I was the shortest girl in Ms. Saks’ third grade class by at least four inches. Amanda Zimmerman used to tease me about having to wear “doll clothes.” “There goes Small-fry Susan,” she’d say, “the girl so small she could live in a shoebox!” But a lot of the girls were nice about it. They would tell me I was cute, like a button, apparently. No one could really explain what it was about buttons that was so cute, but they all insisted it was an apt description.
I was also the first girl in my class to go barreling down the tracks into adulthood. Getting boobs was bad enough, but I still remember the month I grew nearly a foot and my parents kept me home from school. It was September and I was 11, and it felt as though my legs were being broken over and over again. Sometimes I would wake up screaming. It was a very dramatic period. During the day, I would read and watch reruns and eat. And eat some more.
It was like I couldn’t eat fast enough. Pizza, Chicken, Green Beans, anything and everything, even food I’d hated before, but I didn’t ever seem to get fat. I was at that age where I was just becoming cognizant of how skinny the pretty women on TV were, and it made me smile to know the calories I consumed could be so easily translated into height. But then it would hurt again and I’d stop smiling.
When I finally came back to my classmates, I’d gone from being the shortest girl in class to scrapping by with an inch over Jeremy Fitz, the tallest boy. Amanda had a new nickname for me, “Stringbean Susan.”
If it had ended there, I would have been fine with it. Eventually everyone else would have caught up and I would have been average. Trust me when I say that being average is advantageous. My mother was short and plump, looked like the kind of woman who would feed you cookies when you were sad, and my father was tall and plump, the kind of man who had no doubt been an athlete in his younger years but had long ago hung up his running shoes and jock strap. I had always hoped to fall squarely between them.
But of course the fates conspired against me. I was like Odysseus, pissing all over the best laid plans of the gods. If my body was a party, it would be the kind of party where I came home and had to kill all of my wife’s suitors.
I was 6 foot before I finished Middle School.
My father taught English at the junior college, and every time I felt like I couldn’t move, my body springing upwards, he would hand me a tastefully aged book and tell me that if I couldn’t be at school, at least I could be learning. By the time I was 15, I was taller than every boy in my class, and I had concluded I would have to take a fictional character with me to prom. A really interesting, tall one too, like Oberon or Heathcliff. Sure, I sometimes entertained fantasies about the short work study at the library who said every book I checked out was his favorite and winked as he desensitized them, but what were the odds that 5’2 and 6’5 could ever see eye to eye?
My mother was adamantly against doctors. I hadn’t even been allowed to take multivitamins when I was younger. She taught yoga and would tell me that the best medicine was sunshine and love. Which I guess was fine until my left leg broke. No, my left leg shattered. My left leg shattered under its own stress of being.
They scanned me and prodded me, poked me and stole vial after vial of my blood. I got my period at twelve, apparently I was supposed to have stopped growing shortly thereafter. No one had told my body that. I got the test results back on my sweet sixteenth—I had a non-cancerous tumor pressing on my pituitary gland, which caused it to discharge a hormone that meant I could conceivably keep growing until I died, which would probably be at a very young age. Happy birthday to me.
The doctors put me on pills that made me seasick-nauseous constantly, and shots that made me want to eat everything in sight. There were pills that made it so all I wanted to do was sleep, and pills that kept me up all night. Pills that made my skin break out into thick pustules, pills that made my mouth always dry. There was one gel, I remembered, I was supposed to rub on my knees to make them stop hurting, but it also made me get splotchy acne on my legs. I felt like they were playing at being chemists, and I was their beaker and test tube. They kept telling me that my two best options were surgery and radiation, and my parents kept insisting that those options would change who I was. But who I was was a cranky, always hungry, never hungry, exhausted, jittery, acne ridden teenager who just wanted to be able to walk down the freakin’ hallway without someone asking how the weather was where I stood or ogling at me like I was a still life.
I was 6’9” just in time for graduation, and I had to resign myself to either wearing constant capris pants or realize I needed to custom order some very expensive clothes. There weren’t a lot of college options for me because I had to be near a specialist, and my parents couldn’t afford anything extra. Paying for my pills when neither of them had insurance was bankrupting us, even if they tried to hide it. Late at night I could hear them through thin walls, they were always talking about money, and they always sounded so tired.
The day after my eighteenth birthday—I was a summer baby—I sat my parents down and told them that I was nearly seven feet tall and emotionally exhausted. If I had surgery, I would be a freak (perhaps I’d end up on some circus loop, letting people gawk for two dollars apiece), but at least I’d be a freak who only topped out at seven foot.
I didn’t tell them about side effects. When I was little I used to have seizures. I didn’t remember them much, but I remember the feeling like I was underwater and people were trying to talk to me, but the current was dead set on tearing my limbs away from me. The medications they put me on used to make me sleep for hours, and my dad told me years later that they worried every second that I would die in my sleep. I’d grown out of them, the seizures, and if I went back to having them, I think it would have killed my parents. There was a chance I might go blind (I’d have to learn braille), or maybe deaf. The concept of deafness didn’t daunt me. I’d learned sign language from a book. One of the specialist doctors had carefully explained to me that the surgery could kill me, but if I continued to grow and the rate I was growing, I would be dead before my 35th birthday as was.
My parents didn’t need to know any of that.
About four hours before I went under the knife, I sat in the hospital and read. When I first started growing like this, Dad had lent me a copy of some sad book about clones grown for their organs to be harvested, and they realize what’s going to happen, and they try and try but they nothing can change the realities of what they were born into, and it broke my heart. I’d read it so many times that the spine crumble beneath my fingers. My parents had offered to stay with me, but I, selfishly, didn’t want them there.
Four hours until they cut me open and tried to scrape out the pieces of me that weren’t supposed to be there, and I put down the book. They’d given me a room with a window, like they knew what the outcome would be, and outside it began to rain.