Growing up with a rare form of dwarfism, one might assume that I’ve gone through life with a disadvantage. After all, everyday tasks were much harder for me than for most people. Reaching the third shelf in the refrigerator, opening heavy doors and even taking care of my own personal hygiene were nearly impossible for me at 3.5 feet tall.
If I felt like making myself a bowl of cereal, the preparations were extensive. First, I’d have to fashion stairs out of my mom’s cookbooks and climb up on the countertop. Once there, like an acrobat in front of an awe-struck audience, I’d balance on various kitchen accouterments to reach my favorite bowl.
“Tiffanie!” my startled mother would shout when she caught me in pursuit of the things I needed. “Why don’t you just ask me to get that for you?”
The answer was simple: I wanted to do it myself. And that’s why I have not lived my life at a disadvantage. It was that do-it-myself mentality that motivated me to take drastic measures. I wanted desperately to be self-sufficient. So, in order to live a life of independence, I underwent several bone-lengthening surgeries that gave me more height than any other patient on record. Today, thanks to those surgeries, I am a proud 4’10” and living the life I always wanted.
That memory of being too small to reach the cupboard is important to me for two reasons. It reminded me that I wouldn’t always have someone around to help me — and how tiresome it would be to always wait around for assistance. Second, I learned that not everything I decide to do on my own will be easy and crying about it won’t solve anything.
As my mom, a veteran of the first Gulf War, lovingly says, “Get a straw and suck it up!”
Looking back on my unusual childhood, I believe that the cards life dealt me actually helped prepare me for my future as a military wife. I like to consider it my own personal basic training. Giving credit to my disability helps me to stay focused on my abilities as a military wife, rather than to focus on my shortcomings (pun intended).
Why? These are my top five reasons being disabled has made me a stronger military wife.
1. I’ve learned to adopt and overcome. I spent a majority of my childhood molding myself into a mini MacGyver. By age five, I could spot random household items that could serve me in the unique ways that I needed. Spatulas and pencils were great tools to flick on light switches that were beyond my reach. Towels were used for far more than just drying myself — they were also my nets that I would use to swing, slap and trap just about anything and drag it toward me. All these things and many more became a part of my daily arsenal to make it through the day. Even going to the bathroom became a situation where I had to improvise, adapt and overcome using a simple pair of salad tongs to do my business.
Many years later, I learned that being married to a Marine means that adapting to things around you is a constant task. Deployment dates come from seemingly out of nowhere and are often extended. Schedules change and families are constantly uprooted to new duty station. It’s a game of constantly rolling with the punches. And it’s a game that I might not respect or understand if I hadn’t already been playing for most of my life.
2. My strong sense of patriotism. My mom is a former Air Force Lieutenant. With love and a healthy dose of respect, I called her G.I. Jane growing up for the way she’d bark orders at me and expect nothing less than my very best. My dad is a veteran of the National Guard and my grandfather was a fighting Navy Seabee during WWII. Joining the military is a tradition in my family — one I would have loved to continue if I were physically able.
After Sept. 11, I thought, ‘Why can’t I serve my country?’ Surely, there is something I can do? And there was. I joined a military pen pal site and recruited my friends to send care packages to those serving our country who wanted mail. We spent hours tying little yellow ribbons around candies and treats. Together we gathered books by the dozen and coffee by the pound. Everything was sent with a single note that read, “Hello from home.” (As fate would have it, this is how I met my husband.)
When I sent these items to the Middle East, I realized that to serve your country, you don’t necessarily have to be enlisted. You can still be exceptionally supportive and play an extremely imperative role. A strong military spouse is synonymous with being the foundation to a house — without one, the entire place can fall apart.
3. I understand that it’s not all about me. It took my surgeon, Dr. Errol Mortimer, 14 hours to complete the bone-lengthening surgery on my lower legs. I didn’t wake up from it until four days later. The pain was horrifying. Every sensation contradicted itself — hot, then cold, sharp and then dull aches. My muscles shivered and clamped around the metal rods inserted into my bones to stretch them. It felt like my body was revolting against me. It all hurt so badly I wanted to scream, but that would have hurt even more. But the hardest part of coming out of surgery was seeing my father at the foot of my bed, his head was in his hands and he was crying the tears I couldn’t. Undergoing such major surgery to improve my life didn’t affect only me. My whole family was invested and involved.
It wasn’t just about me, which is a lesson I’ve also learned being a military wife. It isn’t about how I feel, my discontent with the long hours or my contentment with where our next duty station will be. Rather, it’s about being part of something greater than myself. Interestingly enough, this is a concept that can be applied to anyone serving in the military. It’s not about “you,” it’s about the larger group. And really, can’t that be said for any relationship or marriage, military or otherwise?
4. I don’t sweat the small stuff. Well, here’s something I’ve never shared publicly before (not even in my memoir) … I have eight toes. When I was a teenager, my feet were too wide to fit comfortably in average sneakers or dress shoes. My pinky toe was constantly squished, rubbed red and raw from being forced into my shoes. There were even times it turned blue after hours of being on my feet. Tired of it and totally defiant in regards to the need for a pinky toe, I made the decision to have my doctor remove it — on both feet. It was among the best decisions I ever made. However, initially after the procedure, I felt ashamed and did all I could to hide my feet. I even went swimming with socks on in front of my friends.
But as my doctor said to me, “If someone is going to count your toes, do you really want them as a friend?” It put things in perspective. And perspective is exactly what a military spouse needs to have. All the time! The constant long hours, family dinners missed because of training, and overnights in the field? Oh well. He’s home safe.
5. I know that scars are badges of honor. The first night I met my husband, we ordered pizza and rented movies. He was three hours late, got lost, and the delivery we’d ordered tasted like cardboard. To this day, I believe if we sprinkled oregano on the box it would have tasted better than the pie. It made for good conversation, though. And so did the scars we had on our bodies. “I got this one from concertina wire my first time in Iraq,” Eric said, showing me a slice on his leg. “You call that a scar?” I teased him, rolling up my sleeves to reveal the deep knots engraved on my arms from the bone lengthening surgeries. “Now this is a scar!”
What I’ll always take away from that night is scars come in so many shapes and sizes. Some are deep and wide while others are small and shallow. More importantly, it helped me realize many serious scars are invisible. The scars on my body are out there for everyone to see, but one day my husband’s wounds may not always be so obvious. And like mine took time to heal, I’ll forever remember to be patience with him during his time to mend his wounds.
Tiffanie DiDonato is stationed on Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.N., with her husband, Sgt. Eric Gabrielse. The granddaughter of a Navy Seabee and the daughter of an Air Force Lieutenant and Spc. in the National Guard, she has been featured in Allure Magazine and is the author of an inspirational memoir titled DWARF: How One Woman Fought for a Body – And a Life – She Was Never Supposed to Have.