Phantom Limb

Kait Heacock

I recently read statistics that startled me: “One in 90 live births result in twins (fraternal and identical), but one in eight begin as twins…[A]dvances in technology mean that fetuses can be tracked earlier and earlier, and it’s now clear that many humans born alone may once have had a sibling in the womb.” Many of us are born with loss sewn into our bodies. I will never know if I had a phantom sibling once, but I do know what it feels like to lose the real one I did have.

I like to tell people that if I ever choose to have kids, I’ll be the one to have twins; I can feel it. They laugh at the improbability. Then I back it up with evidence: my mother is a twin. Her mother was a twin. My cousins are twins, I add to rub in my good odds. My siblings and I are not twins; our generation was skipped. But twins are in my makeup, I like to think as much as the blue eyes I inherited from my dad or the left handedness I shared with my brother.

My brother died five years ago. He was seven years older than me, lived in Alaska, and I had not seen him for about two years before he died. The concept of a twin being assimilated into its sibling feels more profound now that I am left with nothing but the memories of my brother to sustain me. Who he was and the life we shared are intertwined with my experiences and memories. We are intrinsically connected. I carry him with me.

My brother and I were destined to be close. Sure, my sister was only four years older than him and they had that special bond of being the first two, completing the family unit before a third kid shifted it off balance. But he and I had the protective older brother to the baby sister relationship. Together we experienced the move to a new town during the school year, me to become a shy version of my previously outgoing self and he rebelling against curfews; my father. We bonded over the connection of shared anxiety and fear of the unknown.

We were far enough apart in age that my childhood was in full swing when he abruptly left his behind for a life of alcohol, drugs, and petty crimes. My memories of him are divided in two, before I was nine and after I was nine. Because it’s after nine, living for about two years in the new town that would mark my adolescence, that my brother fragmented. He went from being a lively and gregarious teenager who played hockey and told his little sister bedtime stories with a different voice for every character to someone who slipped in and out of juvie, rehab, and jail, each time emerging with religion or the promise that he had changed.
I have memories of him from when I was a kid and we were still close—friends for a time, not just blood. There was the truth or dare game we played standing in the kitchen and the tangy and sour taste of the spoon of mayonnaise he dared me to eat that made my stomach curdle; the sound of the radio we listened to that weekend we spent playing Zombies Ate My Neighbors on Super Nintendo; the smell of the patchouli that stunk up the car when he dated the hippie girl. There was the time we pushed all the couch cushions together and jumped from the top step onto them, and he told me not to tell Mom, but I did.

My memories are mostly 2-D images, flat as vacation photos. Not even the vacation memories are fully formed, despite being forever crystallized on photographs that exist on actual paper—my long hair windblown across my face and my brother peering through sunglasses as we stood in front of the Grand Canyon; the two of us during a trip to Hawaii, where we fell victim to bad 90s fashion, a vinyl jacket for me and one of those floppy hats typical of fishermen or stoners on him.

Then the middle part blurs. There are only flashes, little lightning strikes, like when you wake up from a bad dream but the images stick before you completely wake. What do I do with all the happy early memories of a person who changed so drastically as he aged? It’s difficult when most of the memories are intertwined with those I’m trying to forget. I can’t remember our hallway once filled with chairs and cushions we built into an obstacle course without thinking about my brother stumbling drunkenly down the same hall towards me, swearing he was running away from home and mumbling nonsensically. I can’t hear The Doors—god, he loved that band—without thinking about how he insisted Mom play the CD when she drove him to meet with his probation officer. I sat in the backseat, hating the music and hating him.

With my eyes closed, I picture my brother in rehab when I was in my early twenties—not months into it, when he looked like he had been sleeping and exercising regularly, but how he looked when he first went in. I picture the closely shaved head, the dark circles under his eyes, and the pale skin with patches of acne on his cheeks. I can see the way his clothes hung off his tall and gangly body. I remember the silence in our parents’ car on the drive, how sitting in the backseat with him again made me feel like a kid even though what we were doing felt decidedly un-childlike.

I hate our childhood memories, but I need them. I use them to go back to before because there is no now and no later, no someday with him. There are only the same weathered memories as worn as the videos from Dad’s old camcorder, loops of our smiling faces at family gatherings. I have to recycle the same memories. What if I use them up? If I run out of memories, what will become of him?
He still exists in my dreams; they almost always occur at the house on Summitview Avenue where we grew up, and they almost always lack the realization that he is dead. In my dreams he is laughing at the dinner table. I wake in the morning and watch his image evaporate before me as I rub sleep from my eyes.

Living with a lost sibling feels like an emptiness that has taken physical form. It has a shape and a texture. Sometimes it constricts and I push it down to deep corners meant for storing hurt; other times it blossoms and grows tendril like through me all the way to the tips of my fingers. It is there always. He is there always. He is an amalgamation of repressed memories and those so fuzzy I can’t tell if they’re just stories intermixed with the small number of images that have remained after all these years, clicking through my brain like a slideshow of long ago times. The brown waterbed he owned when he still lived at home, his Nirvana-style cardigans, that disgusting snack he used to make with ramen noodles, Doritos, and hot sauce.

There are days when I make it to the end and realize I haven’t thought about my brother, not once. Sometimes on those days I take pride in that, as though he no longer counts as a person, only a bad memory I must attempt to forget. I struggle with deciding which is more important: enjoying a good memory or erasing a bad one at the risk of losing the good one too. A casualty.

My brother is gone in the same way my childhood is gone: irretrievably. I can look back on my childhood and think about that vacation to Disney World or the embarrassing school play, even my favorite memories of my brother when we created fantasy worlds to act out video games, but I can’t have those experiences again. The remembering is not as good as the doing. It is a cheap consolation prize. But it is all that I have.



Kait Heacock likes to think of herself as a literary organizer; she builds community around books as the Pacific Northwest editor for Joyland, on the Advisory Board for the Mineral School artist’s residency, and as a publicist for feminist publisher Dottir Press. Her fiction has appeared in Esquire, Joyland, KGB Bar Lit Mag, Portland Review, Tin House, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction has appeared in Crab Creek Review, DAME, Largehearted Boy, Literary Hub, The Millions, The Washington Post, The Women’s Review of Books, and elsewhere. Her debut short story collection, Siblings and Other Disappointments, is available now.

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