I’ve gotten used to the double takes. People see Cooper, look away and then look back. I can see it on their faces. They’re trying to figure out exactly what’s going on. At first glance she looks about one and a half, but then you realize, no, she’s older than that.
Cooper’s small. She’s always going to be small. She was born with the most common form of dwarfism, achondroplasia. Which means that the tallest she’ll ever likely be is about four feet. I’ve now had three and a half years to deal with that reality. And most of the time, it’s fine. She does everything her twin brother does. She may do it a bit differently, but she is right there doing every irritating, ridiculously cute, terrifying thing that any other three- year-old would do.
Seeing this extra-small person who looks like she’s one years old, doing things that a three-year-old does can cause confusion and attention. And tonight was no different. We were at her preschool’s end of year show and celebration. One of those obligatory gatherings where parents ooh and aah over their kids singing and dancing on stage even though the kids are so young that what they are doing could hardly pass for “performing.”
We pile into the small auditorium and a row of seats with a decent view. We sit through the pre-K graduation and wait an eternity for our kids’ turn. Soon, Cooper and her twin brother, Rohan, come marching in with their class. Now, typically, Cooper is the more reserved of the two. She doesn’t talk as much and can tend to clam up around strangers. Rohan, on the other hand, is usually a ham. He’s constantly dancing around our house and enjoys belting out the chorus of “Dancing Queen.” And that’s why I am fully expecting to see Rohan jamming out on stage and Cooper to be a deer in headlights barely moving.
The music starts. One kid looks terrified and his feet are glued in place. A couple of other kids are sort of swaying to the music but doing nothing resembling choreography despite the very best efforts of their teacher who is kneeling down at the front doing the steps with exaggerated energy so that they can follow along. Rohan is at the end of the line and has become completely overwhelmed by the audience and is hiding his eyes behind one hand while doing the choreography with the other. He looks like he’s about to burst into tears.
And then there’s Cooper. The teachers have placed her smack in the middle of the line of kids. She is at least a full head shorter than every other child on stage. It’s noticeable to say the least. I feel and hear the murmurs around me and I just sit and keep looking straight ahead. There she is, front and center. The kid is focused. She is unfazed. She is there to do a dance, and dammit she is going to dance no matter what the rest of these kids are doing. She nails the choreography. And I mean, she nails it. She doesn’t miss a beat or a step. Occasionally, she’ll throw a glance at the girl next to her who isn’t moving at all. Her expression says “Come on! Start dancing!” But the girl doesn’t and Cooper just keeps going.
Jeff is on video duty, so I’m free to just completely enjoy this. I hear people around us saying, “She’s so cute!” And I’m thinking to myself, “She’s the best one! She’s literally the best one!” Upon review of Jeff’s video of the dance later, it became clear that I wasn’t just thinking these things; I was actually saying them out loud. At a preschool show, in a small church auditorium in Reseda, I was the jerk parent gushing about her kid being the best one. Cue the mortification.
Watching her up there, doing something that she is clearly good at, was amazing. I was filled with the kind of pride that overwhelms. My older girls have done shows like this of course, but none of our kids had ever just completely owned the stage like Cooper was doing. And then, in the middle of all that joy and wonder, the sadness came creeping back in. It’s there always, in the shadows. The sadness that, no matter what, Cooper is always going to be small. And, because of that, she is going to struggle and have to deal with things her average-height siblings are never going to have to deal with.
The minute I knew I was pregnant with twins, I envisioned what life would be like. Now it’s clear to me that the grief I felt when I first found out Cooper was going to be born with this genetic condition might never go away. The life I had dreamt up wasn’t going to look the way I thought it would. It was going to look different. Not better or worse, just different. But letting go of that other picture is hard. There is a sadness that Cooper won’t have the long, lean limbs that her brother and sister have. That going on family hikes is always going to be hard because she tires easily. There is fear that she’ll face bullying, that she’ll hate how she looks, that she might have a hard time finding love. There is guilt because I wonder if my own vanity will subconsciously place limits on what she can do.
And in the middle of that cramped church in Reseda, tears in my eyes, I knew that no matter what my issues may be, what fears I have, no matter what, Cooper was going to move mountains. All she needs from me is to cheer her on.
Carina McLaughlin is a reformed actor living in Los Angeles with her husband and four kids. She now splits her time between being a corporate professional, doting wife and overwhelmed mom.
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