36-year-old Mark Trombino had done everything he could to build a vibrant life with his 3-foot, 3-inch tall body. Then his wife was killed in a car accident. Now a single father and a widower, Trombino says there’s still reason to live and to seize every day.
You will never know what it’s like to climb a stepladder to use the kitchen sink. You can try to imagine a childhood defined by surgeries, and you might even guess what it’s like to be stared at in public, but you’ll never really feel what life is like for 3-foot, 3-inch tall, 36-year-old Mark Trombino.
You walk into the store to grab a gallon of milk. Mark Trombino parks in a handicapped space, climbs out of his car and into an electric scooter. He will buy a half-gallon of milk because he can lift it. He will buy it without his wife, who used to ride in the scooter with him.
Shorter than most preschoolers, Mark Trombino has a skyscraper view of life’s aches and tragedies, taking them in with emotion and uncanny optimism. For Mark, that is the only way to see a tragic and giant world from a height below the average light switch.
“If I could be average height now, after 36 years, would I? No. I like who I am and the height I am,” Mark says. He’s sitting at the Elephant Bar where patrons craned their necks to watch as he walked to his seat, his eyes level with their entrees. Furtive onlookers peered as he climbed up into his chair.
Like any appointment, Mark drove himself here in his silver Volkswagen Jetta, working extended pedals from a booster seat. On any given day there are at least 100 ways Mark Trombino adjusts the world around him to his size. Toilets. Hand driers. The credit card at the gas pump. Things average-height people will never think of.
Holding his drink with both hands, Mark Trombino says he wouldn’t change a thing. He wouldn’t change that his two-year-old daughter is a little person with the same medical challenges ahead. Wouldn’t change the 15 surgeries. Wouldn’t take back the names he’s been called or even the sports he wanted so desperately to play. He wouldn’t take back the nights of tears or the struggle to scale the first step onto the school bus in elementary.
This is the easy part of Mark Trombino’s story. The rest is what he would change. Mark wouldn’t change how he was born or who he is. But if he could, he would certainly change one fateful minute on a tragic day in December of 2004.
Little People, Big Love
The first time Mark Trombino met Anu, in 1994, he was pleasantly impressed, but not in love. In fact, he was dating another woman at the time. Mark’s outgoing nature, accepting affection and optimistic outlook naturally attract friends. He’d dated both short-statured and average-height women. So when he did get to know Anu, her wide smile and dark hair, she seemed all the more like a puzzle piece designed exactly for him.
Of the hundreds of dwarfs at Little People of America conferences, Mark Trombino is shorter than many his age. So to meet a woman of the exact age and exact height, well, it was a match made in Texas. San Antonio to be exact.
Mark soon moved to Washington D.C. to live near Anu. Each had been born the same year, on opposite sides of the world -- Anu in India, Mark in Arizona. They had fought the same aches, pains and surgeries. Their short legs had journeyed through elementary schools and colleges and finally to one another. Mark had indeed found his other half.
If he had to pick one favorite day in his life, Mark Trombino says he would pick May 27, 2001, the day that, after four years of dating, he married his three-foot bride, standing eye-to-eye before friends and family.
Wearing a traditional red Indian wedding garment, Anu vowed her love and loyalty before a smiling and motley crowd of Americans, Indians and friends of all heights. This was a marriage of culture, of struggle and commitment to make the most of life, to seize every day.
Two years later, when Mark and Anu decided they wanted a child, many of those same friends and family discouraged the idea. “There were lots of risks involved with a dwarfism pregnancy,” Mark says. “First, genetic risk: When two little people conceive there’s a 25-percent chance the baby will not survive.”
Pregnancy presented obvious risk for Anu’s tiny body, but Mark and Anu had found each other and unimagined happiness by taking risks. They weren’t going to stop now.
“They said, ‘You can talk to us about risk, but this is what we want to do,’” Mark’s mother, Betsy, remembers. “I just worried constantly about the pregnancy and the baby.”
“That day that little girl was born, it was pretty amazing,” she says, “and to see them learn how to hold her, feed her, take care of her, adapt a home, was amazing.”
Mark quit his job to be a stay-at-home dad. He played with his beautiful daughter, worked freelance acting for TV commercials and lived married life with his best friend.
As a software engineer, Anu’s work provided a comfortable life for the young family. She mothered their daughter and brought laughter and companionship Mark had never known. Life couldn’t have been better.
“The Worst Two Hours of My Life”
If Mark Trombino could change one thing in his life it would be the car that collided head-on with his wife’s Mazda Protégé on December 10, 2004. He would change the hours of terror, the months of struggle and the year of loneliness that have followed.
If not for that moment on that Friday night, January of 2005 would not have been spent in a hospital, and June would not have been spent arranging funeral services. If not for that day, an envelope from the mortuary would not jut menacingly from the sprawl of bills and mail on his computer desk.
Mark Trombino heard no sound when his life first split like a spider-web cracking in a windshield. Anu, due home for a Christmas work party, was 40 minutes late. “I knew almost right away that something was wrong. It’s the worst two or three hours of my life because you know something’s wrong, but you can’t pinpoint what,” Mark says.
Neither Mark nor Anu ran late without telephoning. He called Anu’s cell phone and work repeatedly, then hospitals. No one knew anything.
“I remember very vividly a painful two hours. Fear of the unknown. It could have been as easy as a flat tire or worse,” Mark says. “Then we got a call from a hospital. She had been air-evacuated.”
The spreading cracks soon erupted. Severe spinal cord damage would send Anu to Barrow Neurological in Phoenix, then to Craig Hospital in Denver. Doctors compared her to a tiny Christopher Reeve. Her brain wasn’t damaged, but a severed spinal cord meant she couldn’t breathe without a machine. She couldn’t talk. She would never be the same. The other driver suffered lesser injuries.
As doctors struggled to rehabilitate Anu, the families of Mark and Anu struggled to maintain life, care for Priya and stay near Anu’s side. His head the height of many hospital mattresses, Mark stood on various chairs and stools in various hospital rooms. It was a challenge just to be physically near Anu. Months passed.
Little Family, Big Dreams
Mark had known Anu for 10 years before the collision. He knew her as an intelligent engineer, a capable mother, a loving friend. He knew her as the confident and quick-witted one to turn down tourists asking for “midget photos.”
Reconciling that with a motionless, barely breathing body, would have leveled men twice Mark’s height, and it nearly leveled him.
“It was awful, and he just kind of plugged away,” Mark’s mother remembers. “He was heartbroken, devastated. It was like nothing we’d ever seen. Truly, Anu was the love of his life. It had taken a long time for them to find each other.”
It’s not that surviving was easy for Mark. It’s that, like carrying a notebook larger than him in elementary or choosing to attend a state college away from home, Mark Trombino always finds a way to survive, a will to live and a determination to seize the day.
Somehow Mark Trombino managed. Managed for five months to organize bills, care for Priya, order a disheveled life. When Anu was strong enough and doctors allowed, Mark would climb up into the hospital bed with her, holding her in the dark as the respirators moved her lungs.
After months of hospital visits and flights, Anu was getting better. Not walking, but communicating her will to live. She wanted to see Priya grow up and attend college. In May of 2005, the doctors said Anu could go home. In a wheelchair, but home. Mark and his dad flew back to prepare the house and widen the shower for a wheelchair.
On May 25, two days before their fourth wedding anniversary, at three in the morning, Mark’s phone rang. The doctors think Anu’s lungs were just too weak. Mark Trombino was 35-years-old and would have to sign for his wife’s body.
Unusual Strength in Small Packages
Mark managed to speak at all three memorial services. “His two average-height sisters were up there supposedly to support him. He was this pillar up there while they were falling apart,” says Gail Blackburn, an average-height mother who describes Mark and Anu as the royalty of Arizona Little People.
“It was the most inspiring memorial I have ever been to,” Blackburn says. “The essence of what Mark left everybody with was that his wife had such a zest for life. She seized each day. You think something like this will never happen to you, but it does, and you really need to seize the day like it’s your very last.”
During 34 years in a limited body, Anu Trombino accomplished more than many who have no disability. She journeyed to the U.S. and graduated from one of the leading engineering universities in the country.
She forged a career in a giant world.
She found love and refused to let it go.
She risked her life to bring another life into the world.
“She had always told me, you never know what life’s going to bring, so you’ve got to do what you can while you can,” Mark’s mother says. “Seize the day. I think Mark is trying to do that now for himself and Priya.”
Seizing Every Day
Today Mark Trombino wakes as usual, climbing down from his bed and walking past the bathroom sink, his head level with the countertop. Mark makes his way into his closet and through a four-foot-high door that connects to Priya’s bedroom. He will pick Priya’s clothes by himself.
Today Mark pours himself into fathering his daughter. He changes her diapers and puts her shoes on by himself. It hasn’t been a year, and when two-year-old Priya cries, sometimes she still bellows “mama.”
Mark misses Anu the way any widow or widower would. Evenings are difficult. Nights are worse. When he’s in a store, he misses Anu in the electric scooter with him.
He misses the give and take of opinion about Priya. “Do we let her cry it out or get her up?” He misses the smell of curry and Indian food. Too many other things.
What those around him struggle to understand is how Mark Trombino walks so tall in the shadow of tragedy. It hasn’t been a year, and when most would still be pressed in the grip of grief, Mark Trombino is helping others with their own needs.
He is volunteering as the Arizona president of Little People America.
He is giving inspirational speeches about seizing every day.
He is organizing scholarship funds in Anu’s honor.
It’s not that Anu’s death was not soul shaking. It’s that somehow Mark managed to come out the other end of that tunnel and see that the sun is still warming the Earth.
“This was not a strength I knew I had,” Mark says. “I knew I was a strong person, but if you would have asked me before I would have said I would fall to pieces. If this happened to you, you actually have more inner strength than you think.”
Mark plans to resume full-time work in early 2006. Until then, volunteering as president for Arizona Little People, working as a freelance actor and caring for Priya keep him busy enough.
“He’s been through hell and back, and he’s still reaching out to our community,” Blackburn says. “He always finds a positive way of looking at things. That’s the essence of Mark. He’s just an amazing, positive person.”
The Forged Compressing of Internal Strength
If struggle and change define a person, Mark Trombino is the strongest person his friends and family know. Nobody can pinpoint one single reason why Mark Trombino walks so tall.
Some suggest his upbringing prepared him. Mark’s family says his nature is to see the best in every situation. Others suggest his past struggles and his faith give him strength to take hold of each ensuing day.
“I think I’m cried out,” Mark says soberly, with a fringed hint of peaking victory. “One thing Anu and I really struggled with was, haven’t we already been through enough? We’ve already had so many surgeries and overcome so much. It didn’t seem fair that this would also be dealt to us,” Mark says.
“I went through an angry time. I’m now over that. I really do believe in God, and I know He will see me through this. Even though this experience has been horrible, I actually do believe things happen for a reason and that God is a loving God. I need Him more than ever now to get me through this. He has done that in a lot of different ways.”
Looking back, Mark says the difficulties of living with dwarfism may have prepared him for tragedy. “There’s definitely been lots of tears, lots of anger, but when I look at the whole picture I’ve gotten through it, and I’m going to get through it. I’ve definitely had more ups than downs.”
Many others, others whom life has dealt a seemingly better hand, will never be as willfully optimistic, will never step over such high obstacles as Mark Trombino. “I can do anything I want,” Mark says. “Life is really not limiting.”
One year after the accident that stole his wife, Mark and Priya live nearly every moment together. These days Priya smiles and laughs when she rides in the electric scooter at the store.
“What’s this?” Mark asks as he picks up items in the produce aisle.
“Baa-naa-naa,” Priya smiles.
Almost every afternoon, Mark pushes Priya’s smaller plastic scooter down their steep driveway to the sidewalk. Priya scoots and laughs.
The driveway is steep for Mark’s legs. Not often, but sometimes, the angle gets the best of him. Mark Trombino sometimes falls. He always gets back up.
### Mark Trombino is currently accepting speaking, acting, voiceover, promotions and other work engagement offers. Visit www.dwarfactor.com
www.pbs.org/pov/pov2005/bigenoughContact Arizona Little People at www.azlpa.org 480.926.0616
Photo credit, Elf in Pool: D Squared Productions
Photo credit, shots of Mark: Peter Pallagi