There are times when the worst tidings can transform into the greatest joy. In August 2020, our family received terrible news. My daughter Camille was pregnant, and a routine ultrasound revealed that her baby, a little girl named Lila, was in grave danger. Lila had gastroschisis, meaning that she had a hole in her abdominal wall, and her intestines were developing outside her body. She also had a cystic kidney. It was shrinking away, and she had only one healthy kidney left. She was also very, very small. Each problem by itself could be managed, but the combination meant that there was a chance of a fatal genetic abnormality.
Camille and her husband, Jarrett, lived in Knoxville, Tenn., where she was finishing her undergraduate math degree and he was interning for a campus ministry. But my wife, Nancy, and I knew they were coming home to live with us for a while outside Nashville. Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital was not far away, and Lila was placed in the care of a brilliant doctor named Irving Zamora.
On Dec. 15, Lila was born. It’d be too much to say she was “healthy.” Her intestines were outside her tiny body. She still only had one kidney. But there was no genetic abnormality, and within hours Dr. Zamora performed a new procedure on her that placed her intestines back inside her body without even a single incision in her stomach. It was hard. It was painful. But ultimately it was a miracle. The girl we thought might die was very much alive.
On Dec. 31, Lila came home, to our home. Three generations under one roof. We have a tiny apartment over our garage, and that’s where Camille, Jarrett and Lila settled for most of the next two and a half years. And then, in March, they added one more — a healthy baby boy named Ezra who was almost as big as a linebacker from the moment of birth.
For more than two years our house was bursting at the seams. Two grandparents worked full-time from home. A young mom and dad also worked and studied for the LSAT. Our college-age son, Austin, was in and out, depending on his school schedule. And our teenage daughter, Naomi, finished middle school and started high school. Add in two grandbabies and two poorly trained dogs, and ours was not the kind of house you’d drop by and discover a state of perfect calm and order.
Instead, you might stumble into a scene that featured my two younger kids chasing their toddler niece around the house while dogs barked, a grandmother cooked and the toddler’s mom and dad struggled to grab a few minutes to study. There were never enough groceries, and the laundry always overflowed.
One of the great joys of aging is watching the people you love grow into each of their new roles, like slowly blooming flowers that reveal petals of different hues. You see your older daughter as a mother, your younger daughter as an aunt and your son as an uncle. And Nancy, the girl I met and fell in love with during a conversation on a college sidewalk? She’s a mom and a grandmother now, and each new dimension of her character causes me to love her even more.
There is nothing quite like being a middle-aged grandfather with a toddler in the house. It’s as if you are seeing the world in shades of gray, with your eyesight dimmed by hard experience, and then, suddenly, the gray is gone. All the brightest colors explode back into your life.
Lila’s eyes became my eyes. That farm that’s next to our neighborhood? That’s not just a farm. Cows live there, and cows are amazing! That full moon up in the sky? It’s got to be thinking something, right? What is it thinking? When Lila came along to pick up Naomi from camp, we strolled to the dock and pondered: Is this lake where King Triton lives? Did Ariel try to kiss Prince Eric on that canoe?
And then, as suddenly as the journey began, it was over. Our home served first as a safety net for a daughter and a son-in-law frightened by a terrible diagnosis. It turned into the launching pad for the next phase of their lives. All that studying paid off. Both Camille and Jarrett were admitted to the University of Chicago Law School, and last weekend we helped move them all into a perfect little apartment in Hyde Park.
We’ve been through this drill before. We’ve sent kids to college. We’ve experienced that mix of pride and sadness, and know what it feels like to be completely happy for our children even as we’re bereft for ourselves. But this time there was a difference. As we hugged and said our final goodbyes on the stoop of the new apartment, Lila said brightly, “Are we going home now?”
“Lila,” my wife replied gently, “You are home.”
I don’t share this story as some sort of family formula or cultural statement. We never intended to be a multigenerational household. It just happened. And in a nation scarred by so much pain and loss, we were keenly aware of our blessings and our privilege. But on that last night together before we left Chicago — as I watched my son hold my grandson, my younger daughter hold my granddaughter and my wife with her arm around Camille — I reflected back on that terrible moment in 2020 when none of this felt possible.
Through our tears — and there were many — each of us understood that beauty had come from the ashes of fear and that joy had emerged from mourning. A remarkable chapter ended. Another chapter began. And though the house feels empty, this grandfather’s eyes still see those bright colors. There is simply too much gratitude to feel despair.