Sharing a Soul
by Martha Cheng
Images by John Hook
People used to ask fraternal twins Emily and Ross McIlroy, “What does it feel like to be a twin?” They would look at each other and say, “What does it feel like not to be one?” For 24 years, being one half of a set of twins was the only thing Emily knew. And then she lost her other half.
There’s a fascination with twins that exists everywhere, from playgrounds to psychological studies: We want to know what it’s like to have a twin, how they are the same, how they are different, what this unique relationship says about nature versus nurture. We mine twins’ lives, digging for clues about our own. But what happens when one twin dies? Is it similar to the death of another family member—another sibling, a child, a spouse? Or is it unlike the loss of any other companion?
Twin loss, particularly within the first year of birth, is more common than many realize. In fact, the infant mortality rate of multiple births is five times higher than that of single births. Philip K. Dick and Elvis Presley both lost twin siblings early on; Dick’s twin died just five weeks after birth, but throughout the author’s life, he would reference the presence of his “phantom twin.” Firsthand accounts of twin loss, even those where the twin was lost in utero, often describe a feeling of “something missing” for the rest of their lives. Some African religions believe that twins even share a soul, so when one dies, there are elaborate rituals performed in order to save the soul of the surviving twin.
“[Ross] was my childhood in a lot of ways,” Emily says. “Almost all my memories of childhood have him in them or on the periphery of them.” The siblings were born and raised in Norman, Oklahoma. In the family photo album, there are rarely photos of them apart. They hit developmental milestones together—learning to walk, talk, and read at the same time. “I always thought of being part of two,” Emily says. When she and Ross were 4 years old, their dad, reflecting on how they always played together, wrote in his journal: “Undoubtedly, there will be a price to pay for your closeness.” To have a companion means sharing in their joys, but also in their sorrows. And, as Emily learned, to have a companion also means risking the loss of that companion.
Having a twin, Emily says, is as natural as having an arm or a leg. "He was always there, like an extension of myself," she says. "I always felt our lives in orbit around each other." The twin story they loved to tell was of the matching scars on the bottoms of their left feet, the result of separate accidents that took place exactly a year apart at the exact same location inside their family's Oklahoma cabin. "Our spirits were made of the same stuff, but the way we expressed things was completely different," Emily says. "I was always much more deliberate and careful. He was always more extreme and reckless." Ross was often getting into accidents and being taken to the emergency room, she remembers, starting from age 2, when he climbed out of the crib and fell, breaking his forearm. "I was always worried about him, I was always trying to protect him."
Emily was one minute older, delivered via Caesarean section. But her brother was actually closer to the birthing canal. “He should have been born first,” Emily says. “He always felt cheated out of that. He used to say, ‘Well, that just means you’re going to die one minute before me.’ There’s this sense with twins that everything has to be totally balanced and just and fair. If I was born one minute earlier, I was going to die one minute earlier. Everything will happen in tandem because it started in tandem.”
Ross was interested in both science and music, but took a year off from both in order to pursue modeling after being discovered on a San Diego beach. At the time of his death, Ross was pursuing a Ph.D in neuropsychology at Birkbeck, University of London. Explaining his decision to study the mind, he once told Emily: “How could I do anything else when there is so much we don’t know about our own brains?” In 2007, Ross died from an accidental prescription drug overdose.
“When he died, I wondered, what part of me still exists?” Emily says. Exploring these questions of identity—of who she is, and who her twin was, and is, even after death—has been a part of her healing process. She has spent the past eight years researching, reading, and writing on her personal blog. She published a paper, “One Half Living for Two: Cross-cultural Paradigms of Twinship and Twin Loss,” in OMEGA, Journal of Death and Dying. And she has spent thousands of hours creating artwork.
In 2008, Emily moved to Honolulu after being accepted to the University of Hawai‘i’s MFA program. She had applied for seven schools and was sure she’d end up in California. However, toward the end of the application process, she had three dreams about Hawai‘i, and so she sent in another application for good measure. Despite her having a 4.0 grade point average, UH was the only school that accepted Emily. “Being here [in Hawai‘i] makes me feels closer to him, like I am part of some larger orchestration that he was a part of,” she writes.
Sky Burial is a tangible expression of the artist working through the loss of her twin. The expansive painting, which measures seven feet by thirteen feet, depicts a mass of hummingbirds swarming a cluster of blood-red petals. Crimson stains the birds’ beaks and wings. Some of the feathers are iridescent, some are like shimmery scales, some are an opaque black. There are formless, dark shapes in the mob of birds, as well as distinct, piercing objects—black eyes ringed in white, and long, thin, sharp beaks. It is a piece of beauty and savagery, fragile yet fierce.
The idea for Sky Burial, which was displayed in the Artists of Hawai‘i 2015 exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art, was born during Emily’s artist residency at Brush Creek Ranch in Wyoming. Here, a birdfeeder hung outside her studio, attracting a few hummingbirds that she described as fairylike. As their numbers grew to nearly 50, however, the cumulative noise of their wings became frightening, and their beaks became weapons. Watching them, she was struck by the vast extremes that inhabited their tiny bodies. “Hummingbirds are delicate and beautiful and exquisite,” Emily says. “But they’re also really aggressive and menacing. They battle each other with these beaks like swords, fighting each other for food.”
Observing this dichotomy called to mind her twin. “How could Ross, who was so radiant and beautiful and brilliant, also suffer so severely from mental illness and addiction?” she wrote in her blog, describing her process of creating Sky Burial. “How can beauty, strength, and grace be so inextricably paired with violence, fragility, and destruction?”
Sky Burial, which she produced in her studio in Honolulu, poses this question to viewers, while its creation offered Emily a framework for healing. “This process has paralleled—and provided me with consistent practice for—the painful but necessary and inevitable art of learning to let go of a loved one,” she writes. Over the course of two years, Emily continued adding and subtracting layers, painting and wiping and sanding and staining the canvas over and over again.
Part of letting go means dismantling a planned future, one that feels as real as the past. In Emily’s imaginings of their time to come, the siblings would have explored foreign countries together, collaborated on artwork, taken care of each other’s children. They were supposed to grow old together. “Our lives just didn’t end up unfolding together the way we had imagined they would, the way we believed they should,” Emily writes. “But the truth is that none of that was ever promised. Really having to know that, not just in my mind, but in my heart, has been the most painful experience of my life. We had each other for nine months inside our mother, and another 24 years after that. That was the time we were given, and I am grateful for all of it.”
Still, that doesn’t mean that her future will be devoid of her twin’s presence. Since his death, Emily has come to believe that her twin’s soul is intact. “His spirit is being perpetuated in my life through my life,” Emily writes. “A large piece of [healing] has been learning to recognize the times that he is asserting his presence in my life and his enduring role as my beyond-life-long companion.”
She says she feels Ross especially when she is traveling. He always liked an adventure. Emily recalls a diving trip to Fiji she took on the fourth anniversary of his death. “I was thinking of and missing him when the Fijian boat captain turned to me, looked me straight in the eye, and suddenly started singing a song that my brother always used to sing. There was no doubt in my mind that Ross was there.”
This story is part of our Companions Issue.