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Published: Wednesday, January 16, 2013, 8:00 a.m.

Dwarf: a Memoir

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I'm so short that at the age of 35 I still have to hop up on the kitchen counter if I want to get something from a high shelf. Sure, I could get the step stool but I'll hop up there while I'm still able to. And I'm lazy. I don't want to go the ten feet to get the stool.

Dwarf: A Memoir tells the story of Tiffanie DiDonato who was born with dwarfism. She decided to undergo a grueling series of operations to make her taller. The surgeon broke her arms and legs (at separate times) and set them with screws that Tiffanie had to twist twice a day to get the bones to stretch. She missed huge chunks of middle school and high school.

Her one true friend Mike was angry with her for having the operations because he thought she should accept herself the way she is. She explained to him that she wants to be able to do all the things most of us take for granted like walking up the stairs, walking across a street (she isn't able to cross streets with enough confidence that she's being quick enough) and being able to reach the coffee pot on the counter. Before her surgeries her arms were so short she couldn't reach her own ears. Can you imagine not being able to give your ear a good scratch?

Kids can be cruel. We all know that. But adults can be worse. Tiffanie's gym teacher gave her the stink eye one day and said “Look, I don't know what kind of disease you have but you're obviously a dwarf. Why don't you tell me what you can and cannot do?” During one of Tiffanie's long recoveries she plotted revenge on the teacher. It was something pretty diabolically clever but she didn't go through with it because she realized she's better than that. I wish I could learn that lesson. My brain still zooms to revenge when I get mad.

What we think of as basic dreams and needs are monumental achievements to Tiffanie.  She gets into college and spends her first six months squirreled away in her single room eating microwave dinners while listening to the kids in her dorm storm the hallways on their way to parties (or coming back very drunk from parties). Lonely and homesick, Tiffanie nearly quits college to return to the safety of home.

And then she begins to make friends with girls she'd nod shyly at in the hallways. She bites the bullet and joins a sorority. Not one of those “My daddy bought me a BMW and a diamond bracelet for my birthday so I thanked him by throwing up in the backseat and hocking the bracelet for Grey Goose money” sororities though. This is a sorority where everyone is welcome, fat girls, skinny girls, shy girls, and girls who spent the better part of their teenage years stretching their bones so they wouldn't be identified as a dwarf.

Even though at times it is a little too “rah rah rah never give up!" for me, Dwarf: A Memoir nonetheless blew me away. Tiffanie's determination to lead as normal a life as possible made me look at my own problems and realize how stupid and small they are. I was kind of hoping she'd do something most of us would do while spending months recovering: indulging in a good old-fashioned nervous breakdown. She only breaks down once and allows herself to cry over her pain and her struggle to get to where she wants to be. Her rock, her biggest supporter and best friend is her mother who at times can seem almost cold in telling Tiffanie not to waste any tears.

Without her mother her story might have turned out differently. On the other side of the coin is Tiffanie's father who is in constant fear for his daughter's health and safety. One day Tiffanie looks at her father's car and idly wonders if she'll ever be able to drive. Her mom orders her into the car against her husband's worried protests. Tiffanie can't quite reach the gas pedal. She doesn't want to get a specialized car with the gas and brake on the steering wheel. She wants to drive a real car. She tries each week. And one day she does it, her foot reaches the gas pedal.

As Tiffanie's life unfolds, we see a brave human who gives us just a glimpse of the kind of determination (and plain old stubbornness) that humans are capable of when conquering their struggles, and the pure joy of coming out of the other side of years of surgeries and pain.

I'd still indulge in a nervous breakdown. But I'd blame it on the pain medication.

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