In 2011, my father died. Technically.
Let me start again. My dad, Tony, was an identical twin. He and his brother Tom were tall, blonde, thin-legged and blue-eyed with a surprisingly Italian last name. They typed terse emails with their index fingers and loved The Godfather movies. They shared bad senses of humour, ice cream dependency, discomfort with long phone conversations (save for with each other), and business acumen.
Tom is still alive. My dad isn’t. The fact that I’ve always had an exact replica of my father, with a startlingly similar voice, mannerisms and, well, face, never really struck me as exceptional until my dad passed away.
As is custom, the funeral was bleak. In the memorial line up of family members, seeing my uncle exacerbated the strange reality of loss. A few guests were unfortunately or hilariously caught unaware that Tony had a twin brother. Reactions to Tom ranged from shock to clinginess. People insisted on reminding my uncle of his uncanny resemblance to my dad. Tom responded, patiently, way too many times: I know.
In the ’80s, the only feature that distinguished my dad from Tom was a thick, blonde cowboy moustache. One day, well into a confidently moustachioed decade, after much urging from Tom, my dad shaved. The twins then tried to confuse my cousin and I about who was whose father—It’s me, your daddy, one of them insisted—and neither my cousin nor I could distinguish. They were that identical. This experiment ended in tears. My cousin and me: paralysed and afraid. Betrayed? I was about five years old at the time.
I’m not sure what the fear was. Was I worried about making the wrong choice and losing my dad’s faith, failing a test of some kind? Or was it that I couldn’t be clear about what made my dad my dad?
Tom and Tony’s likeness went deeper than their appearances. A particular freaky twin thing happened during a summer in the ’90s when my parents brought my brother and I to a little hotel on Prince Edward Island. We went for a walk into the charming town to marvel at, I don’t know, the gables and the red clay beaches, probably, when my dad stopped on the sidewalk and said something like I think Tom’s here. Minutes later, we heard a car horn and turned to see my uncle cackling out the window. The twins had, without knowing, booked the same vacation, at the same hotel, for the same damn week.
Coincidences like this are called tacit coordination—the phenomenon that people can successfully coordinate their decisions without communication. Though it can happen in many social contexts, identical twins in particular enact synchronous behaviours or decisions frequently, and have a high incidence of tacit coordination. The social bond between identical twins has been described as among the closest and most enduring of human social relationships.
The genetic commonality of identical twins may underlie their similarities and social intimacy, and the perception of physical likeness can cause others to subconsciously reinforce similar behaviours.
While my dad and uncle were growing up, people could never be sure who was who, so each twin was often called TomTony. One word. The twins would answer to each other’s names; they were so wrapped up in each other and indistinguishable that to be recognized as an individual might’ve been expecting too much. And really, how could you maintain any behavioural or psychic distance if you share everything, including your name?
Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, in a family of nine children, the twins were like their own unit. As my Uncle Tom puts it, they kept each other company and, as far as I can glean from second-hand stories and my own experiences with their hard-ass Canadian Auto Workers union activist parents, protected each other amongst the chaos.
I called my uncle recently and asked about some of his twin memories. He said one of the hardest times for them was when my dad failed grade 7, which meant that Tom and Tony would no longer be in the same class. The twins cried over their report cards outside the school; the repercussions were overwhelming—separate grades, separate classrooms, Tom would start high school a year sooner. They were devastated at the idea of being apart. On their walk home from school the twins formulated a plan: Tom promised to intentionally fail grade 8, leaving Tony enough time to catch up so that they could be together again. Of course, when their hardline parents caught wind of this, the twins were scared off from following through with the scheme.
I wonder, if they’d followed through, if their relationship would’ve been different. Maybe my dad’s 13-year-old follies gave the twins enough distance in their education to grow some independence, to maintain their bond, but who knows, maybe into their adult years they still would’ve preferred to have been synched up. Still, they went on to work the same jobs at A&P grocery, eventually becoming twin co-managers, and put themselves through business school at the University of Windsor, one year apart.
My uncle got married in August of 1977. Following a job offer, he and his wife moved to the Toronto area after the wedding. It was the first time Tom was away from home, and the first time in their lives that the twins wouldn’t share a room. The twins were distraught and crying as the reception wrapped up. My uncle’s wife stepped in to get Tom on the road to their honeymoon, prying the twins apart.
My uncle’s family were the only LaSordas who moved out of Windsor. Most of my life Tom’s family has lived across the border in Michigan. When our families would visit, the twins were giddy. TomTony essentially reverted to being little boys. They matched each other. One exception was the development of my uncle’s slight American accent, notable on words like dah-lers, which my dad hated. If one twin lost weight, the other would try to lose weight too. Haircuts. Glasses. Clothing. They’d explained their constant evaluation of each other as disciplining themselves so they could still look alike. They wanted to.
Tom and Tony have their differences, however subtle. My dad, minutes younger, was more outgoing. He’d starred in a middle school production of Our Town, and brought up his glorious moment of stardom on the regular. He dated a few women before he met my mother. Tom, on the other hand, married his high school sweetheart. In their careers, too, Tony was preoccupied in creating, and Tom was interested in contributing; my dad started his own marketing company while Tom worked at high level corporate for auto companies. Both twins were blind in one eye—Tom’s left, Tony’s right—one of the only physical attributes in which they were the inverse of each other.
As a non-twin, I think all of the blurred identity stuff sounds annoying. When your self is so tied up in another person’s, I assumed there’d be a longing for that sort of individual distinction, maybe some resentment at having a persistent and dizzyingly close model for comparison. Instead, my Uncle Tom explained that being mistaken for someone else or someone not being sure what name to call him made him feel special. With every milestone or piece of good news, Tom says he and my dad were never jealous or competitive in any negative sense. If anything, the twins felt as though they were achieving vicariously, maybe even taking credit for it by genetic association.
As Tom remembers, in Windsor, Ontario in the 1950s, identical twins were rare. Everyone around them seemed to reinforce their twinness; together, they were magnetic. “People stared, stopped us on the street, asked us questions,” he said. “We were rock stars.”
My dad died suddenly, after what should have been a routine heart surgery. He was too young—everyone I knew made sure to say so, as if confirming that this loss was indeed tragic. His death shattered me. I went through unnerving phases like eating only comfort food. I threw away a manuscript I’d “finished,” adopted a kitten, never talked about his death, and then sometimes talked about it.
It’s only recently that I’ve considered how deeply and distinctively his death must have shattered his twin. I think of my uncle witnessing my dad being extremely ill, struggling, and dying; it would be horrific in ways unique from my own experience. Losing a life partner and a best friend is its own grotesque and crushing blow. But with their resemblance, my uncle could’ve been glimpsing himself in such a state, not unlike a Dickensian spectre of what-is-yet-to-come.
Kinship genetic theory suggests that our ratings of grief intensity will increase proportionally with genetic relatedness to the deceased. Several twin-specific bereavement studies have found direct association between the degree of gene similarity (which is highest in identical twins) and anticipated grief. Using a rating system called the Grief Experience Inventory (GEI) selected aspects of twinship—preoccupation with the co-twin; disruption of shared birthdays; reactions to meeting or seeing other twins—were significantly associated with high GEI scale scores.
In terms of experiencing grief for a co-twin in comparison to another sibling, my uncle can speak to both. Two younger LaSorda brothers passed away in the twins’ lifetimes: one at age of 16, and one at age 39, both unexpectedly. Of course these were tragedies that my uncle grieved, but when his twin died, he said the loss felt completely different.
Twin researchers Nancy Segal and Thomas Bouchard have found that the mean grief intensity rating for twins was higher than for non-twin siblings, and significantly higher than that for spouses. My uncle echoed this finding: “A twin is more like a wife or a husband,” he said, “but bigger than that, because with a spouse, you could maybe meet another one. You can remember a time before. A twin leaves a void that’s always, always there.”
Tom and Tony have left their children a legacy of similarities, in a way. My cousin, Jackie, and I are the first-born kids of the twins. We share some physical traits (kind of tall, kind of blonde, fast walkers), but the parallels in our behaviours are what I find most striking. We both move around a lot (too much). For several Christmas holidays in a row we’ve chosen the same gifts for our mothers. We’ve both gone to university and later pursued two Master’s degrees: one academic and one Fine Arts each. We are intensely self-deprecating, solitary, and we were given the same prescription antidepressant.
Oh, did I mention we’re both writers?
As the children of identical twins, Jackie and I share 25 percent of our genes instead of the usual cousins’ share of 12.5%. Biologically, we’re half-sisters, not cousins. An identical twin parent is as closely related to his own children as to the co-twin’s children. At first I was surprised by my cousin’s grief when my dad died, but then again, I’d feel the same way. Our dads are our favourite people for the same reasons.
What I struggle with is the question of whether grieving my dad is made easier or harder by his twinship. You hear it all the time when someone loses a loved one: what I’d give to see them one more time, to be able to call them, hear their voice, hug them. I have that option, sort of. This father-clone.
Since his death, I attempt to formulate my dad’s opinions about events that unfold, about the arc of my life since his absence, even thoughts about former tensions in our relationship. I hold on to my metaphorical grief suitcase. I can get insights from my uncle, though I rarely consult him; in part because I worry it’s painful for us both. When I called Tom the other day and asked for advice, I can say with confidence that what he told me is exactly what my dad would’ve said, down to the idioms and the nervous, excited laughter when answering the phone. So, in a way, the twin thing is a privilege.
In another way, I can get petty. I see my cousins enjoying their lives with their dad. I watch Jackie grow annoyed sometimes, probably the same way I was, by her dad’s conservatism (maybe born out of the vehement working-class socialism they were raised with), his struggle to talk feelings, or his crippling awkwardness at drive-thru windows. I also see how my dad would’ve aged, how a few more years would’ve softened him.
On the phone with Tom, talking about my dad, I was nervous. My uncle relaxed, and recounted story after story of his favourite twin memories. I jotted down Tom’s words in my notebook for over an hour—a shockingly long phone call for one of the twins. Tom and Tony were excellent baseball players. One season, they were placed on separate teams and pitched. Both made it to the finals—Tom’s team won. The Windsor Star featured a small clipping with a photo of the indistinguishable twins facing off with their uniforms and gloves, but the caption stated that Tony’s team won. Tom jokes about demanding a retraction from the paper, but the reality is neither the championship nor the headline mattered: their wins and losses were vicarious. As I listened, I began to step back and recognize that Tom is whole—a person who can offer me a distinct relationship and a perspective on my dad that I could never otherwise access. I stopped fretting about the upsetting parts of their identicality, because those exist in the similarities and the differences. I’m sure I’ve overlooked a lot of sparkling individuality while hunting for what I needed from my uncle, which is my dad.