“He would have loved you.”

We lost my grandpa suddenly, five years ago today. My husband James never met him.

“He would have loved you.”

I tell him that sometimes. When we’re watching baseball, when he’s curled up quietly reading a book, when he starts singing made-up songs, when he peels open a banana, when he falls asleep in the armchair watching something he really loves.

I tell him that because it’s easier than saying, “I wish he had had the chance. I wish he had known you. I wish he had just one shared moment with you in my mom’s dimmed kitchen after dinner, hands wrapped around mugs on the table, quietly conversing about the world.”

My husband, he doesn’t know what he missed. How can you love someone you never met? If he’d come into my life a year earlier, he would’ve maybe had the chance. Maybe.

And so I look at it with a grateful heart. Less than 9 months after my grandpa died, this blonde-haired blue-eyed Italian-Irish boy parked outside the Cheesecake Factory and walked me inside. He reminded me about the love of baseball, the agony of 9 innings, of hard years and sticking with your team. He taught me that quiet can mean thoughtful. That words can be measured.

My grandfather lived three blocks from my aunt’s house. He showed up every day. In his actions and on their doorstep. He taught me what it means to give yourself to your family. And then, something changed, and he didn’t anymore. But we don’t remember him that way. We remember how he was for most of his life, how he loved his grandkids, the simple man he was.

I remember that cold first day of December, sitting on my knees with the kids, looking up at that video playing. Photo after photo. Song after song. When you’re the first grandkid, you see yourself over and over in those eulogy videos.

I cried the loudest in that room packed with people I hadn’t seen in years. In those photos, I could see all the time I’d had with him, all the things we’d done together, and how in the end it never felt like enough. You’re never ready for it to be over.

And so my husband shows me that sometimes God knows you’re hurting and He hands you a little piece of someone else. You catch yourself looking at your husband and remembering with sweetness what you once had, aching at the same time because you know they would’ve shared something special together.

You remember that quiet small actions matter. Love matters. Family matters. Showing up matters. On your doorstep or in your phone logs. However you can. However they need.

Lessons Learned While Lost

When James and I were in Atlanta in May, we ran into a homeless woman. We were pacing back and forth along Peachtree Street, scanning the storefronts for the Marta station sign. We doubled back two or three times before she saw us, heads ducked over a phone screen, trying to navigate our way.

She asked if she could help us find something. And then we were off, her and I chatting away up front, James trailing behind, slinging out water bottles and necessities in a bag on his back. She asked me where we were from, how we ended up coming to Atlanta. She told me about his bright blue eyes and smiled.

We were just steps from the escalators leading down when she shared her own story—how she’d lost her apartment two months ago, how she was trying to stay positive and how her son was embarrassed about her persistence, but could we spare some money for her breakfast?

I didn’t have any cash—we were going hiking—so I apologized. She looked me in the eyes, asking if I’d buy something, if I could just get her a bagel or something to tide her over, so of course I said yes.

When we left, down a second escalator, her arms full with a hot breakfast of grits and eggs and meat, I felt good. James, though, wasn’t sure about her.

Where we live, the streets are stocked with homeless people. My father-in-law swore once he knew one of the men, that he went home each night, changed out of the ragged clothes, and slept in a warm bed with his family.

The whole ride down the escalator, onto the platform, into the train car, on the tracks, I told him it didn’t matter, really, but of course she was homeless. She asked for breakfast, for God’s sake. She would’ve moved on if I didn’t have cash.

She had so much warmth about her, a wide smile, a genuine tone. I was happy to help her. I was happy to believe that something good had come from that morning.

“Two months,” I told him. “That’s not long enough to have found a whole new job and gotten back on your feet. She needs all the strength and energy she can get and that breakfast could be what she needs to get herself up—mentally and physically—so she can get a job. My kindness might have meant the world to her today.”

He’s still not convinced, but for me, it felt so good. Because when you’re standing in front of the world, telling your story, afraid to admit that it might not be going as planned, it takes all kinds of courage to ask for help. And when you’re standing on the other side of that conversation, looking into the eyes of a stranger with a kind heart, it shakes you. It stays with you.

The problem of poverty becomes real. It becomes a woman in a white tee shirt with black sneakers. It becomes her fast clip and warm smile and appreciation over and over as you pay for her meal. It becomes the itch inside you when you wonder how she’s going to make it through tomorrow, when her stomach starts to empty and she’s not having any luck finding a job and she’s hoping someone might give her a chance.

It’s hard to ignore. It’s something we shouldn’t ignore.

Marriage Is Like Climbing a Mountain

Before I met James, I’d never been hiking. That all changed quickly.

About three weeks after our first date, he asked me to come with him. He showed up at my door in mesh gym shorts and a white workout tee. I had on sage green khaki shorts and a white scoop neck tee. At the time, my impression of hiking was a bit like golf. You were working out, but you had to wear khakis. Man, I felt stupid.

In the 4 years since, we’ve gone on more hikes than I could’ve imagined. I’ve skirted along a precarious stretch of rock to make it up the “A” trail in Great Falls, Virginia. I’ve huffed and puffed my way up half of the Maryland Heights trail in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. I’ve paused over and over, hands on knees, begging my heart rate to slow on a short quarter-mile clip up to the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland. I am officially a hiking convert.

And I have to say, after just one year of marriage, that it’s a bit like climbing a mountain.

You start with this lofty plan to make it to the summit, some rock-encrusted trek that seems worthwhile because you’ll get a great picture to post on Instagram. A breathtaking view, a calm, cool breeze, a check mark on your list of a life well lived.

But life is hard. And that doesn’t change when you get married.

I’d gone through a lot of sweat and tears and mud before I met James. So why, after just some wedding bells and rings and vows, did I think that life would be magical ’till death do us part?

The idea isn’t that life gets better when you’re married. It’s that marriage helps us through it. We climb half a mountain, and have to switch trails partway through. Maybe in a few years, we’ll walk back to that other path and start up again, but not today. Not anytime soon.

It’s a series of routing and rerouting. Of rooting for each other and creating roots as a family. Because you have someone with you, breathing life into your tired limbs, pushing you to press onward, to not look back, to carry your past as a marker of how far you’ve come.

For our anniversary, we went on a 5.5-mile hike. And it felt like the perfect reminder that life is a journey. Sometimes, you get to tumble effortlessly down the hill, foot over foot, or walk on the flat, soft, packed dirt, and other times, you have to keep looking up, spotting the next tree, taking deep breaths, and steadying yourself next to your partner.

You take turns leading. You take time to check in. And you make it through – together.

Cheering You On

I’ve been thinking a lot about connection lately.

I don’t do well with beginnings. The awkward, stifled, bland part of the relationship, where you’re both searching out your commonalities, weighing the other person to see if your own heart and soul reflects back a bit when you hear them speak.

Being 27 is hard. You’re half a decade out of college, and everyone you know is in a different place—they’re changing careers, longing for a new job, looking for a spouse, skipping the dating scene altogether, announcing their pregnancy online, walking down the aisle, waiting for a sign to get up and move halfway across the country.

They’re doing different things. All of them. And you’re trying to figure out who has friendships on their mind—who wants to grow their community, who wants to have a real, meaningful relationship with the person sitting across from them sipping on iced tea and talking about their week. Someone who wants to skip all the small talk and get down to it.

I haven’t figured it out. Tell me if you do. I’m an introverted, emotional, deep person. I don’t do well with happy hours and bar hopping. I don’t do well with groups of people in loud rooms at midnight. I’m good at one-on-one, let-me-solve-your-problem, let-me-cheer-you-up, let-me-be-your-sounding-board. I’m good at caring. I’m good at listening.

My senior year of high school, a few weeks into the cross country season, I went to this Saturday invitational a few counties over.

We were stretching, touching our toes and hopping around before the start of the race, when a sharp pain shot up my leg. Whenever I started up again, it would inevitably come back after a few minutes. I didn’t run for months. I couldn’t figure it out.

I spent every Wednesday standing on the edge of the grass, face red from yelling, learning every girl and boy’s name as they crossed past me, up the slow hill and around the corner, headed into the cemetery for the second leg of their 3-mile race. It was all I could do. Learning the names of the freshmen, learning what made everyone tick, that’s what got me going.

It still does, even if I don’t have to stand on the sidelines. I’m better that way, face flush from fighting for them, for wanting them to be better, for wanting them to be whoever they so desire. I’m better wishing and hoping and cheering.

Life doesn’t work that way though. You don’t always fall into a purpose. Sometimes, you have to seek it out, ask questions, offer to be there for somebody and run the risk that they tell you to go away. Sometimes, you have to take a tiny step in a scary direction and see what happens.

So here’s to being brave, offering a hand or your heart, or an hour of your time. And here’s to cheering, whether the person on the receiving end knows it or not. There are so many of you out there that I root for, every single day.