I wasn't a stranger to death on the night my twin died.
Sally had just been the only person I'd never contemplated having to live without.
It's a harrowing concept, that I've lived nearly as long without her, as the years we had together.
My twin and I had been born at twenty-eight weeks, almost three months premature.
From the beginning, after a few months in the NICU, Sally had struggled with health issues: low immune system, epilepsy, and several childhood diseases, leading to the family joke that she caught all the known ones, then discovered a few more. But, she overcame all of them. Dysgraphia and other learning difficulties didn’t help, either,
As we hit our teenage years and the end of our schooling, it was easy to think that she’d finally beaten the odds, and could look forward to a long and healthy life.
As ever: Mortals believe and hope, while the Fates laugh.
Sally’s epilepsy had been controlled by medication, but it was getting worse. She’d had two Grand Mal seizures in the space of a year, and was due for another EEG, and to discuss with the doctor what other options might need to be looked at. Still, we’d managed so far, surely she could keep on fighting.
It was the evening of Boxing Day, December 26th, 2005.
Christmas was spread over multiple days, in order to catch up with all the family, and Sally was celebrating having achieved her Certificate in Computing at TAFE. Once the holiday was over, she was going to start looking at jobs that wouldn’t require her to give up her disability pension.
Sally enjoyed long baths to decompress from busy days. We all knew that, and there had been some subtle splashing when we called through the locked door for her to hurry up, it’s been an hour and other people want a bath before midnight! It wouldn’t have been the first time she’d lingered out of spite at our younger sister’s nagging, either.
Finally, Mum picked the lock on the door.
I was upstairs, working on a poem that I’d promised Sally could read when it was finished, when I heard my mother scream, followed by a mad dash of activity. “Oh, God! She’s dead!”
I ran down, and joined my Aunt in attempting CPR while the ambulance was called. Even now, almost two decades later, I can still feel the chill of a cold body, of frozen lips and water tinged with blood from a bitten tongue. I remember praying for the first time in… well, ever… as my uncle drove us to the hospital. I remember feeling numb as the doctors called time of death, and thinking that someone had to tell my father, who was in-transit, having flown back to the United States earlier that day.
I had my step-mother’s number on speed-dial, so I handled that. She booked a flight straight back here and met him at the airport with a new suitcase and the terrible news.
I remember picking the songs to play during the ceremony: “Born to Try” by Delta Goodrem, because I felt like the title/refrain summed up her life quite well, and "Accidentally in Love", Counting Crows, because Sally loved dancing to it.
I remember the award Sally’s transition class created in her honour, the Sally Rose All You Can Be medal, named after her yearbook quote.
I remember Mum and Ms Nolen, Sally’s teacher who was for once out of her customary purple, puzzling over the history behind it, until I clarified that it was from the then-recent movie Cats and Dogs, specifically a speech from a homicidal cat intent on world domination.
Ten years later, I used the same quote for the title of a book about Autistic people, and left out the context.
The next several years blur together, as I struggled to rebuild myself into a single person, rather than one half of a whole.
It was harder than it sounds. My entire life, Sally had been there as a constant. As the one of us who could nominally pass as neurotypical, and was expected to have a career and look after her, I’d expected that all the milestones of a 90s kid — buying a house, moving out, getting married, non-career ambitions like becoming an author— would be done with Sally there with me.
Spoiler: I got all the writing talent in the family. Sally could come up with great ideas, and she was good at non-fiction technical writing, but her delivery in fiction left a lot to be desired.
Even coming home from work and meeting Sally at the bus-stop, or sitting together and reading once we were both home, was now a thing of the past.
I wasn’t in a good place during those years, but the search for who I was, to find out who I could be if I wasn’t the same person as I was pre-Christmas of 2005, propelled me to try all the things I’d been putting off.
I got my driver’s licence, did several TAFE courses, and was finally given an actual diagnosis for Autism. I got back into the work force, though not without struggle. I discovered Historical Re-enactment, of which my only regret was that Sally never got to experience it herself, because she would have loved it.
No-one complained, because at least I was finally leaving my room on occasion.
I bought and watched every Barbie movie that came out, because Sally loved them, and would no longer be able to watch them herself. I wear black every Boxing Day, and take the day off, penalty rates or no penalty rates.
I have PTSD, which really sucks when it comes to the CPR training that I have to do every year. I tell the instructor that I will need to step outside if there are any video clips relating to drowning, and request to go first and get it over with during the demonstration. I bring a craft project or writing notebook to multi-task during the harder portions, so that I don’t break down.
I have a friend, partner or family member lined up for a phone call and/or hugs afterward, and take the rest of the day as Mental Health leave, because self-care, and because I’m honestly useless for the rest of the day.
I alternate between my parents for Christmas and Boxing Day, and make sure to call the one I’m not with. My mother and younger sister rarely mention Sally, but we have a memorial photo board, and pictures of us all around the house. Each parent has an urn of ashes.
As I write this, I have a bowl of chocolates and a box of tissues within easy reach. It’s hard to talk about, but I wouldn’t dream of forgetting.
We all grieve in our own way.