THE PARENTS: Lidyvez Sawyer, 35, and El Sawyer, 40, of Northern Liberties
THE CHILD: Leward Khalil, born July 6, 2017
AN EARLY GAFFE: El spotted a sticky-note on Lidyvez’s computer that misconstrued his name. “Call Al,” it said. “Who’s Al?” he wanted to know.
Here are the things Lidyvez knew about El: He worked at the Village of Arts and Humanities. He’d made a documentary, Pull of Gravity, about three men trying to reenter society after time in prison. People described El as a “teddy bear”—warm, charming, gregarious.
On their first date, after eggs and grits at the Trolley Car Diner, the two walked through a nearby park, and El told Lidyvez the whole story: About his arrest at 17 and his conviction for aggravated assault. About the eight years he spent in prison. About the son he’d had at 16, the boy whose childhood he’d missed.
“I was trying to guard that part of my life,” El remembers. “But when I met Lidy, I thought: I have to be honest with her. I was in the process of changing my family’s direction and culture. I was stepping out into something new.” He talked that day until his throat was dry.
“It was an ‘Oh, my God’ moment for me,” Lidyvez says. Her mind buzzed — What happened? What led you there?—but she didn’t want to probe too deeply. “He was communicating something that was so intimate. It didn’t take away from the respect I had for him.”
There was one other thing Lidyvez remembers from that afternoon. “He said that he wanted a child, that he wanted to experience, in his adult life, what it meant to be a father.”
Before long, they’d met each other’s families. El had a serious sit-down with Lidyvez’s mother in which she asked to know his intentions. “I said, ‘We’re just meeting. First things first.’ We were going to date, and if we feel like it’s appropriate, I’d ask her permission and get engaged within a year.”
El’s youngest sister and his mother had similar questions for Lidyvez. “They were very much concerned with my intentions. It meant a lot to hear their stories about him.”
For a while, the couple kept their own places—El’s in North Philly, Lidyvez’s apartment in East Falls. After a year, Lidy moved in — and so did El’s son, nearly 20 at the time. “I was making my best effort to try to repair our relationship, to do anything I could to open up a space for my son,” El says.
But it was a fractious transition: They were a relatively new couple, and Lidyvez, who’d never dated anyone with kids, struggled to learn the boundaries of “parenting when you’re not really a parent.”
In November 2014, on a trip to Nevada, El insisted on walking three times across the Hoover Dam. “He wants to record and document every moment,” Lidyvez recalls. “I was exhausted and ready to go. On our way out, he said, ‘I want to do one more thing.’ ” Suddenly, a stranger was holding El’s phone and filming the couple while he dropped to one knee. Lidyvez responded with a kiss.
At their wedding, in September 2016, one good friend arranged flowers, another videotaped the ceremony, and a third pal, a percussionist, provided music. “Everyone was a witness,” Lidyvez says. “In a blink of our eyes, it was over.”
And in another blink — two months after their honeymoon in Cartagena, Colombia — Lidyvez found herself sickened by the aroma of a glass of wine. El was traveling for a film shoot in San Francisco when he got a text, with an image of two positive pregnancy tests attached.
Convinced it was a joke, he did a quick Google search and sent Lidyvez a picture of three pregnancy tests. She texted back: “Stop playing! This is not off Instagram. These are my tests!”
It wasn’t until El returned home and the two visited a doctor that the news began to settle in. Lidyvez had a queasy, anxious first trimester — she kept reading about the risk of miscarriage and hoping not to join those statistics of loss — and El noted every milestone: the first time they heard a heartbeat, the ultrasound image, the baby’s movement in response to noise or music or his voice.
They had a plan: A narcotics-free birth, with mellow music by Earth, Wind & Fire; Lidy envisioned using massage balls to manage labor. What really happened was a day of manageable contractions — she stayed at work and did breathing exercises — followed by a night of ferocious pain.
At the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, doctors said Lidy was nearly eight centimeters dilated. Her response: “Give. Me. The. Epidural.” They did, but after 90 minutes of pushing with little progress, “my contractions were coming harder and lasting longer. The baby was wedged in such a way that his blood pressure would drop. They said, ‘You need a C-section.’ ”
The surgical team played Beyoncé in the operating room. El remembers feeling helpless as he sat by Lidyvez’s head, watching her shake from the medication, occasionally peeking over the blue drape.
Then he was cutting the umbilical cord and cradling their son, skin-to-skin, inside his shirt. “It was beautiful, and so weird. I’d never held a baby before, but I felt really comfortable.”
For Lidyvez, it wasn’t an instant bond. “In my mind, I was still going through labor. I still felt pregnant. And there was this little person you’re claiming is my child.” It wasn’t until weeks later — after getting over the shock of birth and finding the rhythm of nursing and starting to replenish the cavern of lost sleep — that she felt like someone’s mother. “I was able to say, ‘This child does belong to us, and he’s in this house, and I have given birth.’ ”
For El, that realization comes anew each morning, when he wakes to find that Lidyvez has nursed Leward and tucked him into their bed. “I wake up and can reach my hand over without opening my eyes, and he’s right there.” It’s what he wants most as a father, this time around: to be present.