“Papaw, can I teach you Chinese?”

There were times when Jerry Permenter thought he couldn’t go on.

As the director of the East Texas AIDS Project in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he watched hundreds of clients die. Often, they’d been abandoned by their families and communities, and he was their last tie to the world.

Though Jerry changed jobs in the mid-1990s, he “really struggled” in the decades that followed, he says.

How a girl coaxed her grandpa back to life.

“If you’re not prepared for that kind of trauma, what it does to you over time, it really can do some emotional damage.”

“[Y]ou come out of it and you’re unscathed—at least bodily—but your head is still scrambled. I suffered from a great deal of depression and anxiety after those years.”

During the 1980s and 90s, Jerry, who is gay, was also doing his best to raise the two kids, Jason and Kate, that he’d had with a close woman friend of his.

Jerry and the children’s mother lived near one another in East Texas, and the kids shuttled back and forth between their houses. For ages, however, Jerry’s work consumed him, and he suspects that Jason and Kate wish they’d had “more of a father and less of an activist.”

But in 2012, Jason and his wife, Summer, an immigrant from China, had a baby girl, and Jerry felt he’d been given a second chance—not just at childrearing, but at life.

“I remember when they handed me Joy for the first time, it was just like this ray of light for me … It was something that I can’t even begin to describe,” says Jerry, who now works as a grantwriter in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Not long after Joy’s birth, Jerry lost his sister and his brother in close succession, and his depression resurged. However, “Joy was kind of a constant reminder for me that there was something greater, that I had to continue.”

By the time she was three, she was nurturing him as much as he was nurturing her, he says. She seemed to sense that his thoughts sometimes turned dark, and she was always attempting to engage him.

“Papaw, can I teach you Chinese?” she’d say.

Without her, Jerry says, “I think I would have given up.”

Jason and Summer, who live and work in Houston, had a second daughter, Julia, in 2014. Around then, Jerry married his longtime partner, Howard Rogers, a family therapist with a practice in San Antonio. The couple splits their time between San Antonio and Santa Fe, with frequent visits to Houston.

The girls and their grandpas like to read, sing, and sightsee together. On Halloween, Jerry dresses up as a wizard, and on Christmas he pretends to be Santa Claus. Between visits, they all talk on Skype and FaceTime.

“Sometimes there are these anchors in our lives that are placed there to keep us from falling away,” says Jerry, now 61. “And I can’t tell you how much my grandchildren have been that for me. And one day I’ll make sure that they know that, that they helped me survive the worst years of my life.”