Even before Elliott asked the other question, the one he'd arranged to have scripted in chocolate on their desserts at Del Frisco's, he and Tom had a ritual of asking themselves each January whether this would be the year they'd get serious about having a child.
In 2012, four years after they'd begun to date, the answer was no. Same in 2013. In 2014? Nah, not yet. The following year? Still not ready. Near the start of 2016, just after a trip to Key West, they posed the question again.
The answer was, "Maybe."
That was the rhythm of their relationship — gradual, intentional — ever since 2007, when both men and Elliott's mother were working for a South Jersey hospital system and Elliott's mother introduced them, saying, "You two might enjoy each other's company."
It wasn't love at first sight. But their interests dovetailed: they biked and explored Philadelphia; they took long after-work walks around the lake. Then there was the night, while out for drinks at a local restaurant, when a John Mayer song came on: "Say what you need to say …"
"We had a rather heartfelt conversation at that point," Elliott says, "and that's when we knew."
They bought a house. They got a dog, a mixed-breed rescue they named Xena the Warrior Puppy. Elliott proposed. Tom said yes. And they were married in 2014 at Top of the Tower, with a costume change (black tuxes to white dinner jackets) between the cocktail hour and dinner, and a performance by a drag queen friend they'd flown up from Key West.
Elliott surprised Tom by recruiting a friend to sing "their song" — that John Mayer tune — while the two swayed on the dance floor. And Tom stunned his husband with a pseudo flash-mob of friends and family crooning "Hold On" by Wilson Phillips.
They had a jeweler design rings with each man's thumbprint — Elliott wears Tom's whorls, and vice versa. The reception tables were not numbered; instead, they were named for famous women, including Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, and Liza Minnelli.
Once their 2016 "maybe" morphed into a definite "yes," they began researching options for bringing a baby into their lives. Surrogacy and IVF were expensive; besides, there was no guarantee. Adoption felt right. "If there was a child who was already being born, who needed a home, and we were in a position to provide a home, why wouldn't we go that route?" Tom says.
When a straight couple conceives the old-school way, the men like to point out, they're "stuck with their own genes." With adoption, a couple faces choices that are simultaneously daunting, liberating, and humbling: Could they parent a child with disabilities? One whose mother drank alcohol or used drugs while she was pregnant?
"We had to face some of our own prejudices," Tom says. "We had to ask these questions about race, about mental health issues. It forced us to face our deep-seated beliefs."
They thought they wanted a boy. But when they read the profile of a birth mother who matched their hopes in every other way — she was receptive to a same-sex couple, she was committed to having a healthy pregnancy — the baby's gender seemed inconsequential.
Within two months of joining A Baby Step Adoption network, they were on the phone — nervous at first, then talking candidly and even laughing — with that birth mother, who was herself adopted and who already had a 4-year-old daughter.
Later, they had lunch with the woman, her boyfriend, her daughter, and her parents. Tom had knitted the birth mother a purple blanket, but when he found out her daughter would be joining the group, he hurriedly made a scarf to match.
Lunch lasted three hours. "We ended that lunch feeling intimately close with her family," Tom recalls. "There were hugs and kisses by the time we were leaving."
The birth mother wanted the pair to be with her in the labor room. But the baby came two weeks early, and Reading Hospital was 90 minutes away. By the time Elliott received a second phone call from the caseworker at A Baby Step, Alice Catherine had been born.
Tom was at home, frantically tossing items into a suitcase. "I had to calm him down: 'Tom, pause for a moment. We have a daughter.' His whole face kind of melted," Elliott recalls.
At the hospital, they walked an emotional tightrope, trying to balance their delight in the baby with awareness of the birth mother's very different experience.
"You want to hold her, breathe her in, but at the same time we were super-careful about how much affection we showed her in front of her birth mom," Tom explains. "We were really mindful that while this was a joyous, happy experience for us," Elliott says, "there was at the same time a period of loss and grieving that was occurring for someone else."
After two nights in the hospital and a week, including an impromptu Christmas, in a Philadelphia hotel, they brought Alice Catherine home to a nursery festooned with decals of strong women, art they'd purchased from a man who turns drawings and photographs into cartoonlike characters. Surrounding the baby are images of Jane Goodall, Rosa Parks, Gloria Steinem, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, and Hillary Clinton.
"We wanted her to know that women can be empowered and can change the world," Tom says.
Already, Alice Catherine has altered theirs. Tom, who will go by "Odie" (a version of "O.D.," or "Other Daddy," the moniker he acquired when they got their first dog), says he now views politics through a parental lens. "I think, 'Wait, how will that impact my daughter?' "