In the old black-and-white photograph of my third-grade class, I am sitting on the ground in the first row, missing one of my upper right teeth. Shorter than many of my classmates, I’ve been relegated to the front. Decades later, thinking of that photograph taken at my elementary school on the Island of Oahu, Hawaii, I must confess. Though I’ve never considered myself a short woman, in both length and width I have always been small.
During two of the years I cared for my late husband Richard, who was being treated for stage four cancer, I was a member of a support group. We met once a week on Zoom. Since we shared intimate experiences and intense emotions, sometimes breaking down in sobbing cries, I felt I knew these fellow caregivers better than many people in my life.
One of the women in the group felt we should meet socially in person. So, we started gathering occasionally on the patio of a local restaurant. For each get-together, at least one person would show up who hadn’t appeared before. Over and over again, I found myself surprised. These were people, I quickly discovered, I didn’t know at all.
One woman was taller than I could have imagined, while another was exceptionally short. I found myself infinitely interested in the clothes people wore. Like the sizes of their bodies – short, tall, fat, and thin – their choices of shirts, pants, jackets and hats told me things about them that all the check-ins and details they shared on Zoom never revealed.
Meeting one of the longest-term members for the first time — we’ll call him Jack – I was taken aback when he blurted out, “Oh, you’re short.” The way he said it conveyed his disappointment. As opposed to me, he appeared tall. To make sure I understood how let down he felt, Jack added, “I always thought you were tall.”
At my height, somewhere between five-foot-three and five-foot-four, I had never imagined that I was tall. But neither did I consider myself short. Yes, I’d always needed pant and skirt hems taken up. At the same time, I was too tall to fit into petite sizes. Petite pants would stop inches above my ankles and blouse sleeves would end some distance before my wrists.
I did have an experience, though, when it suddenly became apparent that I was not as tall as I thought. For an office Christmas party, I chose to wear a mid-calf black dress. Because of the length and style, I paired it with heels, something I rarely wore. Given that the heels made me appear several inches taller, I imagined I resembled a model, about to sweep down a catwalk.
That was my vision until I saw the photograph. Standing there with several work colleagues, even in those heels everyone towered above me. Seeing that photo made me accept that in addition to my lack of height, my arms were short. The sleeves of that dress slid past my wrists to the middle of my hands. I folded the sleeves, to keep them from dipping into my drink.
I have used experiences in my life as fodder for fiction. After the shock of my diminished stature slapped me in the face, I wrote a short story about a woman who suddenly finds herself shrinking. The cause of this frightening condition is her husband, a self-centered brute, who takes up too much space in their house.
As the story goes on, the woman becomes so tiny she has difficulty accomplishing even the simplest tasks, such as being able to reach the stove to boil water. Eventually, she decides she’s had enough. That’s when she sees her husband Hal clearly for the first time and begins to reclaim her height.
Like my character, I spent too much time with men who left me feeling invisible. Realizing I needed help, I started therapy. After a year and a half of weekly sessions, I met Richard, a very different sort of man. Over the years we spent together, he loved and supported me, in ways that helped me grow. When we learned the back pain Richard had been experiencing was caused by tumors in his spine, likely malignant, I broke down and sobbed. Instead of leaning on Richard as I had often done, I was now suddenly thrust into the role of caring for him.
There were often days I felt scared and small in the face of cancer, chemotherapy, and side effects. Yet like the tiny character in my story, “Shrinking,” day after day I somehow found the courage and strength to step up to the challenges Richard’s illness raised. I imagined I’d somehow be prepared for his death, since we’d known from the moment of his stage four cancer diagnosis that it was terminal. After he died, I immediately understood that being ready for the passing of a man you’ve spent decades loving is impossible, no matter how long and hard you tried.
The day my fellow caregiver commented on my short stature, I had just passed the two-month anniversary of Richard’s death. Coming home that morning to an empty house, one of so many things that sets me off sobbing, I realized this man’s opinion of me was wrong. Only a woman of significant stature could have handled the daily heartbreak, watching the love of her life suffer. No small woman could have done what I did for four and a half years and emerged whole.
America is enamored with bigness. Since Richard’s passing, I have remodeled some. Shopping for comfortable living room chairs has again made me feel small. In the American marketplace, comfort and size are inevitably combined. The crimson leather chairs I bought sight unseen, except online, were made for my living room, perfectly matching the old Chinese cabinet and comfy fabric sofa. I chose the smallest recliners I could find and yet could almost fit two of me inside one.
The past several years, mostly spent at home because of Covid and caring for Richard, I haven’t bought much. Grief prompted me to shop, in hopes of getting a break from sorrow’s dark tunnel. I ordered sweaters and potentially flattering tops I didn’t need online. When purchases arrived, I learned a simple truth. Small is no longer small.
Every time I pulled a new acquisition on and studied my reflection in the full-length mirror, my heart sank. Similar to the crimson recliners, the cardigans and turtlenecks could have comfortably invited another woman in along with me. It didn’t make sense that a normal-sized adult female like me would need to order extra-small sized clothes. Was labeling clothes Small that were Medium or Large another way our society was attempting to make every woman feel small?
On average, women live longer than men. Since many men in opposite-sex relationships prefer younger women, this means women often end up widowed. As one of those women I’m learning that a widow’s life requires growing larger, unless she has close children and grandchildren or funds to hire help. A widow who leaned on her husband too hard will find that she and her world have shrunk, becoming smaller than she ever could have imagined.
This bereavement business is not for the faint of heart. Each day I take on a task that needed doing for months, accepting that Richard won’t handle it, because he’s not coming back. Today I stood in the hall, leaned my head back and stared at the dirty white metal vent on the ceiling. Too much time had passed since the heater filter had been swapped for a clean one. I watched Richard do it once. I walked to the room where I watch TV while eating dinner alone and grabbed the stepstool leaning against the wall.
As soon as I reached the highest of two steps, I could see the stool and I were too short. So, I went to the closet and grabbed a different ladder and carried it out. This time I managed to get high enough to touch the two clips on the sides of the white metal vent and successfully push them to the side. The filthy filter easily popped out. I lifted the clean replacement into the vacated space, closed the metal vent, and slid the clips back. I hadn’t felt stumped, unable to accomplish what turned out to be a simple task. Vertigo didn’t make me wobbly on the ladder’s top rung. Neither had I fallen, hitting my head on the hard oak floor.
Sorrow still hangs around my shoulders, a sometimes heavy and at other times soft shawl I can’t be without, in this harsh winter of widowhood. Each day, though, like the character in my story, I stretch a bit taller.
Often, I get scared and feel I’ve regressed to childhood. But some days when the small fearful woman who’s lived inside me for decades pops up, convincing me the outsized fear I’ve been nursing is true, expecting doom and destruction around the next corner, I think about Richard. Slender and soft-spoken, my husband faced the horrors of cancer, chemotherapy and ultimately death with courage, optimism, and acceptance. Even though he suffered from a serious terminal illness, he would frequently remind me that everything was going to be all right.
Today, like many others, the small woman I have been will hear Richard’s voice and grow taller. Yes, the bereavement road is rough. But like unpaved gravel roads Richard and I often followed to trailheads that led to glorious mountain lakes and waterfalls, the way is navigable if I take it slow. I am learning to steer around the sharpest rocks. No one would possibly confuse a woman making her way across such challenging terrain as small.
Patty Somlo’s books, Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing), The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), have been Finalists in the International Book, Best Book, National Indie Excellence, American Fiction and Reader Views Literary Awards.
Ms. Somlo captures the true essence of caring and bereavement. No small task indeed.
You really are an exceptional writer and you brought me deep into this piece.