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Not long after the relationship of Healey, Cope and Elton began, Michael Tragakis met Robert Elton at a dance. Tragakis, a psychologist, felt the part-time rodeo cowboy was accomplished and impressive. When Tragakis and Elton began a relationship, Elton, Cope and Healey were already pursuing parenthood. “They had it all figured out. For me, it was a little bit bewildering and mystifying—but exciting,” Tragakis says.
Before he met Elton, Tragakis had written off having children. When he came out as gay in college, he felt “a little bit of a grieving process” with the understanding that he would never be a father. After college, he spent a year volunteering at a Mexican orphanage, partly to spend time with children because he felt sure he would never have his own.
Cope and Elton’s son, Alexander Robert Elton, was born in February 2001. But tragedy struck just three months later, when Elton died in a horseback-riding accident. At the cemetery after the funeral, Tragakis, who had been Elton’s partner for eight months, lifted Cope’s and Healey’s spirits by saying, “I want to be part of Alex’s life if that is all right with you.”
Tragakis, 38, recalls that “When Bob was there, I felt like I was going to be kind of a side figure, a helper to Bob. But after he died, it became clear to me that I wanted to step in as central father figure. Part of it was my love for Bob, part of it was for his son, Alex, and part of it was for me, in my heart.
“When Alex was born, that innate love you have for a baby made it no longer a question.” He says he felt very lucky in the situation, and that “while all parents have their struggles and ups and downs, this was a real blessing for me.”
To distinguish between Alex’s two fathers, Cope and Healey refer to Elton as “Daddy Bob” and to Tragakis as “Papa.” Cope says of their son’s biological father, “it’s like his presence never left us. Bob really wanted three or more kids–‘a quiverful of arrows.’”
A year after Alex’s birth, he recalls the three of them were sitting together when the two women asked him about the possibility of having another child. “My initial reaction was real excitement, but I don’t think I gave my answer right then.” Later, Tragakis polled his own parents and friends on the topic. He had previously wondered about the possibility of having a biological child during Healey’s pregnancy “when it was a huge deal and so exciting, and we wanted to make sure everything went well.”
All three soon agreed it would be great if Alex had a brother or sister. They decided to pursue artificial insemination using Tragakis’ sperm. Tragakis found his initial experience in having his sperm tested, “very daunting for a male—gay or otherwise. You get this report on your sperm, what shape they are in and how fast they move. I thought, ‘I hope my guys can work.’ You give one sample, then they freeze that, then you give another sample six months later, and they use the frozen one.”
When neither of the first two tries was a success, for the third attempt, Cope used a syringe to inseminate Healey at home. “I’m a nurse—I can do what they do,” she says.
At the beginning of her second pregnancy, Healey soon became violently ill, “sicker than I have ever been in my life.” Three months later, Cope and Tragakis accompanied her to an ultrasound appointment. Healey was carrying twins.
“I was flabbergasted,” Tragakis says. “It was so seriously out of the realm of anything I ever imagined.”
Cope and Tragakis were at the courthouse pursuing guardianship papers five months later when Healey summoned them to the delivery room. Zachary and Avery, a boy and a girl, were premature, born in December 2003. They weighed 3 pounds, 13 ounces and 3 pounds, 3 ounces respectively. Born with underdeveloped lungs, Avery spent the first four months of her life in the hospital.
“She was more wire and tube than baby. We almost lost her,” Tragakis says. Following that initial siege, Avery has continued to experience health problems, but the family has settled into a comfortable joint-custody mode.