Brian Trapp‘s twin brother Danny had cerebral palsy and severe intellectual disabilities, which limited his speech to twelve words. Thanks to a devoted family who developed their own language of jokes and rituals, Danny could convey a range of ideas and emotions and participate in family life. But his limited language meant that people had to speak for him, guessing at what he would have wanted, what he did and didn’t understand, the full breadth of his personality — with only twelve words, there was so much about Danny that his loved ones could never know. Faced with the decision to take Danny off a ventilator, how could the family be sure they were respecting a wish he couldn’t express? In a stirring essay for the Kenyon Review, Trapp examines his deep relationship with his twin and the ways we communicate in general; we imagine and interpret who people are and project our own experiences onto them, including, in Trapp’s case, his survivor’s guilt.
There was a large gap between his receptive and expressive capabilities, so we had to make what disability advocates call the “least dangerous assumption” and assume his communicative intent even when we weren’t exactly sure what he was trying to say. This required his conversation partners to coconstruct his meaning, from his body language, context, and tone. We had to imagine what he was thinking, project ourselves into his mind. This might seem strange, but it is not that different from how people normally interact. Language, in general, is a flawed and limited instrument. We can never truly know what others feel or think, even if they spend hours telling us, even if they have a million words at their disposal. My brother just happened to have twelve. Rather than making him a freak or an alien, his disability helps us see the essential human truth of all our communication acts: We all construct other minds through this imperfect mediation of language. No one speaks on their own. We are all twins—we all finish each other’s sentences.
My name is a case in point. My brother multiplied its meaning with tone, context, and absence. He said “I-an” so I’d talk to him. He said “I-an” to tease me, repeated it every fifteen seconds while we rode in his van, an auditory Chinese water torture. He yelled “I-an” into my voice mail to call him back. He said “I-an” in response to questions like “Who’s ugly?” He yelled “I-an” at church, heckling the priest in the middle of a sermon, which might mean any number of things, both satirical and metaphysical. He said “I-an” softly before he nodded off to sleep, so that it might as well have been: I love you.
My name was the currency between us. When I said, “Danny, give me an I-an,” I was asking for a hand-slap, a bro-hug, if everything was all right, if he loved me. When he refused, “not-I-an,” the “absence of I-an” could have as much meaning. The silence might mean: Dude, screw you. It might mean: I’m too tired. I’m in too much pain. It might mean: You have to talk to me more. You’re an asshole. You’re a poor substitute for Mom. Withheld at the right moment, it might mean: I resent you.
Projection is a central theme in this essay, and into this essay I projected my own sadness. I cried as Brian lay in the hospital bed with his dying brother, letting Brian’s pain register as the pain I feel about my ailing elderly father and a recently deceased friend. Readers necessarily carry so much of ourselves to the stories we read; when I cried during Brian and Danny’s final moments together, I was also bracing myself for my own.
A white film covered his tongue, and his cough was wet. I put my finger in his hot hand. I asked my brother, “Do you love me?”
“Eh,” he said. He did not tease me. He knew.
I closed my eyes and held him to my chest. I pretended it was twenty-nine years ago, that we weren’t even born, still sealed in the womb. Where were our bodies? Were we like this, face-to-face? Were we turned around, back-to-back and rubbing spines? Was he upside down, his ass in my face? Where did I end and my brother begin? I pretended that his body wasn’t breaking down, that they had not cut tendons or poked holes, put in tubes or fastened masks, that I was never married, never had my heart broken. There wasn’t even language yet. We hadn’t learned a single word. Our cells were still blooming, getting ready. We would do it all over again.