Dressing a Sister for the Afterlife

Below is an excerpt from With and Without Her: A Memoir of Being and Losing a Twin. My identical twin sister, a psychologist, has died in Lowell, Massachusetts, from a head wound inflicted by a former patient. We have brought her home to Philadelphia, where my mother and I go to the funeral home to help prepare her body.

We go to the funeral home, a Victorian house converted for the dead. My mother and I meet with the cosmetologist who will prepare Deane for a family viewing. He works in something like the back of a flower shop, cool with glass cases and metal tables.

I have brought Deane’s rose dress and gold hoops with me. I look down on her face, and it is not Deane I see, but some wax version. Without life, no one’s face can be what it was. We are not our looks at all, but the energy that lights our features. So this is her body, not Deane. Already she seems far away. Ten days ago she was coming to visit, and I stood in my yard gathering apples. Now I deliberate the choices of a clothed afterlife.

My sister lies on the table like a patient, and I remember a D. H. Lawrence short story: neighbors carry a dead miner into an English cottage where his wife bathes his body and dresses him for burial, pushing away her fear, moving by rote, feeling how set apart death places them.

“Was this what it all meant—utter, intact separateness, obscured by heat of living?” asks the miner’s wife.

I am here for my sister, but I also shut down my belief in normality, in the daily, in the ease of one breath after another. My mother is calm and distant; an outsider might say disinterested. But I know she is not even here. She talks with me about the details—makeup, hair—but she lets me make the decisions.

I realize how small my mother is, her thin, rounded shoulders, her fine bones. I see her and what has brought us here before this man who picks over my sister. And I know too that she and I will never again talk about this moment.

Dorothy Foltz-Gray

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Dorothy Foltz-Gray

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  • Donna says:

    Hello, Dorothy, I just read your book “With and Without Her” and I found it so moving and beautifully written I wanted to write to you.

    I too was born a twin and lost my sister, but my situation does not compare with yours, since my twin, Diane, died 13 hours after we were born. We were 2 months premature and very small newborns, with medical problems. We had the same placenta so we were identical. A neonatalogist has told me I was lucky to survive at 2 lbs. 8 oz. back in 1959. Diane weighed even less.

    I cannot imagine the pain of losing a twin you knew and grew to adulthood with – I have a sister who is 5 years older than me and we are quite close as adults, although we were not as children because of the age difference. I guess one reason I bought your book was because I have never stopped wondering what it would have been like to grow up with my twin. I was a lonely, very shy child and Diane was my “imaginary friend.” There was a set of older identical girl twins at my high school and I always felt envy and a sort of weird pain and longing whenever I saw them together. I felt that they were complete and I wasn’t – why couldn’t I have what they had? And what was I doing, being alive? Had I done something, somehow, to Diane in the womb, stolen nutrients, fought her in some way so I could live? It sounds very stupid, I know, but I’ve always been afraid that I somehow caused my sister’s death. At the same time, I resented her, for leaving me alone. I didn’t feel I was worth much by myself. But with a twin, I would have been something! And I would have had a built-in best friend.

    When you wrote about your childhood with your sister, well, that’s exactly the relationship I always imagined I would have had with Diane. And the pain of having had that with your Deane and lost it – I salute your strength. I don’t know how you managed to write that book. Since I have recently suffered some difficult losses in my life, your story inspired me to go on.

    I am sorry for my awkwardness with words. Plenty of people are aware that I was born a twin, but I’ve never been able to talk to anybody about how the absence of Diane in my life has haunted me. Singletons simply don’t get it. “You don’t remember her, so it’s no big deal.” When I told a friend once that I was a twin, she said, “No, you’re not. You didn’t grow up with her.” I said “You know, there was a human being named Diane V. on this earth for 13 hours. She existed. She was my sister. So, yes, I’m a still a twin.” As close as I am to my sister, any mention of Diane makes her tense up a little. Once, when we fought, she yelled at me, “I’m sorry I’m not Diane! I know she’s the sister you want!” That’s not true, I wanted both sisters! I idolized my big sister when we were kids. But I think she is afraid that if Diane had lived she would have been shut out.

    OK, I’m rambling now, and probably boring you to death. But I want to say – thank you for sharing your story and the story of Deane, Dorothy. It meant a great deal to me.