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.

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