The Life and Times of a Great Big Baby
By Paul Briggs
It was August 14, a month after my seventh birthday. I was finally as tall as my mother (5'21/2"), but, what with my head and torso being larger, I was over twenty pounds heavier.
That afternoon, after the weighing and measuring, Jody and I heard Mom crying up in the master bedroom. She wasn't the sort of woman to collapse into an emotional puddle, and seeing a parent crying is always scary. We kicked off our shoes, climbed into bed with her and asked what was wrong.
"I just miss being able to pick you girls up and carry you," she said. (At this point, Jody was almost four and too big for Mom to carry.) She turned to me and said, "You don't even remember being picked up, do you?"
Of course, I didn't and don't. I suppose this is kind of sad, but I didn't really miss it. It didn't occur to me until much later that there might have been more to her being upset than this. We cuddled up to her, fell asleep and didn't wake up until after seven. I was about eight and a half years old when I passed my father.
* * *
I have some photos of my parents from their college days. There's my mother, Maria Boiseau, a small, dark, prim-faced woman in glasses, standing in what I suspect is the tax law section of the college library. She looks less like a twentyish woman than a very old Catholic schoolgirl or a very young maiden aunt. And there's my father, Derek Harris — photographed where he so often was, at one of the bars near campus. A cheerful little bantamweight jock who got in on an athletic scholarship.
The story I've been told is that they met one night when she knocked on his dorm room door and asked him to keep the noise down because she was trying to study, and 18 months later they were married. I assume some other stuff happened in between.
To flesh out the story a little, about the time they graduated (okay, my mom graduated and my dad dropped out), when they were already heavily involved with each other, Mom found out she was pregnant. They took this as a sign that it was time to take their relationship to the next level and make an actual marriage out of it. Ironically, Mom miscarried three months into the pregnancy, while they were planning the wedding — but they went through with it anyway. (In the photos of the wedding, you can see Mom's family wearing rather strained-looking smiles. They weren't too impressed with their daughter's choice of husband.)
A few years later they were living in Kansas City, Mom was working for the IRS, Dad was teaching gym, and… Mom got pregnant again. This is where I came in.
Of course, I don't remember Kansas City. The apartment was too small to raise even a normal child in. So… as soon as a position opened up at an H&R Block office in Rieseland, Wisconsin, where there happened to be a reasonably priced house, off we went.
* * *
When I was born, I was an even twenty inches long and weighed eight pounds, one and a half ounces — bigger than either of my parents had been at that age, but pretty close to average… except that I was premature. I spent the first five days of my life on a ventilator. Also, the circumference of my head was a little larger than average, which made the whole process even harder on Mom. Still, I got out and came home nice and healthy. No reason, yet, to suspect any long-term problems.
One month later, Mom took me in for a check-up. I was doing fine in terms of health, but Mom wasn't sure I was supposed to be growing this fast or eating this much. (I'm told whenever anyone asked if I was bottle-fed or breast-fed, Dad always said "You mean we're supposed to pick just one?") Sure enough, another round of weighing and measuring found that I had grown three inches and put on over three pounds. In one month, I'd moved from the 55th to the 95th percentile. Not an emergency — growth spurts happen — but Dr. Adrianson suggested that I be weighed and measured once a month, just in case.
At six months, I was thirty inches long and weighed 23 pounds. Dr. Adrianson stopped even using the word "percentile." It wasn't helping. And I was still eating enough for a set of twins, or possibly triplets. I'm told I broke my poor mother's heart at every meal, drinking her breasts dry and then giving her this look that said "Isn't there any more?" Luckily, she had the bottle and I had no allergies. Cow's milk, juice, formula… it was all good.
At one year old, I was a quarter of an inch shy of three feet tall (when I could pull myself upright, which I was still having a little trouble with) and weighed 32 pounds. In other words, I was back in the 95th percentile… for a two-year-old. It was at this point that Dr. Adrianson started looking for a specialist.
(Imagine yourself in my father's position. You're not an ambitious man — as a child, you might have dreamed of becoming a baseball star or a tennis champion, but for some years now your only goal has been to do just enough work to support you while you have fun. You never meant to marry this early, but you get along well with your wife and she brings home all the bacon you want. This is the life.
(And then the baby comes — a little daughter, looking up at you as if you're some sort of god. Suddenly you feel those first stirrings of ambition to be a man, not just a big boy who can drive and vote. And then it turns out there's something different about this girl. Maybe something wrong. Maybe even something badly wrong. Nothing in your life has given you any kind of preparation for this.)
I must have been something of a handful. I do not believe that my screaming was ever mistaken for the sound of a jet engine (the stories about me have a way of getting exaggerated). They say I was a happy and friendly baby when I wasn't hungry, but my favorite game to play was something called "Bounce Up and Down On Top of Mommy." Later on, at around two, my occasional public tantrums were that much louder, and keeping me from playing in traffic was that much harder. (Of course, you understand I remember none of this myself.)
At eighteen months, I was forty inches tall and weighed 38 pounds. The good news was that I could stand and walk now, and toddle with the best of them. The bad news was that if I got tired, I was getting too heavy for Mommy to carry. (The other bad news was that by this time, my parents were having to baby-proof the bottom two-thirds of every room in the house. Dad mounted cupboards and shelves everywhere near the ceiling. Later on, when I was twelve years old and rapidly approaching seven feet, they would be asking me to take things down off these same shelves for them.)
This was when the growth specialist arrived. Her name was Dr. Michiko Shinohara. She was herself a dwarf — or maybe "person of short stature" is the correct way of putting it now. Anyway, she was four foot four. More importantly, she'd come to L.A. only two years ago and just barely spoke English, but she was willing to move to Eau Claire, Wisconsin in the middle of the damn winter on my account, because even if you're an expert in growth disorders, how many times in your life do you get to play with a baby giant?
* * *
Most of my earliest fragments of memory revolve around me being terribly hungry. My parents were good providers, but my appetite was growing right along with me and they had a hard time keeping up. (Once, in a moment of frustration, my father emptied a can of lima beans into a bowl and handed it to me for a snack. The story goes that I wolfed down those beans in one mouthful… and then handed the bowl back, hoping for more. I don't remember this, but it doesn't surprise me.)
Then there was my playgroup. Whenever I was with preschoolers my own age, the grownups kept a very careful watch on me and were constantly reminding me to be gentle. Even then, they were terribly afraid I was going to hurt another child by accident. (This would be the case for years — and of course, every time somebody brought a bunny rabbit or a guinea pig into the classroom, the grownups would get this horrified look on their faces when I held it in my hands. It wasn't until I was thirteen that I read Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and thought "so this is what everybody's been scared of all this time.")
And, of course, there were the visits to the doctor. Blood samples, drawn from the back of my leg as I lay face down on the table. (Getting blood from a normal toddler is hard enough. It's easier if the child can't see what you're doing.) X-rays, as often as they dared. What Dr. Shinohara was looking for was a tumor in my pituitary gland. This is the most common cause of my condition — or maybe I should say, the least uncommon — and it's also the only one they had a chance of doing anything about. And all this time, I just kept growing and growing and growing. Every month, on the 14th, I'd get weighed and measured.
My first very clear memory is of a visit to Dr. Shinohara. I would have been around four and a half — in age and in height — and I would have weighed about 80 pounds. I remember realizing I was taller than my friend the little doctor lady. I also remember hearing my parents and the doctor talking in the next room, but not being able to make out much of what they were saying. One word that I heard, but couldn't understand, was "gigantism." On the way back home, I asked my mother what it meant. She said something like "It means you're a very tall, beautiful girl, and you're going to grow up to be a very, very tall, beautiful woman." God bless her.
What she was saying to my parents was a little more specific. The good news was, there was still no sign of any tumor. This went with the measurements they'd been making of my growth — it wasn't out-of-control malignant growth, it was an exaggerated version of a normal human growth curve. Which meant that, sooner or later, I was going to reach my "natural" height. The bad news was that by her calculations, this would probably turn out to be closer to eight feet than seven.
The further bad news was that there was absolutely nothing she could do about it. She wasn't going to operate on me without knowing what she was supposed to be looking for. The only other way to treat excessive growth is with estrogen injections. If I were going to be less than seven feet tall, this might have made sense — but as it was, it wouldn't have shaved more than a few inches off my height and might have inhibited bone and muscle formation, which was the one thing I absolutely could not afford. In fact, in order to bear my own weight as an adult, I would have to be raised like an Olympic athlete — lots of protein, lots of calcium, and above all, lots and lots of exercise.
(Now put yourself in my father's position again. You still have a daughter, and there's still something wrong with her — but now you know exactly what to do about it. Sports and athletic training are just about the only subjects you never slept through. Suddenly, everything in your life has prepared you for this.)
And so I began the athletic training that would take up much of my childhood. I was starting out in weight training and calisthenics at an age where most little girls were still getting piggy-back rides from their daddies. (In my case, the piggy-back rides with Daddy didn't come until I was a teenager. It wasn't that hard — he only weighed about 150.)