Just Caroline

They shared everything -- clothes, Slurpees, birthdays, dreams. A story of starting over, alone.

Part One

June 13, 1999|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

Chapter One

The Switch

Here's what they weren't. They weren't inseparable. They weren't telepathic. They weren't doubling your pleasure with Doublemint gum. They weren't clones or carbon copies or future spinsters in identical clothes. They weren't in the habit of trading names to confuse people.

But once, many years ago, the Nalwasky twins tried to trick their mother. They were about 2 then; the prank was their father's idea. As the story goes, the sisters played along, Kelly putting on the sweat shirt that said "Caroline" and Caroline putting on the sweat shirt that said "Kelly." They laughed and laughed, waiting for their mother to see them.

When she did, of course, she knew. But she didn't let on.

"How are you, Caroline? Are you ready for supper, Kelly?"

The girls stopped laughing.

"No, I'm Kelly," cried Kelly.

"No, I'm Caroline," cried Caroline.

Here's what they were. They were Caroline and Kelly Nalwasky. They were undeniably separate yet indelibly connected, genetically the same yet destined to be different. They would outgrow the crying but not the need for distinct identities, the desire to show the world that identical twins aren't identical people. That was the challenge of twinship. They knew it at 2. They knew it at 20.

And 20 years of having a twin might have been the only thing that prepared Caroline to lose one.

Chapter Two

The Eulogy

I thought a lot today about what I was going to say. Kelly and I always told each other that if this ever did happen, we'd be the ones to get up and say who each other was. And this is what I came to this morning. I wrote down: "Kelly's greatest gift and ability in life was that of a teacher. She taught me how to love and to live my life to the fullest."

On Feb. 1, 1998, Caroline Nalwasky delivered two eulogies. The first was for Kelly, her 20-year-old sister.

I went to my speech class the other day ... and we had to say something unique about ourselves. And it was immediate, it was like, "I'm a twin. I have a twin sister. She looks just like me. And she's on campus, so if you see her and you think it's me, just say hi -- and she'll figure out how you know her."

Caroline and Kelly had learned to laugh at such mix-ups. And now, in the crowded pews of Baltimore's Second Presbyterian Church, some of the mourners laughed, too. There was a moment of relief, like a cool breeze on a hot afternoon. But Caroline kept talking, about how she and Kelly shared a soul, and her voice broke, and the breeze was gone.

If this ever did happen. It wouldn't happen like this, not in their sophomore year at the University of Maryland, a week after their 20th birthday. A healthy college student doesn't die in her sleep. A brain tumor doesn't kill someone who doesn't know she's sick yet.

Who knows why? Why the seed for one child creates two. Why a cancer grows without symptoms or warning. Cells divide into miracles and tragedies. And here, standing alone behind a microphone, facing 750 people, wearing Kelly's light blue dress with white flowers, was proof of both. Here was Caroline.

It amazed her, how easily the words came, how she hardly used her notes. She just opened her mouth and breathlessly said what she remembered. That she and Kelly used to make each other laugh so hard during car trips that Mom and Dad would pull the car over, saying, "We can't concentrate, you have to stop laughing." That she and Kelly loved Slurpees so much they drank them even in winter.

That it was Kelly, insisting "We gotta go, we gotta go, we gotta go," who persuaded Caroline to join a spring break mission trip to rebuild an Arkansas church gutted by arson. That after a rough semester at Maryland, when Caroline's grade point average and spirits plummeted, Kelly knew just what to say: "It doesn't matter. We're gonna get it back. I know you have it in you."

Of course Caroline remembered Kelly's stories. They were her stories, too. Her stories, her memories, her future, already planned. They were going to graduate from college and move to California. They were going to have a double wedding. Caroline was going to teach parenting classes and Kelly was going to become a pastoral counselor and they were going to celebrate a lifetime of birthdays, 80 at least.

As poised as Caroline was behind the microphone that day, as strong and composed as she would seem in days to come, there were times when she would think of the plans she'd made with Kelly and go to pieces. At the funeral home, before the cremation, Caroline laid her head on her sister's chest and wept. "We were going to get married on the same day," she cried. "We were going to have children."

In the months that followed, she would learn to live without Kelly; she would have to. She would make decisions and face challenges. She would turn 21. Today, nearly a year and a half after losing her sister, Caroline seems so confident, so self-assured and determined, that it's tempting to think she is going on with her life.

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