Clare Marcie’s twin sister Aisling died when she was four months old. Here, as she prepares to perform her solo show Twinless, Clare explains how she’s finally given herself permission to grieve.
This story was first published on Ensemble
On February 6 1991 at 20 to midnight, I was born by C-section along with my twin sister Aisling. Four months later, on May 29, Aisling died in Greenlane hospital. I’ve been making a solo show titled Twinless to explore the legacy of these events.
Growing up, there was always a postscript to my life, an additional chapter tacked onto the story of my birth. From the very beginning, my life was more complicated than simply, “hooray, you were born!”
My grandma would remind me about my twin sister every birthday – “of course, she would also be turning *insert age here* today, had she lived”. I remember feeling desperately curious, and wondering if that was perhaps inappropriate; an insensitive feeling to have.
Throughout my teenage years, as a supplement to my schooling, I was a speech and drama kid. I took private lessons for eight years and performed mostly alone, in regular competitions and examinations – monologues, sight reading, poetry recitals, solo improvisation. Alone, alone, alone.
My love of drama eventually led me all the way to Glasgow in Scotland, where I attended the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to gain a master’s degree in classical and contemporary text (in the acting strand).
In December 2017, I returned to Aotearoa after five years in Scotland, and began a journey of discovery I hadn’t anticipated.
My identity felt complex. I had grown roots in Glasgow, and New Zealand felt too bright – the sun gleaming and people withholding. The Scots seemed almost flirtatious in comparison.
Within a year of returning, my grandma – my final living grandparent and the one I’d had the longest and deepest relationship with – died at the ripe old age of 91.
The grief I felt for her didn’t sting the way it had when I’d lost peers or friends, it ached in a necessary woollen blanket kind of way. It made me think about my mother as a child, my grandma as a child, the Ponsonby of her youth, the dreams she might have secretly harboured.
I remembered how my mum and uncle would print my blogs for her to read when I was training in Glasgow. I remembered Skyping with her for the first time on her 90th birthday. I remembered interviewing her when I moved to Auckland. I asked her about sex, and she had quickly segued into her stories about childbirth.
At the pub after her funeral, my cousin’s youngest son – barely a year old – was passed around the family, seemingly unfazed. I held his round warm body on my lap, so different from the body of my grandma in the funeral home when I went to help dress her with my mum a few days prior.
Losing my grandma also meant losing the memories she held of my sister. This hit me recently. The carriers of my twin sister’s memory will all eventually die. Death lurks in the shadows of our everyday life. Perhaps that’s why my grandma’s death was what triggered me to explore and learn more about my twin sister’s brief life, and equally made me fearful of what I might have to face. There’s nothing more frightening than oblivion.
At the beginning of my exploration, I looked for books about the heart, about the death of children, grief… that sort of stuff. I approached my personal story with the attitude of a researching student.
It felt impossible to relate to those early events of my life, partially due to no personal memory of them, and partially (as I would later discover) due to my coping mechanism constructed early on, created in order to distance myself from a sadness that felt overwhelming.
At one point, while in fairly intensive therapy, I cried from such a deep guttural place in myself that I didn’t recognise the noises I was making. I was drawn to this exploration, but I hadn’t realised that it would cause such a deep personal unravelling. It’s strange to reach back to the beginnings of one’s life.
I’ve always rather enjoyed my own company. During my time in the UK I spent multiple Christmases alone, and more recently I spent a sumptuous few days alone in Rotorua to celebrate my 29th birthday.
Then came lockdown. All my flatmates had a similar knee-jerk reaction to the announcement, and headed to their parents’ homes. But I didn’t have that impulse. So I stayed, alone.
People responded to this information the same way they respond to me sharing that I’ve spent Christmas alone, or that my twin sister died. It’s always the same wide-eyed, “Oh no, poor you” look, and I never know what to do with it.
There is a collective discomfort of aloneness, of loss. The pitying eyes always carry with them a sense of expectation, of how I should feel about the information I’ve shared. When people are grieving, we expect them to swallow down their feelings, rather than hearing their mourning cries.
I’m closer now to the age my parents were when they had me and my twin sister.
In the film Three Identical Strangers, the adoptive parents of the separated triplets describe how as babies, they each hit their heads against the wall beside their cots until they knocked themselves out. They now recognise this as a symptom of separation anxiety. Those boys were separated at six months old, two months older than I was when my twin sister died. I wonder if four months is old enough to experience that kind of anxiety? I don’t know.
What I do know is that as I grew older, the shadow of her death became a burden I took on with child logic – I recall making a conscious decision to live life “twice as well” in some misguided effort to make up for my parents’ loss. My loss. To make it all OK again. Exploring this part of my life as an adult has led me deep into that choice I made as a child.
The legacy of loss has a way of getting twisted and tangled over time. I’ve finally been giving myself permission to actually feel grief for this loss. What’s true pushes through, and I’ve been discovering that without a space for it, grief leaks out of sideways places in your life.
I had hoped that in some small way, this exploration would make me feel more connected with my twin sister. But there is no clear concrete way to achieve this. To feel a connection with her is a matter of spirituality and imagination. It raises questions regarding the afterlife that I find daunting to tackle.
In a personal sense, however, I can recognise how my feelings for her have shifted. She remains impossible to pin down (naturally), but I do sense her presence. This could very well be my own creation, perhaps my subconscious has fashioned this feeling in order to comfort me, and if that’s true, I’m OK with it.
I love and am confused by this question which CS Lewis posits in his work A Grief Observed: “If the dead are not in time, or not in our sort of time, is there any clear difference, when we speak of them, between was and is and will be?”
This fracturing of time, this splitting open of the supposed linearity of life, leads me quickly back to little pouty Clare, in her bright 90s clothing and her unimpressed expression. It leads me back to the day I read “kia kaha” on a friend’s Facebook page, and, confused, messaged a mutual friend who let me know that our friend was in a critical condition. The tearing apart of meaning that followed, the sense of feeling both closer to and further away from my own surroundings simultaneously.
It leads me back to dressing my grandmother’s body with my mother.
It leads me into an image I daydreamed recently of a person in an astronaut’s suit, floating underwater, an umbilical cord threaded from their stomach and out of sight.
It leads me into a dream of being devoured by a snake, and feeling a sense of peace during the experience. It leads me into a recent dream in which I’m holding myself as a baby, rocking myself in my arms and cooing.
Grief is a messy leader, a wild forest jester, a giggle in darkness, a winking excavator, a stab and a smile, a discombobulator. Grief is clearing me out, filling me with shadow so I can better locate light. There is no simplicity, and yet grief contains a simpleness at times. Heavy from it, I’ve sat in a chair and stared for hours. It resets something deep inside, and it’s not a one time ride. But we cannot brace ourselves for it, somehow we need to remain soft, malleable. I’m no expert at this, and I know grief won’t be done with me any time soon.
As Jamie Anderson writes: “Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”
Twinless is a solo show I’ve written and will be performing as a way to explore and express this grief, this love, this mess of feelings.
Instead of an awkward, uncomfortable moment in conversation that I usually gloss over, this time I’m saying, “yes, I had a twin, and I’m going to take some time to tell you, to show you, how that feels for me”.
Grief is not tidy, or linear. Twinless therefore will grow and change over time, as will my relationship to it. This five night season at the Basement feels like the beginning of a much longer process.
Twinless is at Auckland’s Basement Theatre from March 23-27