THE PARENTS: Lou GrowMiller, 38, and Michael GrowMiller, 40, of Glenside
THE KIDS: Gabriella, 6; Mason, 4, adopted November 1, 2017
HOW LOU WON MICHAEL’S HEART: It was a tuna fish sandwich — Michael’s first — made by Lou the afternoon Michael arrived in Rehoboth to visit Lou and some friends; they’d only just started to date. “It was so comforting,” Michael says. “I knew right away.”
Even through his tinted sunglasses — Michael was wearing them at 8 p.m. at Bump, the now-defunct gay/lesbian lounge, as a way of avoiding unwanted contact — he could tell Lou’s eyes were green.
And although Michael’s an emphatic pragmatist, something about this man felt meant-to-be. “I walked up to him. He said, ‘I can’t talk to you. You have sunglasses on.’ I thought: Do I know him already? It was a familiar feeling.”
They had a few dates, but Lou felt guarded. “I purposely took my time getting to know him.” Then Michael mentioned that he was going to be featured in the newspaper soon, as one of the Philadelphia Daily News’ 2005 “Sexy Singles.”
“I kind of felt like: Wow. I’ve upgraded,” Lou recalls with a laugh. After the publication, which included Michael’s email address, men deluged him with requests for dates. “I thought: I’d better put my claws in him now.”
It was on a brief business trip to Las Vegas — Michael was attending a conference, and Lou went along for the ride — that Michael proposed, pulling out a ring version of the hooked metal bracelet that he often wore and that Lou had admired. Lou’s response: “Let’s have a long engagement.”
That gave them time to work out the kinks of living together in a Roxborough duplex — Lou favored hot showers; Michael preferred cold ones; Lou’s cat and Michael’s dog had to learn to coexist — and plan an April 2007 wedding at Valley Green.
Their first dance, to “I Found My Everything,” was a little clumsy, and a close look at the photos reveals the cover-up caked under Lou’s eye to mask a brush burn from a fall the previous evening, and their union wasn’t legal in Pennsylvania, but the ceremony still meant an opportunity to put their relationship on the map.
“It was a lot of guests’ first same-sex wedding,” Michael says, “a celebration for us and our family and friends to say, ‘This is serious.’ ”
Michael, one of six siblings, had a passel of nieces and nephews; Lou worked with foster kids at a social service agency. There were plenty of children in their orbit. But one day, after a foster mother was brusque with one of Lou’s young clients, he thought, “Why aren’t we foster parents? I think we can do it.”
Two months later, they began classes: CPR, effective communication, positive parenting. A home study. Police and child abuse clearances. Character references. Four months after they were certified to be foster parents, they got a call: a month-old girl who’d been in the NICU since birth — on steroids, in a warm, darkened room, with no blankets because her skin was so sensitive, withdrawing from the opiates her mother had used during pregnancy.
Lou had never babysat a child for more than two hours, and Michael, despite his “favorite uncle” status, was nervous about holding an infant. “It was like a test: Can we be parents?” Lou recalls.
For six weeks, both worked part-time, scrambling up the learning curve of new parenthood: the right way to burp a baby, the exasperating buttons on those onesies. Lou, who’d always hated coffee, began gulping it daily to stay alert.
Friends and family helped, sending food and toys and diapers. Michael’s mother came from Duluth, Minn., for a long visit. And after 27 exhausting months, they adopted Gabriella.
“My last name was Grow. Michael’s was Miller. We didn’t want to have different last names,” Lou says. So the men changed their names legally and gave their daughter the new, hybrid surname. “It made everything feel like, ‘We’re a family now,’ ” Lou says.
At home, he became “Daddy L,” and Michael was “Daddy M.” When Gabriella began asking for a sibling, they decided to try fostering again; this time, a 6-month-old boy was with them for three months before being reunited with his birth family. Michael felt undone by the loss, but Gabriella offered a wise-child perspective: “Why can’t we be happy for the time he was with us?” she asked.
The experience confirmed that they wanted a second child, but not an infant. In March 2016, while Lou was attending a conference in Austin, Texas, a caseworker called: Could she drop off a 2-year-old named Mason? How about tomorrow?
Lou raced around a Texas airport, trying to find a tiny cowboy outfit to match the cowgirl duds he’d bought for Gabriella. Michael remembers his first glimpse of Mason the following day: “This little kid, kind of limping in our driveway. He came in and petted the cat. You can tell that how kids are with animals, that’s how they are as a person. Gabriella ran right in and grabbed his hand. These two acted like they’d known each other their whole lives.”
Now, they’ve jostled into new rhythms: Lou has become an expert hair-braider. Michael is the parent who fixes broken toys. Lou tries to curb his workaholic tendencies. With kids, he says, dinner can’t just be a slapped-together peanut butter sandwich eaten while checking email. “You’re forced to think of somebody else besides yourself. It’s really taking a step back and putting yourself second, or third. And being OK with that.”
Both men read their kids the children’s book Daddy, Papa and Me and talk frankly about adoption. “We tell them, ‘Your parent was sick — brain-sick — and couldn’t take care of you. Your daddies always wanted to care for children. We’re very lucky,’ ” Lou says. “As they get older, we’ll tell them more about their history.”
Maybe Michael will tell the story of the first time he glimpsed Gabriella, a tiny, long-lashed infant in a car seat the caseworkers had plunked on their dining room table. “She looked at me and smirked,” he says. “Right then, there’s a piece of you that’s always going to be her. It was a wake-up call: I’m going to give you the best life I can.”