THE PARENTS: Justine Dawson, 28, and Philip Dawson, 30, of West Mount Airy.
THE KIDS: Gabriel Alexander, 21 months; Christian James, born May 8, 2018.
NON-KID ADDITIONS TO THEIR FAMILY: Shortly after moving in together, they got two dogs, a goldendoodle and a Maltese Shih Tzu, and named them Charlie and Mac, after characters in the show It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Maybe the kitchen fire was a test. Or the car accident that left Justine bruised and shaken. Or the meticulously planned trip to Rio that had to be scotched at the last minute because, it turns out, U.S. travelers need visas to visit Brazil.
Justine healed from the accident. The kitchen blaze, in her Fishtown apartment, proved a spur for her and Philip to move in together. And the spoiled trip to Rio? They rerouted to Paris instead.
Now the couple regard those early trials as proof that "we can get through things," Justine says. "Maybe a sign that we should be together."
At first, she thought Philip was too perfect to be true: a guy whose OkCupid profile indicated he was an Ivy League graduate who was also good-looking. "I thought: No guy could be this cute and smart — no way he's nice," Justine laughs. "But I was pleasantly surprised."
"A lot of times, I'd get nervous talking to someone on a first date," Philip says. "But that didn't happen. From the start, we had incredible chemistry."
That chemistry was so undeniable, in fact, that while on the Paris-as-consolation-prize trip in November 2013, Justine paused by a jewelry store window that held a glimmering yellow diamond. She and Philip looked at each other: Yes, their expressions semaphored. But not yet.
He proposed four months later, at Moshulu, and they married in October 2015, so delighted with the day and each other that they didn't even mind when their officiant called the bride "Justin" instead of "Justine."
They wanted kids — he said two, and she angled for three — preferably close in age, like Justine and her brother, just 19 months apart. After the second month of trying, Justine called Philip to the bathroom to squint at a faint line on a pregnancy test. "What do you think?" she asked him. "I'm pretty sure," he said.
"It was a moment of shock, just looking at that test," she recalls. "A feeling of: Oh, we're going to be parents!"
That ripple of stunned joy was followed by surges of worry: Justine has Goldenhar syndrome, which can affect the development of ears, eyes and spine; she has just 20 percent hearing in her right ear and severe scoliosis, treated with two back surgeries and a corrective brace when she was a child.
She also has Klippel-Feil syndrome, which causes additional spinal problems; Justine is just 4-foot-10, and not very flexible because some of her vertebrae are fused. The baby looked to be about 9 pounds. All of that landed her in the "high-risk pregnancy" category and prompted her OB to call for a planned C-section.
"We had a date set, and he ended up coming early. My water broke, and I got nervous because there was a ton of blood. Then we were on I-76, stuck in traffic. We got to [Pennsylvania Hospital], and I was losing so much blood." When the anesthesiologist couldn't place an epidural because of scar tissue in Justine's spine, the doctors rapidly shifted gears: an emergency C-section under general anesthesia.
For Philip, that meant an anxious 45 minutes in a waiting area outside the OR. When nurses finally brought out his swaddled son, "I just held him and looked at him, touched his hand with my fingers for a good 15 minutes. It's one of those moments you can't describe to someone until you experience it yourself."
Justine, veteran of six surgeries at that point in her life, had never felt more alert post-anesthesia. "Right away, they put him on my chest: That's my baby! I was so happy."
That bliss continued — "it was right around Christmas, a snugly, warm time of year to have a baby," Justine says — even when she developed Bell's palsy, a temporary inflammation of a cranial-facial nerve that results in drooping and numbness on one side of the face, a few days after the birth.
Fortunately, Gabriel slept through the night at two months. He was such an easy infant — calm, sweet-tempered — that having another seemed manageable. This time, though, Justine opted for more extensive genetic testing, hoping to rule out the possibility of passing her medical disorders to her offspring.
With a "no guarantees, but it looks good" report from the doctors, they moved ahead: another quick conception, a pregnancy that was less stressful emotionally but more taxing physically, since Justine was also lugging a diaper-wearing toddler.
Christian's birth was another planned C-section; this time, the baby waited until the scheduled date, and Justine had time to meet the crew of nearly a dozen doctors and nurses who would assist with the birth. "It was a little overwhelming. But the anesthesiologist was very calming; he was the one right near my head, talking me through everything. Before I knew it, Christian was with Philip."
That moment was déjà vu: another son with the same birth weight (9 pounds exactly), the same amount of hair, the same fuzzy ears. "He was like a mini-Gabriel," Philip remembers.
Now there are moments when the two boys are in sync — Gabe will toddle up and lay his face next to his brother's head — and others when both are screaming at once with urgent, wordless need. Justine has learned to ease her self-imposed parenting standards; it's not tragic if Gabe watches 20 minutes of television or gobbles a cupcake in the middle of the day.
Recently, they learned that Christian is deaf in his left ear, news that rekindled their fears of Goldenhar syndrome. "I got choked up and emotional," Justine recalls. "After a few days, I realized: I can't control everything. We don't know all the answers yet. He just has to have the best care he can possibly have."