THE PARENTS: Angelina Zarro, 36, and Gerard Arena, 41, of Bensalem
THE CHILD: Gianna Ava, born December 30, 2015
MEMBERS OF WHAT GERARD CALLS THEIR “PETTING ZOO”: Two pit bull-Labradoodles and two cats.
There was a moment, in the midst of the fertility appointments and the gynecological surgeries, the family deaths and the job lurches, when Gerard wondered whether all the setbacks were a message: "What right do I have to bring a child into this world when I'm struggling myself?"
Angelina clung to hope. She prayed to St. Gianna, an Italian pediatrician who pursued a fourth pregnancy knowing it would threaten her own life. Angelina prayed to everybody. She tried to smile through friends' baby showers.
Then, on Easter 2015, she lay on an examining table at Abington Reproductive Medicine while a harpist played and a doctor transferred a single viable embryo into her uterus.
The couple had been together for six years. When Angelina rebuffed Gerard's first request for a date - she was going snowboarding - he wondered whether this pairing was meant to be. "I hate the cold weather," he says. "I thought: What am I getting myself into?"
When they met, during a snowstorm, at Three Monkeys Cafe in Philadelphia, they realized how much they shared: Catholic school, a love of progressive house music, a taste for pungent Cuban and Mexican food.
He proposed during a visit to his grandparents' in Fort Lauderdale in 2013 - a moment meant to be a surprise until his grandmother greeted the couple with a smile: "So, you're getting engaged!"
"We were at a restaurant right on the water," Angelina recalls. "And he had this little speech. He said, 'We've been through a lot.' Then he slid the ring across the table."
Angelina had always longed to become a mother. Gerard wasn't so sure. "To tell the truth, I've always been petrified of parenthood," he says. Maybe that fear had roots in his distant relationship with his father, or the fact that his parents were barely 21 when they had him. He was close to his grandparents, who stepped in to fill the nurturing gap.
In high school, basketball became his anchor; later, it was modeling, a frenzied New York buzz of five casting calls a day and punishing gym visits to keep his 6-foot-2 frame lean enough for the cameras.
"I got burned out. I moved back to Philly and started over. I've always been chasing something. Finally, I settled in and thought: What am I really looking for?" Gerard worked his way up through sales into management positions; he made good money, though he didn't have a college degree. Then the recession knocked him off the corporate ladder - one, two, four different layoffs. His father was ill; a cousin struggled with drug addiction.
Meantime, Angelina made the rounds of fertility specialists, collecting diagnoses - a uterine septum, a fibroid, polyps, and endometriosis - and enduring two hysteroscopies. Two IUI procedures. Two more disappointments.
"It was an emotional roller coaster," Gerard recalls. "I was angry. But Angelina didn't let up. If there was any hope, she wasn't going to let me out of it."
Then she learned of a new IVF clinical study through Abington Reproductive Medicine. "We were so drained from going to so many different doctors and [conception] not happening. I thought I'd give it a shot," she recalls. Those words proved literal; Angelina had to inject herself in the stomach with the fertility medication researchers were testing. She practiced yoga. She got regular massages. She tried to stay positive.
Then came that Easter morning with the live harp music - a study conducted by the practice showed that it reduced parents' stress and boosted the rate of IVF success. "The harp was so beautiful. She was playing while the doctor injected the embryo and for about 30 minutes afterward," Angelina says. "I just listened to the music and relaxed."
Two weeks later, the physician called. He chatted about the weather, then asked Angelina what she'd had for lunch. "A Caesar salad," she answered. "Well, it looks like you're not going to be having any alcohol anytime soon. You're pregnant."
She called Gerard at work, and his colleagues ribbed him: "This little baby's going to rattle your world."
The pregnancy was an easy sail - no heartburn, barely any nausea. Angelina continued to work as an account manager all the way to Christmas, when the baby was due. But Dec. 25 came and went; four days later, she went to Holy Redeemer Hospital to be induced.
Even though Angelina has a high tolerance for pain - she hadn't even popped an Advil after her hysteroscopies - the contractions were excruciating, and she asked for an epidural. After an hour of pushing, Gianna emerged, purplish and silent.
"She wasn't breathing. The cord was around her neck. But for some reason," Angelina says, "I had this relaxed feeling. I knew she was going to be OK."
For Gerard, the moment was both rapid-fire and slow. "When they first pulled her out, I thought: This kid is so long. I couldn't believe she was in there - this string baby, with a long torso." Gianna was born at 10:10 p.m., close to the hour of Gerard's grandfather's death in 2015. "I think maybe he sent her to me."
Though life is not easy - they manage, but barely, on one income, with Gerard working late nights and some Saturdays - there is a new reason to forge ahead.
Gianna wakes each morning in a purple room decorated with angels and elephants. Her father is determined to break the cycle that haunted two generations of men in his family: He will be the one who stays put, who finds peace with decent work and enough food and a roof over their heads.
And her mother will walk her through Neshaminy State Park, cuddled close in the sling. Back home, she will read Cuddly Monkey and sing "Skinnamarinky dinky dink," the song her own father sang to her, the tune she murmured in the hospital room the first time she held her daughter to her heart.