Illustration by Tom Martin
By Clay Byars
My twin brother saw me
as myself—the person I was
before the accident.
I live an hour outside Birmingham, Alabama, in horse and cow country. My address is Shelby, but Shelby is mainly a historic “town” that no longer exists, plus a gas station/convenience store and post office. My house is an old barn, from the 1930s, that at some point was made habitable. It came with forty acres of land, most of it wooded, and the house sits back about a hundred yards from the road. I inherited some money in my mid-thirties, enough to buy it. The setup seemed perfect for my old, formerly stray dogs. They weren’t used to confinement, and although they never wandered too far away from me, out here I didn’t have to worry about them running into the road.
For the last nine years, I’ve been taking vocal lessons to improve my speech, to make my vocal cords stronger—I thought they’d been paralyzed until a doctor told me otherwise. My teacher, an opera singer who gives voice lessons out of his house in a revitalized neighborhood in Birmingham’s Southside, has an unusual name, Dewin (pronounced with the accent on the second syllable, though not everyone gets it right: my first day, he told me about a man who insisted on greeting him with “How ya doin’, Dew-in?”). We started the first lesson with Dewin simply playing the same note on the piano three times, and having me repeat the letter K after him: KAY-KAY-KAY. I smiled, and told him that was how my three-year-old niece, my brother’s daughter, pronounced my name. Like her, I struggled with the kl sound at the start, tending to smear the letters together (one of the reasons people had a hard time understanding me).
I distinctly remember the first time I was able to sustain a note. I could feel, as I came in tune with the piano, when my note and its note combined. Something else took over. It really was some kind of balancing act, or as Dewin put it, “management, not labor.” The sound no longer had a ceiling.
Throughout the drive back home, I was looking forward to sitting down and listening to the CD that Dewin had made of the day’s work. I studied my enunciation. It was still a shock to hear my recorded voice. When I wrote or thought to myself, I heard my old voice in my head, and really I’d never talked that much anyway. I put the CD into my computer and forwarded until I found the part I was looking for, an exercise that required me to say “Texas toast” over and over again, repeating the phrase along with a little sequence of notes. I was disappointed that my performance was weaker than I’d thought at the time. Afterward, Dewin explained, as he always did, what we were doing and its purpose. I listened to myself asking a question.
Before starting those lessons, I’d heard a recording of my new voice only once in the years since it had changed. Through a connection with my mother, a local news station had interviewed me before a fund-raiser. That time, watching the tape, I’d concentrated less on the sounds and more on how strange I looked. This was from before I started going to the gym. I resembled an angular and unsteady hospital patient. My eyes were wide open and had an astonished look about them, and the corner of my mouth sagged. When I did focus on what I was saying on-screen, I was startled by the unfamiliar sound of gummy straining. To myself I sounded miles away and underwater.
Sometimes I have flashes of worry that I have forgotten what my old voice was like, the voice I was born with or first grew into. I fear that my memory of it has grown untrustworthy, that as a result it is lost. But there is a remedy, of a kind. I can call my brother, Will. We’re identical twins, and Will sounds pretty much exactly like I used to. In fact, our voices were always the most identical part of us, since we usually didn’t weigh the same, and we’ve always carried ourselves differently. In elementary school we even began to look more like older and younger brother than twins, but people could rarely tell us apart on the phone. If you were to hear Will speak today, you would hear a crisp and effortless, somewhat hollow baritone. He sounds the same whether he’s taking a business call or telling a crude joke. Someone not from the South would say he has a Southern accent, but it’s not exaggerated—nothing like our mother’s (we used to make her repeat words and phrases, “they-a” for there, “sa-po-it” for support). His voice is sonically deep. He’s a businessman, and he knows how to make it assume a tone of authority. That’s how I sounded, a younger version of Will, for twenty years of my life.
Will and I went to the same college, a small school in the Mid-South, in an isolated, mountainous section. A little more than a month and a half into our sophomore year, the university hosted a “parents’ weekend.” My mother decided to throw one of her “pahties.” She saw it as an opportunity to invite our friends and their parents, most of whom she still hadn’t met. She and my father had rented a house way back in the woods, in a kind of forest resort/retirement community a mile or so from campus. The party was a fairly typical WASP collegiate party, supposedly casual but almost formal in its progression, and boring. My older sister was there. She’d ridden up with my parents. But when I finally got to the party, I didn’t see her, or many of our friends. Seconds later, she and two classmates came out on the deck looking sheepish and reeking of smoke. We were standing around, and someone suggested we go to a bar on campus, the only bar, to hear bluegrass.
“I have to go there anyway,” said my tall, thin, dark-headed roommate, Peter. “My shift started thirty minutes ago.”
“C’mon,” my sister told me, “I promise I won’t embarrass you.”
On our way out I spotted an old friend, Amanda, who’d grown up with Will and me in Birmingham and was here in school with us now. She said that if everyone else was headed to campus, she wanted to go, too. The only question was who would drive. A boy named Drayton, who lived above me in the dorm and who’d come to the party with Amanda, agreed to take us in her car. My sister left with Peter in his. My parents said they might just throw caution to the wind and join us in a while.
Autumn was in its initial swing. It was the season of brochure pictures, and the school looked exactly the way I had pictured it before I ever got there. Fat yellow and red leaves. Clear skies and chilly temperatures. For me it brought a sense of opening outward, of possibilities expanding.
When we were out on the road, less than a mile from the gate, a car coming the other way veered into our lane. It was right after a bend in the road. The other driver, a girl in her twenties, had apparently been reaching down for something on the floor of the passenger side. As soon as Drayton saw her, he swerved into her lane to avoid her. At the last second she swerved back as well.
I used to try to connect the dots to see if I could pinpoint exactly where my life took what was the beginning of my life’s detour—earlier that day, I’d felt the dreamy detachment that usually signaled I was getting sick, I shouldn’t have gone to the party; or further back, I could have gone to a different college than Will (we’d talked about it and in fact never told each other where we’d applied yet wound up at the same school).
The impact of the cars colliding caused me to be shot forward from the middle of the backseat into the dashboard. A piece of my lower jaw broke off and became lodged down my throat. I was instantly knocked unconscious.
One of the first people to drive up on the scene was the father of a student, not someone I saw regularly, a freshman that year. The man wasn’t a doctor but he’d apparently had some medical training, in the Army, I think. Amid the growing noise and chaos, he somehow realized what had happened to me and pulled out the piece that was obstructing my airway, allowing me to breathe. When I arrived at the hospital I was still gagging and coughing up blood as the paramedics wheeled me in. My parents were already there. In a panic, my father grabbed my mother’s arm as I went by and, so he told me, shouted, “We’re gonna lose him!”
Will was asleep in Birmingham at the time, where he’d gone to study, free of distractions, for a test he had coming up. Just before midnight, he threw back the covers and jumped out of bed with a throbbing pain in his jaw. He said it felt as if he’d just been punched. He doesn’t know why but he then called up my room at school. When there was no answer, he took some aspirin and tried to go back to sleep. Not long after, my father called him with the news. This will sound made up to non–identical twins, but he and I have had incidents like that throughout our lives, and other identicals we’ve known have corroborated the phenomenon—when his first daughter was born I felt an unexpected biological euphoria beyond any kind of happiness, that was like waking up stoned but fully alert. When we were children and physically fighting, if someone tried to break us up, we would both turn on that person, like a symbiotic organism.
By the time he got to Chattanooga, the city I’d been flown to, they had stabilized me somewhat. I have a fuzzy image of my father standing beside me holding my arm and telling me I’d been in a car accident. I remember being scared because I knew time had passed that I couldn’t account for. But that may be the result of stories I heard later. After studying me for a minute—I probably reacted somehow—Will told the rest of the family not to worry, I was going to be fine. I don’t know whether anyone believed him, but I know he didn’t care.
The kind of twins Will and I are—male-male monozygotic (two identical boys)—is the rarest form of twinship, statistically. There are more likely to be fraternal (or sororal) twins than identical, and there are more likely to be female identical than male identical. It’s also true that male-male identicals possess the highest overall degree of DNA overlap. We are the most identical. The reasons for these differences are poorly understood even by scientists (just as we don’t understand why a certain tribe in Africa, the Yoruba, has an astronomically high twin rate—although in that case it may have something to do with a certain type of yam they eat). It’s accepted as a myth in the medical community that twins run in families, although there are plenty of examples to give the myth credibility. My uncle, my father’s older brother, had two sets of twins.
I wrote that ours is “the rarest form of twinship,” but that should be changed to “the rarest form of relatively common twinship.” There are some extreme forms. Apart from conjoined twins—identicals born with their bodies fused—there are parasitic twins, where one twin dies in the womb and its body disappears into the other (often to reappear alarmingly later in life, in X-rays). There are also chimeric twins, where one twin disappears into the other but continues to live. This condition was discovered when doctors found that a woman did not share the DNA of a child she’d given birth to. It turned out that her lost twin’s womb had nurtured the baby. There exist “mirror image” twins, those who for unknown causes split apart later in the gestation process (a week after conception, say) and who, although they look alike, will possess curious asymmetric tendencies: opposite-handedness, the same birthmarks but on different sides of the body, even dramatically opposite temperaments. Finally there are, weirdest of all, the varieties of “semi-identical” twins. These are twins who share their mother’s genes, while each having the genes of a different father. It happens most frequently through a process known as superfecundation—the mother releases two eggs, and both get fertilized, at different times, by different men—but there’s another scenario, the weirdest of the weird, called sesquizygotism, which occurs when two sperm cells fertilize one egg, forming a curious three-part creature, a “triploid,” which then splits apart.
Here’s what I find interesting about monozygotism, the kind of twinship Will and I possess. Monozygote: one zygote. The zygote is what we call the cell created by the sperm and egg, when they join. Before it divides, it exists there in the womb as an entity, the original zygote, the product of the man and woman. There was a moment before Will and I split apart that we were literally one being.
Implausible as it may seem, my voice was not affected by the impact. And over the next few weeks and months, all of my injuries—broken jaw, concussion, fistula (tear) in my carotid artery, optic nerve damage—healed on their own or were healed with surgery, with the exception of an injury to my brachial plexus, the bundle of nerves inside my right shoulder. This happened when my body, en route to the dashboard, got bashed by the passenger seat. I could no longer bend my elbow. The doctors said there wasn’t any way to know for sure the extent of the damage, short of going in and having a look. But they first wanted to give the nerve a chance to heal on its own.
Months passed, and the progress wasn’t what we’d hoped. My right hand was fine, but from the shoulder to the wrist, the arm was just a dangling extremity. I remember the nightly lightning storms that seemed to be taking place in it when the nerves would try to connect with each other.
My father found this new, experimental surgery, where they take a nerve out of the back of your leg and piece it into your shoulder, into your brachial plexus. There was a neurosurgeon in New Orleans who invented the procedure, and I went in to have him repair the damage.
I survived the operation, but after my parents had given me a couple of days to wake up all the way, they let me know that the doctor had lowered my chances of total recovery to 60 percent, based on what he’d seen in my shoulder. Not wanting to alarm me, they neglected to mention that he had accidentally nicked an artery; he’d clamped it shut before any serious bleeding occurred.
A week later, after I’d been released, I woke up at home in Birmingham with the sun slanting through my bedroom window in separate rays. The phone rang, and I threw back the covers to try to answer it before my mother could, assuming it was someone calling to check on me. When I stood up, I became dizzy and spots splotched my eyes. I sat back down on the bed.
I was walking up the stairs to the bathroom when another wave of dizziness hit. This episode lasted longer than the first, and left my heart racing long after it had subsided. I wondered if possibly the doctor had left some surgical device inside me by mistake. I reluctantly called 911. As the fire engine pulled up, my entire body began to convulse. It was the same kind of feeling as your teeth chattering when you’re cold—you know it’s happening but you’re helpless to stop it. Nevertheless, I stayed clenched. Then I pissed in my pants.
Now slumped in my seat, I saw the uniformed paramedics hurriedly clanking through the garage, one with what looked like a tackle box. When they laid me down on a stretcher I caught a whiff of some guy’s pungent, musky cologne. It was a scent no one I knew wore. This moved everything up a notch.
My body had become useless at this point. I could feel everything but couldn’t move. My heart was pounding. While one of the paramedics fumbled around with a stethoscope, another looked at him and hunched his shoulders. My eyes—they were all that I could now consciously control—glanced up and saw a woman standing in the threshold with her hands clutching the doorframe. With the sunshine behind her it was hard to tell it was Mom at first. She looked down at me. “It’s all right, baby. Everything’s gonna be just fine.”
I slurred, “I don-know wha’s happenin’.” My voice had begun to shut down as well.
Finally, just as suddenly as the dizziness had come on, my heart stopped pounding and what felt like a morphine-induced calmness set in. But nothing had been given to me, and I wasn’t hooked up to an IV. I thought, Okay, this is it. Hold on.
I sat on top of Will in our mother’s womb, causing me to be born with too much blood and him not enough. That was the first time they took blood out of one of us and put it in the other. The other time being my surgery in New Orleans, when he donated more than a pint in case I needed it during the procedure. As babies, Will and I would stop crying only if our parents put us in the same crib.
Every stage of life we’d gone through not just together but as a unit, as a unity. Which makes it less surprising that after my stroke—and especially after my predicted death, when no one thought I would live through it—things changed. Our twinship wasn’t broken, but it was redefined, physically and in ways that were harder to pin down. For one thing, Will had prepared himself for me to die, and you can’t completely backpedal from that once you’ve done it (during that week in the hospital, when it looked like I would die, my father went to Elmwood Cemetery, near the old football stadium, to look at headstones). Will wouldn’t say that, necessarily, but how could he not have done so? His reality changed: all the outside hopes and expectations, familial and otherwise, that people had felt about us, that had been distributed equally between us, were now all on him, with the added burden that he couldn’t avoid feeling responsible for me.
Though in many ways, our relationship hasn’t changed. We are no longer physically equal, but we are more open with each other than we used to be. My condition is a subject we can now joke about, to mutual amusement. Anytime there’s a disagreement between us about a fine point of memory, he will say, “That must have gotten lost in the dashboard.” Once a week, at least, I have dinner with him and his wife, Betsy, and their three girls.
Betsy and I used to date as well, when we were in high school. My senior year. I’m used to it now, but I’ll admit, it was strange at first. Especially after they had kids, one of whom looks and acts more like me than like her father.
As I became more patient in the years that followed—in an effort to preserve my sanity—Will became more impatient. After he entered the workforce, he started having panic attacks. He got past them, but while they lasted, I knew they had something to do with his feeling alone. He wasn’t used to it.
And yet the more life told him he was now an isolated individual—Will loves to tell the story of how, after our parents discovered my enthusiasm for writing, they gave me a signed first-edition copy of Faulkner’s The Reivers as a Christmas gift and gave him a picture book titled The World Atlas of Beer—the more biology told him he wasn’t. His ending up with an ex-girlfriend of mine gave him, I think, a strange sense of calm. It suggested that biological destiny might be more powerful even than something as traumatic as what had happened to my body. The accident opened him up. We got to a place, after a period of years, where we were able to discuss what had happened to me, with a candor that would have been unfamiliar to both of us before my stroke. He let go a little.
For me, although I had always loved Will as a brother (or maybe I shouldn’t even say that; it would be like pointing out that I’d loved myself), I came to value him in a more conscious way, because thanks to him I had someone in my life who knew me so well, so exactly, that he could see into my interior self, regardless of what shape my body was in. Because of Will I still felt known. He could see the world through my eyes. This kept me from total despair.
I recall a period of about five seconds, when I was in a wheelchair at one of the treatment centers I came to know in my long recovery, thinking how much easier it would be to just become what a lot of strangers already thought I was. Overly friendly, mentally challenged. People would be nicer. I’ve noticed that a lot of people feel more comfortable around me, the more handicapped they think I am; I suppose it’s because I represent no threat. Often when I tell them something positive about myself, such as that I’ve had my work published or that I teach creative writing, they instantly become less friendly, as if I’ve forgotten my place. It would be so convenient, in a way, to go along with that attitude. But having Will there—someone who saw me as I saw myself, who knew I hadn’t become someone else—gave me the strength not to take the idea too seriously, to let it pass unexplored. It can be hard to explain how frustrating it is, in my situation—someone who’s mentally there, but physically hampered, his voice changed—to have to be constantly proving yourself, insisting on what you are, and because of Will there’s always one person with whom I never feel the need to do that, to waste time breaking even. Besides myself, that is. When I’m alone, I forget.
Adapted from an excerpt of Will & I, a memoir by Clay Byars, to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in June 2016.
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