Same Same But Different

The hissing of the coffee machine drowns out a familiar tune as the rain beats up the street outside. The late afternoon downpour is regular as clockwork in Mexico City this time of year, and people like me rush inside for a brew and a dry chair. “It’s like you’re trying to get to heaven in a hurry, and the queue was shorter than you thought it’d be.” [1] She probably never heard this song, but those lyrics will always remind me of her.

We came into this world on the same day. My forceps provided the slipstream for her – five minutes later. And twin life began. It was a mixed bag, the fun of having a ready-made playmate diluted by sibling surveillance and sharing.

People said we were polar opposites. Maybe. Or maybe we were the same end of that magnetic metaphor – and just propelled each other’s lives in opposite directions.

At school, her diligence encouraged my nonchalance. In our twenties, while she was helping the kids of Kampala and the bed-less in Bedford. I helped the breweries of Brighton and the lap-dancers of Latvia. In our thirties, the trend continued. She knocked out nippers in the home counties. I flexed my family free home life and flew to foreign fields.

Our mindsets differed too. She was consumed by the certainty of Christian mythology. I preferred the uncertainty of science and philosophy. The resulting banter, more enjoyable for me [probably] than for her. 

It all made for a brother and sister that were, amicably aloof.

Her illness brought us closer. We bonded over treatment options and diets. But Zoë would still tell me about the eternal damnation my lack of faith deserved. An example, perhaps, of the different ways we expressed our love for each other. Her metaphysical concerns for me. My practical advice for her.

In the end, it was all academic. The big C snapped another branch off my family tree.

My sadness is tainted with luck. When the genetic dice were rolled in ’74, it was Zoë who drew the short straw. When my uncle met a similar fate, my dad spent the next nine years worrying about the timing of “his turn”. The geneticists have spared me that ordeal.

Reflecting on the funeral tributes, I realise the self-righteous and occasionally annoying sister I knew – had a fun and fearlessly caring side – that I only saw glimpses of. Maybe she saved it for the faithful and less fortunate. That was the mystery of Zoë – amateur saint one minute, pain in the jacksie the next.

The timing of her demise gave new meaning to my wedding anniversary. Now, a celebration wrapped in remembrance. Like a tragic and ironic yin-yang, she is my dot, and I am hers. As children, we competed for our mum’s attention, and in a final act with her trademark lack of subtlety, that continues.

My sister was a big believer in soul survival. Her friends even tell me about the afterlife she is enjoying now. Whenever I ponder this notion, I always reach the same conclusion; you can say what you like about the unknowable.

As the anniversaries and twin-less birthdays come and go, the fortune and brevity of this thing we call life plays on my mind. If our ancestors really are congregating in another dimension, waiting for us to join them. Maybe I should have a tale worth telling when I get there. And if, as I suspect, it’s just a grief alleviating idea, at least my life will have edged in a more meaningful direction.

For Mexicans, the boundary between the living and the dead is blurred. Each year on Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead)[2], bright yellow marigolds guide the departed back to the land of the living, where their lives are celebrated with good humour in a party atmosphere. At this event, La Catrina[3] – a tall female skeletal figure dances in a fancy hat and feathers, symbolising their carefree attitude to mortality. She believes we should live our true selves and drop the pretence. Because, as the cartoonist that helped make her iconic put it, “Death is democratic. At the end, regardless of whether you are white, dark, rich or poor, we all end up as skeletons.”[4]

It is in that vein I shall remember Zoë this year.

A lot has changed in the five years since. With the realisation of life’s fragility, I lost the ability to tolerate my own mediocrity.[5] My old self began to fade and curiosity became my compass. I no longer felt part of other people’s plans. So gone is the well paid and unfulfilling nine-to-five. And in its place, life on the road, where freedom, optimism and reinvention[5] reign.

“Señor, disfrute su café.”

The waft of my double espresso brings me back to the room; a simple pleasure. The rain is easing up, and in kicks that chorus again, “Even when you know the way it’s gonna blow, it’s hard to get around the wind.”[1]


[1] The song, “It’s hard to get around the wind” was written by Alex Turner (of the Arctic Monkeys) as part of a solo project for the film Submarine and released in 2011. Spotify.

[2] On 2nd November this year, I will be in Mexico to experience Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) for myself. Website.

[3] Rooted in the Aztec culture, La Catrina symbolises the Mexican tradition of honouring and celebrating the dead. She has been restyled over the last century and included in a mural by Diego Rivera, titled “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park”, which I had the pleasure of seeing in Mexico City.

[4] The quote, “Death is democratic. At the end, regardless of whether you are white, dark, rich or poor, we all end up as skeletons.” belongs to Jose Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican satirical cartoonist and lithographer whose zinc etching helped make La Catrina iconic and influenced Diego Rivera’s mural mentioned above.

[5] The poem, “No Leaders Please”, by Charles Bukowski has inspired me over the years with lines like “stay out of the clutches of mediocrity” and “reinvent your life because you must”.

I lost my twin at the age of 41 to a hereditary bowel cancer that also took our dad, uncle and cousin. A genetic test had forewarned us of the possibility, but screening could not avert it. By chance, I was spared. And the experience made me rethink my path. This piece is a response to the Medium Writer Challenge on the topic of death.