Opinion | ‘Dad, I Don’t Think I’m Old Enough to Handle This’

“Dad, I don’t think I’m old enough to handle this.”

Those words were hard to hear. They were my daughter’s words of despair when she received the worst news of her life: The baby she was carrying suffered from grave defects. That sweet baby, named Lila, was diagnosed with gastroschisis, a dangerous condition in which her intestines were developing outside her body. She also had only one healthy kidney, and her very small size indicated that she might have a fatal genetic anomaly.

And Camille was indeed young: 21 years old. She married her high school sweetheart while she was in college, and she got pregnant her senior year. All this sounds unusual, especially in an era when Americans are getting married and having children at older ages than ever before, but marriage at a relatively young age fit Camille. She was always an old soul, and so was her husband. They were mature beyond their years, but this moment felt different. The news about Lila was terrifying — crushing, actually.

I didn’t really know what to say in response. I knew she’d rise to the occasion, but I could see in her eyes that she wasn’t ready for a motivational speech. When you get bad news, there are times you don’t need encouragement so much as empathy. All I could think to say was, “No one is old enough for this news. There is no right age for this challenge.” We cried, we prayed, and then we prepared. Our daughter was becoming a mother in the most difficult of circumstances.

And it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

Her first concrete decision as a mom was to refuse amniocentesis. Though she desperately wanted more information about Lila, the thought of any additional risk to her baby was too much for her to bear. She’d find out Lila’s true condition when she gave birth; then and only then would we know if she’d live.

Camille delivered Lila at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in Nashville on Dec. 15, 2020. Pandemic regulations kept us at home, and they even limited the amount of time that Camille and her husband, Jarrett, could spend with their new baby. No other family members could be with Camille and Jarrett when Lila was whisked away to surgery. They were alone with her when the post-op pain was so great that Lila briefly stopped breathing. They were alone with her when the Nashville Christmas bombing cut off all communication with Vanderbilt.

The bomb blew up an AT&T facility, and we immediately lost all phone and internet service. The phones at Vanderbilt even went dead for a time. And so Camille continued her bedside vigil with her tiny recovering daughter cut off from her parents and her siblings, unsure of what was happening in an outside world that seemed to be falling apart.

By God’s grace and through the incredible work of the skilled surgeons at Vanderbilt, Lila survived. On New Year’s Eve, Camille brought her sweet baby home to our house.

My father has always said that parenthood only gets better with age, and now I know exactly what he means. With each passing year, you know your children better, your relationship evolves, and by the time they’re young adults, you can often learn from them. When Camille became a mother, it unlocked a new dimension to our relationship. I saw her absorb the best of our parenting and forge her own parental identity. I saw shades of us in how she loved Lila, but I also saw the way in which Camille was uniquely Camille. She wasn’t too young for her trial. She faced it squarely and courageously, and now beautiful little Lila is healthy and happy and loves her mom very, very much.

After those early, scary days, Camille’s life became much more routine. She had a second baby, a healthy boy named Ezra. She and Jarrett were admitted to the University of Chicago Law School, and now they’re building a life in Hyde Park. She is deferring admission to stay with the kids, and he leaves this summer for the Marine Corps, where he is training to be a Marine JAG officer.

All was well. Until it wasn’t again. The cancer diagnosis of my wife, Nancy, put our family back in a state of crisis. Once again, we rallied together. Camille came back home, but she was a different person. She’d been through the fire herself. She had learned to love a person facing ultimate distress, and when she embraced Nancy, she embraced her not just with a daughter’s arms but with a mother’s arms as well. The hands that held her vulnerable child now held her vulnerable mother, with a degree of love and care and nurturing that’s difficult to describe.

I know that Mother’s Day is hard for some people. I know that there are millions who experience this Sunday with a sense of aching loss. They lost their mothers, or they never had them, and this day rekindles their pain. Many others struggle during a day filled with tributes to other people’s mothers — when their own mothers might have failed them in the worst of ways.

This Mother’s Day is hard for us as well. We long for the days when life will be routine again. It feels like such a short time between the crisis we faced with Lila and the crisis we now face with Nancy.

But I’m still grateful. I’m grateful for my mother, who has loved me sacrificially every day of my life. I’m grateful for my wife, who has loved our three children so very well. And I’m grateful to have watched my oldest daughter become a mother. Watching her journey, I’ve gained even more awareness of that marvelous, almost magical transformation that occurs when you hold your own child.

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