The Race

This race was never supposed to be about Jennifer. That’s not how it started. It was supposed to be about me.

I started running over a year ago, not knowing I’d be able to. I had been attempting to rehab back from plantar fasciitis that sprung up from a bad phase of life I call “Old Moms Wearing Vans.” But I had to start running because I wanted to get back down to my middle age fighting weight. And who even knows what that is? Because I hadn’t ever been healthy and also middle aged. To achieve this nebulous goal, I had to outrun my milkshake habit.

I don’t diet.
So I had to run.

I ran a 5k last February. But because running was going well and I was still drinking milkshakes pretty regularly, I decided to keep running. And I kept pushing the distance a little as I went. Right after Thanksgiving, I tried a 4-mile route and it didn’t seem like as big a deal as I guessed it would be.

So I kept going.

On December 2, I signed up for a 10k race to be run February 12. I believed that would give me plenty of time to train.

On December 11, I ran 5.08. It went pretty well, and I figured I might as well keep going.

It felt very Forrest Gump at times.

But then there were the holidays.

And three days after Christmas, Jennifer got sick and I threw my running energies into worrying. And praying. And pacing around on my back patio.

Between December 11 and the race, which was Saturday morning, I ran 4 miles, two times. And I ran between 2-3 miles a handful of other times. Most of those runs didn’t go very well. Some of them started as runs and ended as calls for help.

I never once ran 6 miles.

I wasn’t ready.

I considered quitting.

The internet came in with some unsolicited advice. I saw a meme that said, “When you get tired, don’t quit. Learn to rest.”

And then I thought about Jennifer. She didn’t quit. She didn’t wave her white flag. She did what doctors told her to do and dug in. She was committed to making diamonds out of coal.

And I had told her I was running the 10K. She had encouraged me to go for it. It didn’t feel right to bail. She never bailed on anything. So I decided I’d go in cold and bold. And I’d run it for her.

After all the sadness and travel of the last 4 weeks, running took a back seat. Time was up. There were no good days to get one more long run in, but I felt like I needed to do something. On Thursday, I took off on my regular 3 mile route. Half would be good enough to stay warm but not so hard that I’d be sore the day of the race. At the two mile mark, I ran past my friend’s house. Melissa, (Failing At Life Club Co-President) was sitting in the front window, waving. At least I thought she was waving. I thought it was a “You GO GIRL!” kinda wave. I waved back and kept running. Apparently she was wildly waving for me to cross the street and come inside. I ignored all of that and was almost past the house when the front door flew open and her daughter called out.

“Miss Missy! Can you come in and look at my hamster? I think it’s dying!” Oh dear. We all know I have a Master’s Degree in Dead Hamsters. And now that I understood there was an emergency, I stopped running and crossed the street.

“Ok, but get me water,” I panted. When I crossed the threshold of the front door, I walked out of reality and straight into the twilight zone. I can’t overstate the freakshow I waddled into. Nor can I completely judge it. I have been reminded more than once that I took our hamster, Peter, to the vet three separate times before then paying $80 to put the hamster down. And I cried all the way to the car, carrying his little cardboard casket. All in all, that hamster cost us well over $300. It was only $16 to begin with.

So, you know. It takes one to know one, I suppose.

But I’m getting my freakshows confused. Back to the current one. I’ll return to the running in a moment.

With an ice cold water bottle in my hands, I rounded the corner from the living room into the front room and found Melissa wearing latex gloves and watching over a lethargic hamster like a priest performing last rites. I paused to take the scene in. The hamster’s eyes were mostly closed, but slowly blinked as the room cheered. And then, Melissa took a gloved hand, scooped little Nelly up, and tenderly flipped her over. ON A HEATING PAD.

“Look! It just took a breath! It’s breathing!” She announced, as she tenderly flipped Nelly again. It occurred to me as I stood there gratefully sipping on my water that I was witnessing a Hamster Rotisserie. They were slow roasting a dying rodent on a heating pad.

There was a lot of back and forth about the hamster and her habits over the last few days. I was certain Nelly was on her way out. But I was careful about who I said that to. I stood there with them for 10 minutes. But when I knew for sure there was nothing I could do except proclaim bad news, I tossed my empty water bottle in the trash and commenced the last mile on my route. That hamster died overnight.

And that was my dress rehearsal for a 6.2 mile race.

That was Thursday.

On Friday, I didn’t run at all. But I ate carefully and went to bed at 10 o’clock. My alarm was set for 5 a.m. but I was up at 4:24 before it went off. I arrived and was standing in the registration tent in the pre-dawn darkness. Of course they had no record of me and no packet for me. But I had proof I had paid, so they assigned a race bib and t-shirt to me and happily sent me away. I still had 45 minutes to kill, so I returned to my car to hydrate and stretch. That’s when I noticed I was in the system as Bib 4229, Missy Snapped. Sigh. Such an easy last name. And never right. I mean, NEVER.

It wasn’t even daylight and my registration had been lost and I was labeled to have already snapped. I shrugged it off as just another weird rung in the ladder. This race had already been anything but typical. And I continued to tell myself how I intended it to go. Training and registration had delivered some blows. But the race itself was going to be a strong finish.

At 7:25, they lined us up. I had eaten one banana and had lots of water. I lined up for the portapotty and used one. Then I immediately got back in line and used it again. When your race packet says you “Snapped,” you don’t start an hour-long run with a full bladder. I paced nervously at the Start line while a man with spanx and a microphone prayed for us all. That felt like a nice, and very Plant City, touch. And then a huge mass of people took off with the sun rising on our backs.

So many people. People with double strollers. People with barking German Shepherds.

It was at least a mile before the starting clump of runners thinned out enough for all of us to find our own pace. When I did, I fell into a rhythm that seemed sustainable. As I approached the second mile marker, I noticed younger female running and staying about 5 yards ahead. She had a 10K bib on. I decided to keep pace slightly behind her. For the whole race. She didn’t stop at water stations or change her pace. She kept running. I did the same. I kept the same 4 people in my sights for the next 4 miles. None of them ever stopped. Not for water. Not for anything.

At about the 5.5 mile mark, my main girl slowed down to being a few yards behind me instead of slightly ahead. But the other 3 were in view and all of us stayed together. The further into the 6th mile I ran, the harder it became. For the first time, I wondered if I could go all the way without stopping. But my people were still running. So I continued to run. And at the 6 mile sign, with only 2/10 to go, I saw the inflatable Finish Line. To this point, I had continued because I knew the Finish Line existed and because the people around me continued. But now, I kept going because the end was actually in sight.

And maybe it was the weird Colin Raye country song that was oddly placed in a playlist of Fall Out Boy and Imagine Dragons, but it hit me how much like life this race really was. Life gets hard sometimes. It gets REALLY hard sometimes. And if you are Jennifer, or someone like her, the race can look impossibly hard. Jennifer kept going for her people and with her people. Until she saw the Finish Line.

She never once stopped running.
She finished strong.

Two months ago, when I pushed myself a tiny bit and registered on a whim, the race was about me. On Saturday, pushing to do something that was bigger than I was, it became about my friend, Jennifer. We both completed races. She won hers. I finished mine. I was grateful for her strength as I collapsed in the grass holding a finisher’s medal.

I was feeling pretty good about myself, until I locked eyes with the medal I was holding. This would have to be where I drew the line at eternal analogies. Her prize is glorious. My prize had a goofy little cartoon strawberry on it.

But for now, that would have to do.

The Birthday Tattoo

February 8, 2022

Dear Jennifer,

Happy Birthday! Today you would be 51. You didn’t make it to 51, but you did one better. You are whole. And you finished STRONG, friend. The emotions leading up to this day have been pretty difficult. I was dreading it. I started the day fighting tears. But I didn’t start the day without a plan. I had a whole plan. A crazy plan. A plan that included some of my people. And a plan that included some of your people. The beginning of my day would have left you shaking your head in confusion. But the end of my day was a celebratory dinner you would have loved.

Let me back up.

Last year on your birthday, you texted me when you woke up. You weren’t supposed to beat me to it. But knowing it was an hour earlier for you, I was letting you sleep. You texted and asked if I could FaceTime. I texted back that I could and wished you a happy birthday, ya stinker. We talked that morning and texted all day long. You had a good day. You were fully celebrated. Your texts were full of exclamation marks and emojis. I am certain you felt the love.

That makes me happy.

You told me there weren’t enough exclamation marks for your thank you. I told you there wasn’t a gift good enough for who you are.

That’s true.

You know how I know?

Because today I went and got a tattoo. I ran out of good gifts and ideas and landed in a dirty tattoo parlor on 7th Avenue in Ybor City where I let Beau dig into my wrist with a needle to HONOR YOU (not an honor to you, I know, I know) in a place you would never have set foot and probably would have scolded me for going.

And somehow I couldn’t be more excited that I did this.

(It wasn’t really that dirty. I just wanted to say dirty tattoo parlor for shock value.)

The tattoo came about slightly by accident when I was eating dinner before going to the Betty White movie on January 17. I had found an ampersand in my neighbor’s rather clean pile of discarded items. I had taken it home and written about it. And then I got a text from my friend, Lea, in Tallahassee that I should go with her to get an ampersand tattoo. Until that moment, I had NEVER ONCE considered such a violently compromising thing as a tattoo on my person. But the moment my friend suggested it, I decided I was doing it. It was almost past tense already.

And then, only 5 days later, I lost you. And we celebrated you. And boy have we celebrated you. There’s so much to celebrate.

I came back from celebrating you in your hometown and decided I had to find a way to get the tattoo on your birthday. It needed to be today. Ironically, my straightlaced husband was served by a very tattooed waiter in a restaurant and got the name of their tattoo artist. I made an appointment for today.

And that’s how I landed in Ybor City with two inches of ink on my arm.

To the ampersand portion of the tattoo, I added the tribe symbol, because the last gift you gave me was the tribe necklace. I haven’t taken it off since Christmas morning.

So Happy Birthday, Jen! For a gift, I got a tattoo you would think is insane, but that would likely not surprise you. It reminds me of an old episode of The Simpsons (which you also would think is crazy) where Homer bought Marge a bowling ball for her birthday inscribed with the name “Homer.”

I got me a tattoo for your birthday.

But it wasn’t for you after all. Because you don’t need anything for your birthday this year. The tattoo is for me.
To remember.
To never forget.

I can’t afford to forget the things you constantly taught me. You reminded me that everything that truly matters is on the other side of the ampersand. And you reminded me that I have a tribe. And though you are not holding us all together on this side, we are all now holding each other.

Which brings me to the other part of my Jennifer Day celebration. I talked to or texted with so many of your people today. Your mom, your sister, your daughter, your friends. And we all gushed over and about you. We all started out with mostly you in common. But I think I can confidently say that what we’ll end up with will be what you would have hoped for. I think we’ll end up with a fused connection that far outlasts the raw stages of our grief.

So in this, on your day, you gave US something.
You gave us each other.

Tonight, on a dreary, unusually cold Florida night, Jennifer G. and I got together for dinner. Just the two of us. This has never happened outside you.  We met at Chili’s, which hasn’t changed since we were all there in 1991. It was a great meal, with great conversation. The pictures we took weren’t so great, but you can’t have everything.

We made a plan to meet up once a month. I really think we will. I’m going to work on getting her tattooed before the next dinner. I’ll let you know how that goes.

It’s late, but I didn’t get to call you today, so I’m doing the next best thing. I’m writing.
So. Happy Birthday to you, friend.
Thanks for the inspiration.
Thanks for the day in, day out gift of the best friendship.
And thanks for the gift of your people. It truly is the gift that keeps on giving.

(The tattoo is just a bonus.)

I miss you—you wouldn’t believe how much—but I’m doing okay. And I have no doubt you aren’t missing a thing.

Carry on.

I’ll be seeing you.

Your very edgy friend,

A eulogy for my dear friend, Jennifer

Jennifer Elizabeth Smith Earnhart
February 8, 1971 – January 22, 2021

Jennifer and I didn’t have a ton in common. She was Laura Ashley and I was borrowed gym shorts. I don’t know why she loved me, but I know she did. She never left you questioning how she felt about you. Nobody loves like Jennifer did and there will never be another Jennifer.

Jennifer passed through my home church in Tallahassee in 1989 while I was out of town. We were both seniors. She was going down to Tampa for a college visit to the school that brought us together. My mother met her and was taken with her. She did everything she could to get us together as roommates, since neither of us had one arranged. To me, my mother said, “I just met the most amazing girl, Missy! She’s going down to Florida College in the fall and she doesn’t have a roommate. You guys would hit it off great! You should write her.”

To Jennifer, my mother said, “Oh, I wish my daughter was here today. She’s going to Florida College in the fall and doesn’t have a roommate. She doesn’t want to go and we’re kind of making her. She’s not excited right now. I think she’d LOVE you!”

My mother shared all of this with me when I got back in town. Jennifer and I both remembered this and laughed about it later. I listened to my mom describe her and rolled my eyes, thinking, “Goodie-Two Shoes. No, thank you.” She listened to my mom describe me and cringed inwardly, thinking “Maladjusted Angry Hobo. No, thank you.”

The joke was on us, because as it turned out, my mom was right. We did hit it off. But I don’t know if she would have relished living with me, so maybe that part was a God thing.

My friendship with Jennifer was as good as it gets. And I’m so grateful it has a paper trail that’s as long as the friendship was. We have scrapbooks, a box full of letters with actual stamps sent in the actual mail. We have a year’s full of faxes (google “fax machine,” if you have no idea what this is) between us from our first real jobs that is a running daily log of our first year of marriage. And I have thousands of texts that go back over the last 5 years.  I can’t describe how much I will miss her name jumping to the top of my text window. She never forgot an event or a date. Her mind was sharper than a meat cleaver.  And no matter where she was or where I was or what was going on, she was right there supporting me. She never felt good. But she also never felt too bad to keep up with me and my people.

I look out on the horde of college students here primarily for Tyler and the young people here for Hallie, and I can’t help but think you guys are now what we were then. And we never drifted from that. I have 32 years of memories with Jennifer. I have been flooded with them over the past several weeks. Girls trips to St. Augustine and St. Pete. White water rafting in North Carolina. A poor man’s weekend vacation as newlyweds to Atlanta. I remember calling her when I had my oldest son in my arms, having just signed the paperwork to adopt him. And I remember calling her when my younger son was baptized just 6 weeks ago.

Jennifer had an open heart. Mine was locked up pretty tight in the beginning. I believe I learned friendship from her. She had an easy laugh and I hope I never forget the sound of that laugh. She was the type of friend who would laugh at your jokes even when they weren’t funny. She didn’t hug, she embraced. She didn’t say love ya. She said I love you. When you talked, she listened hard. And there is nothing in my adult life that she didn’t help me through. Not a single thing. Even this–even now–as I start 2022 without her, I am starting it with a devotional book that she gave me for my birthday. I’m a snotty, artsy type with strong opinions. I haven’t met many devotional books that I loved. This one, I adore. And every day so far, the message has been spot on. It’s like she knew. She had to have known. So even in this–even in losing her–Jennifer is still holding my hand.

The comforting thing about my talking here today is that I don’t have to tell you who Jennifer was. Everyone here knows. She was who she was in every circumstance. Every sickness. Every big event that any of us went through. She was focused on God. She was focused on her march to Heaven. She was focused on her people. She fully supported us. She LOVED deep and pure.

However, there are some things you may not know about Jennifer. I wasn’t lucky enough to know her in pre-Florida college days. When you see photos of those days, she and Natalie are always together. Their names were practically one word. JenniferandNatalie. NatalieandJennifer. Every person here knows how much Jennifer cherished Natalie. I’ve never seen another relationship like theirs. From the first moment I met Jennifer she gushed over her little sister. Natalie is in so many of our FC pictures. She was at our concerts and our sleepovers. And we never minded because she was everyone’s little sister. And when Jennifer started dating Tim and I was up visiting for a weekend, Natalie became my entertainment while Jennifer and Tim were off “complimenting each other’s hair” in some dark corner somewhere. I took advantage of that situation more than once. I took Natalie to the Warren County Jail where Joseph Kirkpatrick was a pretrial officer one night (we were AT the jail, not IN it). I talked her into swiping her mother’s most expensive French embroidery needle and piercing my ear using that and an ice cube. It may not surprise you that when we proudly marched up to Pat with the needle hanging out of my ear lobe, she was unimpressed with every part of this project. JenniferandNatalie were everything the rest of us aspired to be. And Natalie is still everyone’s little sister. I do hope she’ll remember that.

But back to the childhood photos, which is where this started.

In many of the old JenandNat photos, Jennifer looks like an innocent benefactor and Natalie looks like a stinker. But what not everyone realizes is that Jennifer had some stinker in her too. She was mostly sweet, with a little stink.

The following Jennifer nugget has been specifically requested and was not originally in my talk.

In my estimation, everyone gets at least one Mulligan to use on one Momentary Lapse of Reason. Most of us wear out this concept and need a Mulligan twice a week. And most people assume, with good reason, that Jennifer never had a reason to use hers. But she did. And I just happened to be there that day to witness it. The day after we graduated from Florida College, 10 of us took off for a week in St. Augustine. Looking back, our parents should never have supported this adventure. I was in a separate hotel with 2 other girls and Jennifer was in the first hotel, in a group of 7. We showed up separately to restaurants and tourist traps. Trying to coordinate 10 fickle, hormonal girls without GPSs and cell phones in 1991 was more than challenging. Some stuff happened that week.
It left room for errors.
It also left room for some pranks.

One afternoon, we had arranged to meet at the Fort and we were coming from our separate hotel rooms. Heather and Susan were in my car with me and we were running behind. When we finally got to the fort, we parked in the main lot and were rushing to catch up. We figured they would have already started touring without us. Much to our very great surprise, we came around the corner of the big front, stone wall and Jennifer’s group was there, with her in the mix of course—FRONT AND CENTER—and they were waiting for us.
But with their backs turned.
And with their pants down.
They had collectively mooned us.
It was practically choreographed.
My Goodness, Missy! Eyes on the ground. Do not make eye contact!

People don’t believe me when I tell them this story. They 1st don’t believe I was a MOONEE. And they certainly don’t believe SHE was a MOONER. But I am telling the truth, 100%. To those with dropped jaws and great concern, please know that no one else was around but us. And accept this as proof that Jennifer had some zip in her and that clearly she’d do anything to support her friends. This could NOT have been her idea.

As you might imagine, Jennifer was horrified in her more mature years that she had participated in such debauchery. I didn’t struggle with the guilt, of course, since I was simply a victim. She cleaned up her act, as you all know. And she was the Jennifer we know and love and fully celebrate today.

She was mostly sweet with a little stink. The sweet came into play far more often. I want to share something we laughed about from our final time together. I was blessed to be able to go to LA when she had her last back surgery at Cedar Sinai this past June. I took my two girls with me, who were 13 and almost 15. When she wasn’t in therapies, we were with her. When she was, we were off looking for Kardashians. The first full day I was there, she texted and asked for her regular Starbucks order. I recently pulled up this text and it made me laugh.

She took one look at what was under the metal lid on her hospital breakfast and said no thanks. The highlight of that visit was the time we spent eating meals outside together in the courtyard of her rehab facility. The weather was PERFECT and she loved being outside. I hadn’t rented a car, so all of my food and rides were done through Uber. Most of the time, this went off without a hitch. But one night, there were some hitches. She had been craving a burger. So we ordered a meal from Shake Shack about a mile away. I met the Uber driver at the street while Jen and my girls waited at a table in the courtyard. When I got to the table and started unpacking our food, I had fries and chicken tenders and one missing item. Wouldn’t you know that the only thing missing was the only thing that mattered: Jennifer’s hamburger. I immediately texted the Uber driver and asked about the burger. His first response had a tone of too bad so sad. Shake Shack’s fault. I’m not allowed to open the bags before delivery. He told me to call the restaurant, which I did. I was on the phone with Shake Shack and trying to manage the Uber guy’s texts, all while trying to stay out of earshot of Jennifer and my girls, because I was getting a little bit hot over this whole thing. Shake Shack apologized and said they would be glad to refund my money. At this point, I said, probably too loudly, I don’t want a refund. I have money. We can’t eat your money. What I need is a hamburger sandwich for my friend who hasn’t had a lot of good food or fun lately. Jennifer—who never misses anything– was totally savvy to what was going on. As I’m talking, the sweet part of Jennifer was talking in my other ear. Things like Missy, let it go. It doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about this anymore. I can eat these fries. Or have a couple of tenders or something. She was trying so hard to call me off. Shake Shack was telling me I needed to open a new Uber order, which I was now doing in addition to texting the first guy, talking to Shake Shack, and swatting at Jennifer with my free hand. As all the ridiculousness was coming together in a perfect storm of stupid, I pulled the phone away from my ear, put out my free hand, and shushed Jennifer up like she was a naughty toddler. Shhhh. I got this. I’m gonna get you a dang hamburger if it kills all four of us.

When I hung up, I honestly had no idea what was going to happen, but I don’t even think Jen was hungry anymore. I was still standing shellshocked when up ran the original Uber driver, who had gone back to the restaurant and get Jen her missing burger. I tried to tip him big. But he wouldn’t take it. This part of the story went down like a reverse mugging. I was chasing him with a $20 bill, my girls were sitting with Jennifer with their mouths wide open, and Jennifer was holding the contraband as shocked as they were.

That was a strange meal. When we were finished, my girls said goodnight to Jen and walked together the half mile back to our hotel and I took Jen back up to her room. I stayed an hour that night and chatted as she settled into her bed. The PA system announced that visitors needed to leave when the door swung open to Jennifer’s room and a nurse stood there holding a bag.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“It’s from Shake Shack. Looks like a burger.”

After we had a little chuckle, she said, “That’s gonna stink up my room. Throw it away in the lobby.”

Those days with her in Los Angeles were not fun ones for her, but they were sweet for me. And I will carry them with me for the rest of my life. I have been so lucky to be a part of her life, her family, her church family. Thank you all so much for allowing me to be. And for letting me talk about someone I love so much.

I have talked to and spent time with so many of Jen’s dear friends and family over the past week. We are all missing a huge piece of our hearts now. We all have a Jennifer shaped hole in us. She would want us to grab hands and walk home together. She would want us to fill that missing piece with each other and for each other.

I’m going to finish with something that is far too personal that I didn’t get to share with her, but I absolutely would have if I had had the chance. It’s from me to her, but I really do think it could have been from any of us. I wrote it at 2 a.m. the day she won her race. I knew she was approaching the finish line and I knew I needed to not hold her back but instead to cheer her on. .

The Long Goodbye

It’s been 7 days
176 hours
10,566 minutes
Since you said goodbye to me.
It was a good goodbye.
Almost as good as our friendship has been.
You know, right?
And I know.
We loved each other well.

Every song throws my mind to a car seat clothed in
French fry grease and conversation,
or a porch swing
or a couch.
Where you were.
Where we were.

I’ve always known I was going to lose you.
You were going to leave me first.
I’ve known.
But sometimes I dart in front of a moving car or I paddle board alongside a gator,
to see if I can make myself go first in a spectacular, newsworthy manner.
Because knowing you’ll leave first does not filter the slate from the sky
Or dull the ache of this long goodbye.
The truth is, friend, I have been losing you since the moment I found you.
But still I don’t know how to lose you.

I’ve been gripping my end of this tether so tightly
That you haven’t been able to run home.
We all have.

It’s been 7 days
176 hours
10,566 minutes
Since you said goodbye to me.
But I haven’t said goodbye to you.
I didn’t want you to walk home if I couldn’t walk with you.
I didn’t want you to win if it meant I had to lose.
You’ve never once beaten me in a foot race,
But it’s time you did.
You know, right?
And I know.
We loved each other well.
And we both win.

I’m letting you go ahead—for now.

You go.
I’ll catch up.