THE PARENT: Ericalynn Cotton, 30, of West Philadelphia
THE CHILD: Christen Drew Cheryl, born Feb. 7, 2020
HER NAME: “Cheryl” for the baby’s paternal grandmother; “Drew” for the uncle who helped raise Erica, and “Christen” for her dad. “She’s named after all her guardian angels,” Ericalynn says.
It was a house phone, not a cell, and when someone answered in a deep Dad voice, Ericalynn asked to speak to Cotton. “Which one?” the man asked.
“Um, the one who goes to Bok,” she stammered. “I think his name is Chris.”
At school, where Ericalynn was a 10th-grade cheerleader and Chris a football-playing senior, everyone called him “Cotton.” Ericalynn figured he wasn’t her type; when her godbrother, also on the football team, gave her Chris’ phone number, she waited a few months before reaching out.
Soon they were catching movies every time a new release came to the theater, grabbing dinner, meeting each other’s families. At one point, Chris seemed to be avoiding Ericalynn at school. “He told me later, ‘I felt that if we started dating, you would be my first and last girlfriend.’ He felt like I would be his person.”
Chris graduated and went to Cheyney University. But his real passion was stand-up comedy. Ericalynn, who had been in the CNA vocational track at Bok Technical High School and planned a career in nursing, told Chris to follow his heart.
“By the time I became a nurse, I said, ‘I can make sure we’re stable financially. If this is what you want to do, go for it.’ ”
Despite his ease on stage, Chris could be reticent in everyday life; that’s why he kept an engagement ring snugged in his sock all day on Thanksgiving 2010, too nervous to propose in front of his family or Ericalynn’s. When the two were finally alone at 1 a.m., he extricated the ring and showed it to Ericalynn.
“I was laughing uncontrollably,” she recalls. “But I didn’t answer the question. ‘Will you?’ he said. I said, ‘Yes. Yes, yes.’ ”
They were married — a small ceremony followed by a karaoke reception — the following May. Chris left a job at UPS to do comedy full-time, with Ericalynn’s endorsement. After shows, they’d deconstruct his routine together; she’d point out the jokes she loved and the ones that had fallen flat.
She didn’t really want children — she’d helped raise her brother, who is nine years younger — and for a while, that was fine with Chris, who was becoming a regular on Philly and New York comedy circuits.
“But as we were getting older, and his brothers started having children, he expressed that he wanted to have kids,” Ericalynn says, and she agreed to try; fatherhood was something he wanted so badly.
She was at work one day, certain they’d missed the optimum timing for conception, when an order of french fries with ketchup tasted revolting. “I came home and took three tests: one said positive, one said negative, and one had a faint line.”
The next morning, three more tests were in unequivocal accord. Ericalynn had ordered a toy remote-controlled car — something Chris had longed for as a child, but that his dad couldn’t afford — and taped a pregnancy test to the car’s box.
As a labor and delivery nurse — and as someone who’d experienced two previous miscarriages — Ericalynn felt wary of all that could go wrong. “I had fibroids and endometriosis. I knew I was at increased risk for bleeding, at increased risk for the baby to be premature.” They waited until 20 weeks to share the news widely, which meant, for Ericalynn, a summer of quietly ordering ginger ale when she went out with friends and pretending her fatigue was from working extra shifts.
They revealed the pregnancy at Ericalynn’s 30th birthday party: a scavenger hunt with guests searching the house for clues including pictures of a rainbow (the “rainbow” baby following miscarriages) and an Aquarius symbol (the baby’s expected zodiac sign).
At prenatal appointments, they squinted at the lima-bean fetus and listened to the cantering heartbeat. Chris always asked, "There’s just one in there, right?” At night, he would whisper to the baby through Ericalynn’s navel: “Hey, how was your day? What’s going on in there?” They opted not to know the baby’s sex; they called their child “Blue.”
Last Dec. 11, the two had a date planned, but Ericalynn couldn’t reach Chris on his cell. “It wasn’t like him. I was calling around, trying to figure out where he was.” Finally, she reached a close friend who located Chris in his car; he’d suffered a pulmonary thromboembolism and died. She was seven months pregnant.
Friends and family huddled in to support her; a memorial service drew nearly 500 people, many dressed in red, at Ericalynn’s request, as a nod to Chris’ beloved San Francisco 49ers. Privately, she found solace in listening to “Sun Come Down” by Chance the Rapper, a song whose lyrics she and Chris had often discussed: Please make my death about my life. … Don’t look down. Don’t look down.
By early February, Ericalynn’s midwife was concerned that the baby was measuring small, so she recommended an induction. Coworkers at Pennsylvania Hospital brought her broth and Icees; they decorated the room. Active labor lasted about four hours, and then there was her daughter — their daughter — an infant with Chris’ features and quiet, wide-open eyes.
“When I saw her, I started crying. It’s the same face,” Ericalynn says.
Now, every day is threaded with discovery … and loss. When Ericalynn’s father accompanies her to pediatrician appointments, a receptionist might query, “Is this dad?” Or someone will check a medical record and ask, “Who’s Christopher?"
“I have to say: ‘It’s my husband. He died.’ ” Every gesture or expression of Christen’s that echoes her father is a reminder of his absence. “Or I’ll see a father with his child and think, ‘My daughter will never be able to go anywhere with her dad.’ ”