatten them out, and tie up the bundles with twine. It was mind-numbing work, but Jim and I plunged in. A few hours later, we were making progress when we saw an older worker standing in the door. He watched us flailing away at the cardboard, then gestured to us to stop (clearly not knowing who we were) and cautioned: “Boys, boys, slow down. You’ll kill the job.” He was telling us we were working too hard on a menial task, only to finish it and be assigned to another. When we told Dad the story that night, he couldn’t stop laughing.
Because Jim was moving along at MIT, he graduated to the engineering office at the plant and went to work in a shirt and tie. As a lowly journalism student, I stayed in the yard gang, and Jim would occasionally wave to me from the office window as we trudged by, dirty and tired. But at home we shared the same room as always and got along like the old days.
Jim was married shortly after graduation, and I was his best man (as he was for me at both my weddings). His wife was a lovely Irish girl named Margaret Moynahan, the daughter of the Peekskill mayor. I had dated her first, but on one vacation, when Jim came home before me, he had become totally smitten, and so was she. I never really had a chance.
Once we started having children (our first daughters were born only a few hours apart), we lived in different cities, but I was able to visit, our families skied together, and our kids became friends. Our bond remained strong, reinforced when we could be at each other’s side. On those occasions, we would start talking as if we’d never been apart, with no fumbling for words or subjects. We still finished each other’s sentences, just as we had as kids.
Jim did well in his career, rising to senior vice president of the Hammermill Paper company, in Erie, Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, I covered the world as a correspondent for Life magazine. One story plunged me into the world of twins dramatically: the 1961 disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, the son of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. He’d vanished while collecting primitive art in New Guinea. I flew out there and met Michael’s grieving twin, Mary, who with her father had joined the (ultimately fruitless) search.
I hadn’t thought about that grim assignment until this summer, when I discovered that Mary had just written a book, Beginning With the End: A Memoir of Twin Loss and Healing ($27, amazon.com), about her 50-year battle to come to terms with Michael’s mysterious death. The timing was astonishing, and I found comfort in her moving description of the universal understanding between twins.
For Jim, living on the shores of Lake Erie was transforming. He took to the water with enthusiasm and became a skilled sailor. One of his kindest gestures to me was to invite me to join him and a half-dozen or so male friends from Erie on their annual fall cruise to Canada. They have been doing it for more than 30 years, and I have been along for most of those voyages. I even steered the boat once in a while, under Jim’s watchful eye.
When Jim retired, I was there. Twice he persuaded the local Rotary Club to invite me to speak on my experiences in journalism, his way of expressing pride in his twin. He especially liked one particular speech title: “Presidents Who Have Known Me.”
When we were babies, a doctor noticed something in Jim’s tiny heart that was then called a “murmur.” It did not bother Jim; he ignored it, until one afternoon in the late 1990s when he collapsed on the tennis court. Fortunately, he was playing against a doctor, who kept Jim alive until he reached the hospital, where a heart valve was replaced within hours.
He recovered well, but eventually congestive heart failure set in. He ignored it, too, as best he could and continued to travel, to play golf, and to quietly become one of Erie’s most prominent do-gooders (a term I would not dare use in front of him). He was president of the board of a local college and on the boards of a dozen other institutions, including the hospital that saved his life. A neonatal unit there is named after him and his wife, Maggie.
To the outside world, Jim and I were dissimilar in many ways. I was more profane. He was more conservative politically. He liked martinis; I preferred wine. His marriage was rock solid; I had to try twice. He enjoyed retirement; I am still working. His memory was better than mine, and when I was writing this story and trying to remember a detail from our past, my first impulse was to think, I’ve got to call Jim. That happened time after time, and always with a stab at the realization that my loving link to those days was gone.
Last March, I visited him and Maggie at their winter condo in Florida. To my despair, I found him, in his words, “weak as water.” A few days later, Jim was flown back to Erie for more medical tests, which were not optimistic. But he had rallied marvelously in the past, so I went ahead with long-delayed surgery at home in New Mexico. This time Jim’s body failed him, and nine days after my operation, he went to sleep and never woke up. Maggie was with him; his three grown children were nearby.
Since I was forbidden to travel, the funeral went on without me. Two of my daughters were there in my place. At the service, to my somber joy, they sang what is known as “The Navy Hymn.” Jim and I had first heard it together at the age of 17 in the chapel at boot camp, and it is my favorite hymn. One verse was especially painful: “Our brethren shield in danger’s hour, / From rock and tempest, fire and foe, / Protect them where so e’er they go.” I could not protect Jim.
I finally bid my own good-bye in late August. His Erie buddies, his son, Jim Jr., and I sailed out into the lake, and as the horizon faded, we scattered my twin’s mortal ashes onto those blue waters he knew so well. The full realization of what I had lost then struck my heart. Jim and I had been inseparable physically as kids, together in spirit after that. As I watched, both sad and scared, a part of me sank beneath the waves.