THE PARENTS: Sheila Bruce, 29, and Phil Bruce, 30, of Lafayette Hill
THE CHILD: Katelyn Virginia, 7 months, adopted December 20, 2017
WHAT THEY WANTED BIRTH PARENTS TO KNOW: "That we had a whole network of people who would love this baby," Sheila says.
Sheila was packing the baby's suitcase and Phil was at a business conference in Nevada when the message came. It was their adoption caseworker, sounding grim: "Have you heard from the birth mother at all?"
The baby was due, via scheduled C-section, in two weeks. They'd already flown to Florida once to meet the birth parents. They'd painted the nursery with a Batman motif.
"We hadn't booked a flight, but we were preparing to leave any day," Sheila says. "Then we got a phone call that [the birth mother] had changed her mind and decided to parent."
She left the baby's suitcase half-packed and closed the nursery door. "That was definitely the lowest point in our adoption journey," Sheila says. "We were already picturing that child as part of our lives."
They'd always envisioned children: maybe two, maybe three. That wasn't surprising for a woman who was obsessed with the movie Toy Story and a man who indulged that obsession by getting tickets for Disney's "On Ice Toy Story" as their first date.
They'd met as students at LaSalle University but didn't date until after Phil had graduated. He remembers an epiphany: They'd left a Phillies game, and he'd just turned from Broad Street to the on-ramp for I-76. Sheila was curled in the passenger seat, asleep. "That's when I realized: Oh, I think I really like this girl."
Their differences dovetailed: Sheila's an uber-organized teacher, while Phil, though serious about his work in business development, has a more laid-back approach to life. When he leaves dishes unwashed or tosses his clothes next to (rather than inside) the hamper, and she quotes Woody from Toy Story — "We toys can see everything" — they laugh at their own idiosyncrasies.
Phil proposed during a run on the beach; he had the ring secreted in his windbreaker pocket and begged to stop so he could tie his shoe. "When I turned around, he was down on one knee," Sheila says.
At their wedding, a Catholic Mass at St. Philip Neri Church in Lafayette Hill, they danced to Blake Shelton's "God Gave Me You." Within weeks, it seemed, people were asking: Are you pregnant yet? Are you thinking about kids?
They figured conception would be easy: They were young, athletic, and healthy. But after trying without success, they saw a fertility specialist who gave them frank, jolting news. "He said that biological children were not in our future," Sheila says.
"It was difficult to process," Phil says. They coped by keeping the news extremely private — even close friends don't know the medical details — and by getting a dog, a Doberman mix named Oliver. "He was a big comfort to us — the responsibility of caring for a dog," Sheila says. "And they're such loving creatures."
In the meantime, they attended an information session at A Baby Step Adoption. They spilled over with questions: What was the difference between open and closed adoption? What were a birth mother's legal rights? How were adoptive parents matched? "They gave us a lot of hope," Phil says. "They had great answers for a lot of the difficult questions."
They prepared a profile book — pictures of them running and hiking, a shot of Phil dressed as the Gingerbread Man for Halloween. Then they waited. It took eight months until they were matched with the birth parents in Florida.
When that match dissolved in July 2017, they headed for Sea Isle City with Oliver to grieve. But before they left, they saw an e-mail from A Baby Step about another possible adoption; this baby was due Oct. 4, their wedding anniversary.
"That seemed like a sign," Sheila says. Still, they wondered, "Is this insane, to submit on the same day our other adoption failed?" The phone call came once they were at the beach. The birth parents had chosen them. The answer was yes.
It was the end of September, midmorning on a Friday, when they learned the birth mother was about to be induced. They snapped a rear-facing car seat into the car and drove to Hackensack the next morning, listening to Billy Joel songs on the way.
The birth mother had requested a closed adoption; she didn't want to see the baby or even be told the infant's sex. To ensure that the birth mom wouldn't glimpse Sheila and Phil inadvertently, caseworkers advised them not to come to the hospital until the day after Katelyn was born.
"We went on one last run with the dog. We told him he wasn't going to be an only child," says Phil. They ate three meals in a row at the same Hackensack diner. They could see the hospital from their hotel room.
Finally, they got the green light. Sheila was in tears as they maneuvered into the hospital garage. Upstairs, the head nurse said, 'Do you want to meet your daughter?' " There she was: olive skin and huge, dark eyes, a wide-awake one-day-old in a hospital isolette.
"It was surreal," Shelia says. "We'd pictured that moment so many times over the past two-and-a-half years." Phil recalls being so fixated on the journey — first infertility and then adoption — that he'd almost forgotten to think about what would happen afterward.
What happened was that Katelyn hated her bassinet and screamed through their first night together. What happened was a two-week interlude in Sea Isle City because they weren't yet cleared to take the baby across state lines. Meanwhile, back at their house, Sheila's sister deftly changed the Batman lair to a "Babe Cave."
Finally, they brought her home, listening to the "Katelyn playlist" they'd made: Paul Simon's "Father and Daughter," the Goo Goo Dolls' "Come to Me," a couple of Disney tunes.