I’ve heard that old song by The Fray a couple of times this week and can’t seem to get it out of my head.
The song is inspired by the grief of a breakup, and although I’m not grieving the loss of a romantic partner, we are approaching the one-year anniversary of my beloved Grandpa’s death, and in many ways, it feels the same.
This time a year ago, I was in the throes of leaving Washington, D.C.—a place where I had built a home, community, life, and identity for more than a decade. My memories were intricately woven into that city. I not only knew it well, I had helped to shape it.
Everywhere I looked felt like the overused sponge on the edge of the kitchen sink. Water is dripping down the front of the kitchen cabinets, spilling aimlessly onto the floor, because the sponge just can’t contain the moisture anymore.
That’s exactly how I felt. I was full. I had built a beautiful life in this place but now it could no longer serve me.
Earlier that year, God had shared this hope for my year—that 2020 would be quieter, slower, deeper. I talked all the time about how much I resented the pace of my life, but I found so much identity in it that giving it up scared me into staying right where I was.
Trying to prepare for my quieter future, I started ordering books on contemplation over the Christmas holiday. When I arrived home after New Years, I found a ridiculous stack of books that promised to teach me how to be still, go inward, and find peace.
If you knew my frenetic life pace at that time, you would’ve laughed as much as I did as I carried them upstairs. I was always on the road, busy, running, escaping.
One sleepy Saturday morning, I cracked open the first book and rediscovered a part of myself that had been parched for years. This reading went on for weeks, and those weeks were likely some of the most important of my adult life. They initiated my journey to build a deep inner life. The anchor I had been searching for was within me the entire time, I just didn’t know how to tap into it.
I finished the final book in late February. I was emotional. I felt changed.
With a trembling pen, I sketched a diagram that moved work from the center of my life design to the outer ring and put love in the middle. Love hadn’t even been on the board and now it was at the center, pushing everything else in my life around.
Love was changing my priorities and I wasn’t sure I liked it.
Being from a small town, I had wanted to live a big life. Now God was challenging me that perhaps instead of a bigger life, I could live a better life.
After I drew that diagram, I remember thinking how unlikely it was that I’d ever have the courage to redesign my life.
And then a voice spoke to me: “Nothing changes if you don’t change.”
Clear. Direct. And just because I’m often stubborn, it repeated itself.
Again and again. For months.
And in those months, I did choose to change. I built criteria for what my life would need to look like if love were really at the center. It meant leaving D.C. and moving across the country to a small town in rural Texas where I could prioritize things like family, community, and my heart.
In the midst of making these changes, my Grandpa contracted COVID.
I was flying back and forth from D.C. to Tulsa in between packing, signing papers, and closing a chapter of my life. Things with Grandpa were up and down. It was difficult to keep my pulse on the changes in his condition from D.C. so I finally packed enough to stay for a while and made my way to Tulsa for what I knew would be the last trip I’d make to see Grandpa.
Three days later, he passed away.
Before he died, he asked three things of me: slow down, come home, and open your heart to love. The week after he passed, I closed on a house in a quiet little town situated amongst trees and cattle fields. I hope it pleased him.
No one tells you that making funeral arrangements is exhausting. There are many logistics, and each task feels weighty.
What I didn’t expect one night when my aunt called me over to her house was a seemingly endless bag of letters from Grandpa’s community. We sat down and started opening envelope after envelope of stories from people whose lives had been changed by him.
Visiting men in jail who felt too far gone. Healing marriages wrecked by addiction. Building confidence in young people who felt worthless. Getting families back on their feet. Helping elderly friends to feel loved for the first time.
So many were touched by his simple acts of love. He paid for people’s meals, drove them to the doctor, covered their back rent, vouched for the formerly incarcerated so they could get jobs, and comforted the lonely and grief-stricken. He was a hero.
A man who breathed life into so many people had his breath taken away by an unpredictable virus. It feels cruel. But I know he wouldn’t have wanted me to be angry or sad. He was a fighter, a lover of humankind, a friend.
Carrying on the work of a generation is about surrender. It’s about moving love to its place of preeminence and being willing to push around the other pieces so they serve that center.
Grandpa didn’t have a name for what he did. He just thought of it as loving people. Giving more than you take, listening more than you talk, believing in others more than they believe in themselves.
It’s what he wanted, it’s what we all want, and it’s what we all need. Each small action is a piece of legacy in the making. And this putting love at the center … that’s how you save a life.