Credit: Emma McMain
In the middle of my Intro to Biology lab session, my phone lit up with a text from my mom. “Hi Hon. Sam is in the hospital with food poisoning. Will let you know more when we do…love you.” My own abdomen clenched like a fist. Time after time, people ask me if Sam and I have a “twin thing.” I always wonder what, exactly, they are implying. Do they suspect that we can empathically tune into one another across land and sea, as if we were still fused together with a thought-conducting umbilical cord? I always laugh and answer, “No, not really.” Nonetheless, with me in a sterilized lab room in Oregon and him in a sterilized Emergency Room in Thailand, I excused myself to the restroom. Still wearing my blue latex lab gloves, I placed one hand on my aching stomach and leaned against the cold sink.
The food poisoning didn’t really surprise me. Sam had been mountain biking in Thailand for weeks, eating cheap smorgasbords of oily meats and tropical fruits for nearly every meal. Traveling overseas and eating 5,000 calories’ worth of hand-prepared food each day entails a certain level of risk. What did surprise me was the intensity of Sam’s illness, which was relayed to me in a literal game of telephone between Sam’s good friend (who was also in Thailand), my parents, and finally me. As I discovered from the texts that caused my pocket, pillow, and backpack to vibrate at all hours of the day, my 6-foot-5, 200-pound athlete of a brother had somehow been debilitated by a nasty strain of Salmonella. He was too “out of it” to talk or walk for the first several hours, and he remained on an IV drip for the next 72. While Sam’s hands were poked with needles 7,000 miles away, I wrung my own and waited for more news.
When Sam and I were tiny babies, my father says he watched us lie in our crib side-by-side, hands touching as they often did. As Sam’s skin brushed my own, my dad claims that Sam jerked and did a double take, peering with wide eyes at the creature lying next to him. I can just picture the thought bubble in our heads as we recognized that we were two, not one: “Who is that?”
I was nine when Sam fell off the roof of our minivan, his daring game cut short by the impact of bare knees and elbows onto rough gravel driveway. “Emma!” was the shrill cry that tumbled from his lungs during the brief free-fall, even though my parents were closer. I felt the embarrassment of falling, the betrayal of gravity, and the sear of sharp pebble on skin. Not knowing how to comfort or what to say, I felt myself shake with laughter. It wasn’t humor. It was overwhelm. It was feeling my brother’s pain, and wanting to help, and not knowing how.
One awful day in middle school, my dad drove me to school while Sam biked. I spotted Sam streaking down the sidewalk, standing up straight on his muddy pedals. I watched as he approached a hidden uphill driveway, where a younger boy mounted his own bike at the top. Both boys gained speed, two trains on the same track, each hidden from the other’s view. I knew it was going to happen before I had time to roll down the window and yell. I saw it all: legs flailing, wheels spinning, bodies crashing. Sam and the boy were lucky to walk away without any serious injuries, but the scene played over and over in my head. I watched it unroll like a film, unable to press stop.
I called Sam from my apartment on his last day in the Thai hospital. He sounded like himself, making jokes about the hospital food and giving two-word replies to my inquiries about his plans for the rest of the trip. He is a listener, and I don’t like silence, so I talk. I talked on the phone about my classes, my plans for grad school, my boring Biology class, and what I had made for dinner. I asked him if most of the doctors spoke English (“enough,” he said) and when he might be able to leave (“probably in the morning,” if he stayed hydrated). Sam was fifteen hours ahead of me, and our calendars read different dates. I finally said goodbye, not knowing if he wanted me to keep talking or let him go. I tried not to imagine the hole where the needle had rubbed into his skin, the feeling of gut-twisting nausea for hours on end, cold sweats in a foreign country where sharing language was a struggle. I thought of my infant self, looking over to acknowledge that the twin beside me was separate, even though our hands were joined.
By: Emma McMain