Celebration of the Life of Denise Fiama Gorena Yambra
The following is the message that I preached at my twin sister’s Celebration of Life Service that was held July 5, 2014 at 10:00 a.m. at First Baptist Church of Frisco, Texas.
It is my distinct honor and privilege to be standing here this morning to celebrate what God has done in the life of my twin sister, Denise Fiama Gorena Yambra. As her twin brother, I think that I have an “inside” track as to who she is. You see, we were womb mates for nine months. on October 8, 1966, at 3:30 p.m. in the afternoon, I like to say that Denise kicked me out of my mother’s womb and she came eight minutes later because she wanted to make sure her hair was nicely combed. Of course, I also say she has been late ever since!
My mother told Denise and me a few short weeks ago that we slept in the same crib for the first two to three years of our lives because we were inseparable. If my parents put either one of us in a separate crib both of us would start to cry. Once we were joined together again, we were fast asleep. For the first five to six years of our lives I did not speak. I had no need to say anything because Denise spoke for both of us. She knows what is best for both of us. Perhaps this is why we are so close and are able to empathize with each other when we have struggles, concerns or victories.
Being a twin is interesting. Back in the 1960s, it was a rare thing to have a set of twins or other multiple births. Even still today, the rate of pregnancies that are producing twins or multiple births is only at 3% of all live births (http://www.twinlesstwins.org.dreamhosters.come/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Twin-Loss-Implications-Counselors.pdf, accessed July 2, 2014). These births produce intimate relationships between twins, whether they are identical or fraternal twins. Incidentally, both Denise and I are always asked if we are identical twins. I always answer, “No, she’s a girl and I am a boy. However, we do look-alike when she grows her beard.” At the same time, Denise’s answer is, “No, he’s a boy and I am a girl. However, we look-alike if he wears his hair in pigtails.” Although we are different in gender, each of us has an understanding of each other that I am not too sure that anyone else has with other siblings. There is a connection, a special bond.
She and I are simpatico. She understands me and I understand her. When she is hurting or has something on her mind, I can tell. When I am hurting or have something on my mind, she can tell. Her favorite color is blue and I know this about her. My favorite color is red and she knows this about me. Moreover, when you put both blue and red together you have the beautiful color of purple! We both love the color purple. This describes what I consider one of the most important relationships that I have. We are bonded together in such a way that it makes for a beautiful relationship.
Denise loves to eat vegetables that we did not eat as children as I love to eat vegetables. She wants her home in a particular order and I want my home in a particular order. Both of us are dog lovers. Both of us want our hair to look just right before we go out into public. Both of us want to make sure that our clothes are nicely pressed and that we have some sense of style. Of course, my Denise has always had style. She gets this sense of style from my mother. I get my sense of style from my father.
Nevertheless, there is something about our identity. Identity is significant when you consider twins or children of multiple live births. As Mary R. Morgan has written, “Twins begin their identity in the womb. Whether fraternal or identical, they receive different stimuli and resources in the womb environment and, therefore, have different experiences that affect their fetal development. But from their cellular origins, they are ushered into the womb in relationship, both to their mother and to each other. And early on, they begin to show distinct, individual, and also interactive patterns of behavior and temperament, which have been observed and documented by researchers with the use of ultrasonography. These patters are often repeated after birth. I think it is fair to say that the rudiments of separate identity and relationship formation in twins have been clearly identified through ultrasound during the womb experience. . . . Taking into consideration that the issue of identity can be a source of vulnerability for twins, I think it is important to note that the research shows most twins, despite their challenges, go on to lead engaged and competent lives. The closeness, intimacy, and myriad of shared experiences create in many twins an ability to empathize and effectively achieve a genuine connection with other people. At the same time, they often persist in finding their own individual path. Possibly, as one researcher put it, ‘They are affirming their long sought-after identities.’ Understanding the meaning of twinship and the twin bond to our lives, and to our sense of who we are as individuals, we can be more sensitive to the challenges we ourselves face in the grieving process.” (http://www.twinlesstwinsorg.dreamhosters.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Bereavement-Process-for-Twinless.pdf, accessed July 2, 2014)
Denise and I do share a common bond, a common thread. She and I have always called each other “half” knowing that she is half of me and I am half of her. Yes, we are two very different people. Yes, we have two very different lives. And, yet, there are so many similarities.
For instance, when I was living in Tennessee, Denise called me one day to let me know that she was in the hospital because of a kidney stone. When she told me this, I quickly empathized and sympathized with her because I was in the hospital with a kidney stone. It was the first experience with kidney stones for both of us. There would be days that I just sense that something was going on in Denise’s life that was causing her pain or grief and I would call just to check on her. The same held true with her; she would call me it seems when I was struggling or grieving over something. When we have had the opportunity to see each other, we never like saying good-bye; we have always said, “See you later!” Even on the telephone, i would say that i need to hang up to do something or she would say the same thing then we would talk to one another for another thirty minutes. Something there is different from any other relationship that I have. We identify with each other. We know each other. We can give each other certain looks and we know exactly what each other are thinking.
Valerie L. Schwiebert wrote in the Journal of Counseling and Development of six different identities among twins. They are follows:
- Unit identity. This pattern is characterized by a merged identity where each twin things of him- or herself as half of a whole personality. These twins find separation extremely painful and, if possible, often end up living with one another later in life.
- Interdependent identity. These twins consider each other best friends, look to each other for their primary support, and develop other relationships that mimic the twin bond. They are truly friends and depend on each other, sharing a healthy symbiotic relationship.
- Split identity. Twins who perceive inequalities between each other and who always define themselves as polar opposites may be bonded but seldom trust one another. Usually one twin is considered “good” and the other “bad.” The overvalued twin experiences relief at separation because that twin has lost the bad parts of his or her identity. However, the surviving twin still needs the twinship to highlight the surviving twin’s good qualities. The undervalued twin experiences anxiety and depression, because this twin has lost the good parts of him- or herself. The surviving twin may feel inadequate throughout life, unless he or she pursues an understanding of his or her role in the family.
- Idealized identity. Being twins is the most important aspect of these twins’ lives, and they take great pride in this unique relationship. They may not share thoughts and feelings intimately, but they face the world as a team. Separation from each other is not too difficult, although they may always remain attached to being twins.
- Competitive identity. These twins share a strong empathetic bond with each other, encouraging each other in their achievements and developing close, enduring bonds with others. The identity of each twin develops in parallel with that of the other, but each retains an appreciation for differences between them. ‘As a group the competitive twins have the most potential for growth outside of twinship’ (Shave & Ciriello, 1983, p. 82). They develop intimacy with other people, although they are always comforted by each other’s presence.
- sibling attachment identity. These twins develop very separate identities, and experience a relationship similar to that of very close siblings, making separation similar to that between non-twin siblings. (http://www.twinlesstwinsorg.dreamhosters.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Twin-Loss-Implications-Counselors.pdf, accessed July 2, 2014)
Denise and I would be in the first category of identities, that is, the unit identity. We are a whole when we are together or when we are apart. She is half of me and I am half of her. We know each other and we understand each other.
We identify with each other on a physical level because we are twins. In addition, we identify with each other emotionally. That is to say that when Denise was down int he dumps I would be as well. If she was concerned for my parents’ well-being or our siblings’ well-being, I was concerned at the same time. We communicate these feelings towards others with each other. Neither one of us like conflict with our siblings or parents. We would rather not face that because relationships to both of us are so important, especially our relationship to one another.
As all siblings do, Denise and I would get into arguments and fights. She would want to do something her way and I would want to do it my way. Sometimes we have been upset with each other but it does not last very long at all. She has always been the one who apologizes first. It bothers her to be at odds with me as much as it bothers me to be at odds with her. She calls my cell phone almost immediately after parting ways to apologize. After her apology, I apologize and ask for forgiveness. There have been times when we have parted ways and even though she calls me, I just do not say anything about the situation again.
Right before Christmas a few years ago, Denise and I had an argument. Both of us were upset. She called to apologize. I let it go to voicemail. A few days later, we gathered at my mother’s house for Christmas and she was nervous because I did not call her back to apologize or to accept her apology. My Cheryl asked me if I was going to call her before seeing her and I said, “No, there’s no need. She is forgiven.” When Denise and I saw each other at mom’s house, we hugged each other and did not have to say anything else about the matter. She knew she was forgiven and that there were no negative feelings from me. And I knew that she had already forgiven me as well. It does not matter if we argue or fight; it does not change the fact that we are twins and we are most concerned with keeping our relationship right and pure.
Denise has had it hard from time to time. I have as well. We have had struggles that only she and I know. We share those struggles with each other as we always have. At times when I think I am the weakest she seems to be the strongest. At times when she seems to be the weakest, I seem to be stronger.
Denise has exhibited strength throughout her illness. Her tenacity is great. She fights and fights. Her mindset is that she is going to beat the cancer. She is going to win and be victorious. She calls herself a “Warrior Princess.” I have to tel you, this is so true! My dad has always called Denise his princess and she fills the role very well. She is royalty, she knows it, and her attitude is that of a royal. What she decides to do in life is what she does.
I remember when we were kids that my parents would bring these green stamps home from the grocery store and give them to Denise and me. We would collect these green stamps so we could go to the Green Stamp Store and buy different items. Her very first purchase at the Green Stamp Store was a Vivitar camera. It took 110 Kodak film. The look on her face when she first bought the camera was priceless. Her smile, you know the one that she has, is beautiful. Her eyes speak volumes of joy when she accomplishes what she sets out to accomplish. Her excitement flows from her life and you can feel it. Her eyes sparkle with delight when she has saved and is able finally to make the purchase that she has planned.
Denise and I share an emotional attachment with one another. When we are happy, we are happy. When we are sad, we are sad. When we are angry, we are angry. When we are fearful, we are fearful. It always seems that we shared so many of the same feelings that sometimes in my own mind it is difficult to separate our emotions. The illness with which she has been dealing has been hard for both of us. However, through it all she has been a bulwark, a stalwart. She has toughed it out and she has stood strong. Her body unfortunately can no longer take her illness. Moreover, at the same time, I have faltered in my health during this crisis in my twin sister’s life. I have lost weight and have had pains in my abdomen and chest. Gratefully, I am all right. I am not sick physically but emotionally I have been because I see my twin sister going through what she is going through.
Denise and I share our identity as twins physically and emotionally. In addition, we share our identity spiritually. If you hear anything that I have to say this morning, hear what I am about to say.
In July 1976, both Denise and I were involved in a Vacation Bible School at Primera Iglesia Bautista de Brownsville. My cousin, Becky Rivera, was our teacher that week. She is one of our most beautiful cousins who is currently living out of the Country. All week-long, Becky taught us the Bible curriculum. She is a great Bible teacher as so many of my family members are. Denise and I, on that Thursday of Vacation Bible School, were asked by Becky if we had ever trusted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. To her chagrin, both of us said “no.” We had been in church from the very beginning of our lives. She proceeded to tell us how we could trust Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. She used “The Four Spiritual Laws” tract from Campus Crusade. As we listened, it was as if both of us at the same tim said that we needed to be saved from our sin and we wanted to have Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of our lives.
The first thing that Becky told us is that God loves us and offers us a wonderful plan for our lives. Listen to how John the apostle worded it in John 3:16:
God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.
And, in John 10:10:
I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly.
I told my Denise the other day that I wish I could take away the cancer from her or that I had it instead of her. She said to me, “Den,” that is what she calls me, “Den, God planned for me to have it, not you. I am not sure for what reason, but that is what He has planned.” I see from a distance now that His plan is at work even through the cancer because Denise is testifying to the fact that God has a plan for her life and for each of us. She rests in knowing that God loves her enough to have a plan for her life–even if it means that cancer is a part of the plan.
Now before you get upset about me saying that this is part of God’s plan for Denise, understand that this is truly what we believe as a family. Neither Denise nor I believe that God allows something to happen just to let it happen. We know that all that happens is part of His eternal plan and that all things will work together for the good of those who love God. Paul the apostle says in Romans 8:28:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.
Becky then asked us a question, “Why is it that most people are not experiencing that abundant life?” We were unsure as to the answer; after all, we were only nine years old. Moreover, while we were being reared we had all that we needed. Dad and mom made sure of that and they understand that it is God’s provision that they have received. Becky told us that the reasons that people are not experiencing abundant life is because man is sinful and separated from God. It is because of this that man cannot know and experience God’s love and plan for his life. Paul the apostle wrote in Romans 3:23:
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Man was created to have fellowship with God; but, because of his own stubborn self-will, he chose to go his own independent way and fellowship with God was broken. This self-will, characterized by an attitude of active rebellion or passive indifference, is an evidence of what the Bible calls sin. Both Denise and I know that we have self-will that is in defiance of God. We both know that because of this defiance we are separated from God who is holy, just, and righteous in perfection, without limitation. Paul the apostle said in Romans 6:23:
The wages of sin is death (spiritual separation from God).
There is a great gulf between God and man because of sin. Because of this, man is constantly trying to make an abundant life of his own but to no avail. We try to fill our lives with philosophy and religion and politics and economics and art and music and all other sorts of things. Nevertheless, there is a chasm between God and man that is deeper than the Grand Canyon itself. The gulf between God and man is greater than the African Rift. So how can one have this abundant life? Is there anything that can be done to bring this life to us?
Becky told us that there was one way–only one way. She said that Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for man’s sin. In other words, not all roads lead to the same destination. It is through Jesus Christ that all of us can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives. Again, I refer to Paul the apostle in Romans 5:8, where he says:
God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Again, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:3-6:
Christ died for our sins…He was buried…He was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures…He appeared to Peter, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred.
John the apostle directly quotes Jesus Christ in John 14:6, saying:
I am the way, and the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father but through Me.
God has made a way for us to have abundant life through His Son, Jesus Christ. He is the One that bridges the gulf that separates us from God because of sin. Jesus Christ paid the price by dying on a cold, cruel cross in our place. He paid the penalty, the wage of our sins.
Now it is good to hear this good news. All of us need good news, do we not? Becky continued to tell us that it is good news to hear but we need to act upon it. We have to make a decision of some kind with the information that has been given us. Either we will say “yes” or we will say “no” to this good news. Either we will receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior or we will say no to Him. Whatever the case may be, we need to make a decision–you need to make a decision–today–at this very moment.
John the apostle says in John 1:12:
As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.
Paul the apostle says in Ephesians 2:8-9:
By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works that no one should boast.
The result of receiving Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is that you are born again. This is not to say that you go back into your mother’s womb, but spiritually you are dead because of your sin. This is a spiritual rebirth–you are born again! John the apostle records in his Gospel the idea of this new birth in John 3:1-8:
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh , but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Denise and I heard these verses read to us in 1976. We understood then that we needed to experience the new birth that only Jesus Christ can give. Becky told us that He was inviting us to believe and trust Him for salvation. In answering this call, we needed to turn to God from self and we needed to trust Christ to come into our lives to forgive our sin and to make us what He wants us to be. Agreeing intellectually that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that He died on the cross for our sins is not enough. Nor is it enough to have an emotional experience over what He has done. We receive Jesus Christ by faith as an act of our will. We step aside ourselves and we trust His Person and His Work for our salvation. It was July 8, 1976, when we were nine years old, that we trusted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. We were baptized later that same year together at Primera Iglesia Bautista de Brownsville.
Denise and I share much in common physically, emotionally and, most importantly, spiritually. I know, after having this conversation with her not too many months ago, that she wants me to tell you how you can share in this abundant life. My cousin, Becky, told us that to receive this gift of forgiveness and eternal life is a simply thing. You receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior through prayer. Prayer is something with which Denise and I are familiar. It is like speaking to each other. When someone prays to our Lord Jesus Christ it is just like having a conversation with Him. You can receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior by repeating this prayer:
Lord Jesus, I need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins and for paying the penalties of my sin. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Lord and Savior. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be. It is in Jesus’ name that I pray and believe, Amen.
If you have prayed this prayer this morning, would you signify it by raising your hand so I may pray for you. I know that Denise’s desire for each of us is this: that we would know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior just as she knows Him.
Now, for my closing remarks, I want to share something with you. As you can tell from what I have read this morning, I am referring to Denise as if she is still alive. There is good reason for this. Before I left for my family vacation in May 2014, I told my twin sister that I had two concerns. The first was that something might happen to her while I was in Oregon. My second concern is the price of gas out west. She said to me–and I want you to know this–she said to me, “Den, you keep living because I’m going to keep living! And, concerning the price of gas, I can’t help you with that!” I replay those words repeatedly in my mind. I can hear her voice telling me this with that sheepish grin and sparkle in her eyes. Today, Denise is alive because Jesus Christ is alive. Denise is well because Jesus Christ has healed her completely. Denise is whole with a new body in Heaven. Denise is pain-free, tear free, cancer free because of the victory that Jesus Christ has over death, hell and the grave. It is by His amazing grace that her chains are gone and she is set free.
For now, I am going to say what I always say to Denise, “I love you, Niecey! See you later!”