On August 2, 1997, in Kennebunkport, Maine, I married a Canadian musician, actor and filmmaker. I proposed to him after a year of dating and we decided to elope with his two sons – John and Andrew, aged 13 and 11, respectively. I was deliciously happy even though I was destined to be the girl who never received a marriage proposal.
My husband Allan Nicholls, who is 21 years my senior, worked with acclaimed filmmaker Robert Altman for 30 years. Because of their connection, I forged a quiet bond with the great director and his wife Kathryn. Whenever we socialized, I usually sat in silence, watching life unfold before me – as a member of the audience. A welcome point of view after far too long in the same old plot line of New man. New continent.
I also watched from the sidelines as a number of movies were made. On one occasion, we headed to Toronto with a small film crew to get footage of a real event for use in a narrative film that would eventually be called “Tiptoes” starring Gary Oldman and Matthew McConaughey.
We walked into the Colony Hotel on July 7, 2001 to throngs of people – hundreds and hundreds of little people. We’d joined the ranks of the Little People of America’s annual convention in progress as special guests with approval to film the big dinner and dance.
I have seen a good many things on this Earth, but the view from my 5-foot-9-inch eyes across the hotel lobby was perhaps one of the most remarkable. But only in scale. Otherwise, the scene was one of life playing as usual. Parents commiserating. Toddlers teetering. Young kids happy to be in the company of others their own size. Teenagers sulking and scheming; whispering and watching. Well-dressed twentysomethings falling in love. Thirty year olds with pregnant bellies.
From my elevation, I see the someone who appears to be the smallest of all possible people. He wears round spectacles and has blonde hair. At most, he’s 22 inches tall. He’s riding a scooter that comes up as high as my knee. He’s moving around the room, silently observing other people. I see no sign of emotion from him, but I sense happiness. Freedom.
We take the elevator up with him and his mother, who says her son’s name is David. The boy is 14 years old, in high school. He’s been coming to these conventions since he was an infant. He’s doesn’t say much. He’s shy. His clothes are so tiny yet age appropriate. His mother says that she makes each piece herself. David looks up at me, an all-knowing gaze. This is how he acknowledges the conversation and my interest in him. He approves of both.
Later in the afternoon, I decide to attend one of the many seminars offered to help little people navigate their situation and the world. I select one about acting, led by a charismatic young thespian named Peter Dinklage. In front of the group, which includes me, he is the real life version of his “Living in Oblivion” character: a frustrated actor with dwarfism expressing concerns about clichéd roles. He wants little people to move beyond being cast as Christmas elves and circus freaks.
Complicating the conversation is the fact the Little People Association was founded by Billy Barty, one of the munchkins from “The Wizard of Oz,” a role that led to many others – albeit typecast – and a very charmed life. I learn that Barty had a version of dwarfism called Cartilage Hair Syndrome Hypoplasia in which fine blonde hair accompanies short stature and skeletal abnormalities. I realize this is the form affecting David, the new apple of my eye.
Dinklage, who has achondroplasia dwarfism, is captivating. He argues, convincingly, that any size fits any role. I have nothing to add to the conversation except admiration. But I’m concerned about being part of the average-sized group that has come to film a ballroom blitz of little people. Does it fall into the category of art imitating life? I assume, rightly, that someone has sought approval from Dinklage as well as the current LPA President.
For three full days, I live and walk among little people from all over North America. In the evenings, Allan and I sit in the bar during happy hour and watch the singles find a match for the night.
On the night of the ball, Allan goes off with the crew and I take a seat on the floor at the entrance where party-goers stop to have a formal pictures taken. I watch couples and families enter, and the teens arrive in packs. And then I see David coming towards me on is scooter, accompanied on foot by his small mother. I’ve learned over the course of the conference that she had been told not to reproduce because of her genetic disorder, from which her husband also suffers. Her son is smaller – and sicker – than either of them. He won’t survive long into his second decade.
David arrives at the photo area, and gets down from his scooter. He’s wearing a perfectly crafted tuxedo, which his mother has sewn by hand. He’s wearing a red rose in his breast pocket. He stands before the grey background with a wry smile, his shoulders back. The picture of grace.
I’m 35 years old and fearful of having a child. I can move to rural Africa, and run wild in Asia. But I’m afraid of that kind of love, afraid of the potential for that kind of suffering, and terrified of the possibility for heart-crushing loss. But this family, this place, has changed my perceptions of everything. David is right here, right now. Posing for the camera. A mother beaming at the love of her life.
I decide to follow suit. And David Beauregard Nicholls is born on March 21, 2004 in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Seven pounds, 21 inches.