When they were born in 1949, Yvonne and Yvette McCarther, Siamese twins with separate brains and hearts but inextricably joined at the crowns of their heads, were not supposed to live more than a few months.
If they did live, doctors said, certainly they would never be able to manage more than a crawl, and they would most likely be retarded, too. The mother was advised to have them institutionalized. But Willa (Willie) McCarther, then a struggling 38-year-old divorced mother of five normal children, had more faith in her God than in medical predictions.
"God gave them to me," she told the doctors, "so I guess he'll show me how to raise them."
And for the next 40 years, she did. Willie McCarther, a garment worker, taught her babies not only to walk but, more important, to accept their lot as the grace of God and to respect themselves as two people, not one. "I went to a movie last night," Yvonne would say. "So did I," Yvette would remark.
Nor were McCarther's twins retarded, although their education was spotty, provided by home tutors from the school district until they earned an equivalency degree.
But in 1987, at age 38, they decided that they had lazed about long enough. Without telling their protective mother--who always seemed more hurt by the cruel stares of others than did the twins themselves--they enrolled in Compton Community College and, soon after, got their own apartment. Although it took the twins longer than most to complete their degree because of their inadequate educational background, they finished their courses. In June, they would march down the aisle with their classmates to receive their degrees.
Instead, they received them Saturday at their funeral.
They were 43. According to the coroner, they died of heart failure. They were found Jan. 2 lying in bed in their Long Beach apartment. Yvonne, who had an enlarged heart, apparently died first, but beyond that the details are uncertain because the family did not want an autopsy performed. They were the oldest surviving pair of conjoined twins on record.
According to available information, only one other adult set remains, Ronnie and Donnie Galyon, 41, joined at the chest, who live in the South and sometimes travel with circuses.
Yvonne and Yvette would have approved of the funeral services for them Saturday at the Greater Community Baptist Church in Pacoima. Pink was their favorite color, and so they were buried in pink dresses in an oversized pink enamel coffin.
Eulogies were in keeping with the personalities of the twins: short on tears, long on laughter and smiles, rich with anecdotes about their indomitable cheerfulness and determination to overcome their handicap.
"My life has truly been blessed because I had the opportunity to meet and interact with Yvonne and Yvette," said Compton Community College President Warren A. Washington, who delivered their posthumous degrees to the family, echoing the sentiments of most who spoke. "They gave to others inspiration and confidence because they did it their way, in spite of what people thought of them, or said. . . . They had such pleasing personalities and ready smiles."
And, he added, drawing laughter: "Yes, they occasionally had a cigarette." (They were in fact heavy smokers--always lighting up at exactly the same time in one of their many idiosyncrasies. They also picked up their forks and put them down in unison.)
Another eulogist, a minister, brought more laughter when he remarked that Yvonne and Yvette were so loving, so giving "that if those two didn't make it into heaven, you can all stop right now."
"As we look around our community and see the decay, the social unrest, the troubles . . . drugs and negativism in our youth," said the Rev. William T. Broadous, the twins' minister in South-Central Los Angeles for many years, "we must remember the contributions Yvonne and Yvette made to the Afro-American community by their example. They had confidence, they achieved. . . . Theirs was a spirit of 'I can do it!' "
Others remarked on the twins' sense of humor. They even divided their hair. "This is my hair," Yvette once deadpanned to a friend, laughter in her eyes as she marked an invisible line across the continuous expanse of their heads, "and that's her hair."
Self-pity was never a part of their thinking. They learned early on that it was up to them to set people at ease. To a speechless waiter in a restaurant, Yvette once remarked: "Hi, hon. I'm Yvette." She then introduced two other friends at the table with her--but not her sister. "And I'm Yvonne," Yvonne finally said. "Oh, I forgot about her," Yvette said with an impish grin. The waiter's tension exploded in laughter, and before the evening was over he was treating them like old, favored customers. To travel anywhere with them in public was to witness the very best and the very worst in human nature.
And so it was a celebration to amazing grace in the modest little Pacoima church on Saturday. All that marred the day was the absence of Willie McCarther, the true heroine of this 43-year-old tale. Time and tension at last took their toll. Now 81, she is in a rest home where, her surviving children say, she has little memory of her own remarkable life or the twins God gave her to raise.