On a late November afternoon, masked mourners fill Second Baptist Church in Levelland.
“Let’s be honest, none of us want to be here right now. We can think of 1,000 other places we’d rather be. But that’s not our reality.”
Minister Coby Colley addresses the friends and family of Stephanie Smith at her funeral. In the church she grew up in, they’re saying their final goodbyes.
“This family should just be getting over their wedding celebration,” Smith’s youth pastor said. “Instead, we’re here, mourning the loss of somebody who meant so much to us. That’s our reality.”
After a brief hospitalization, 29-year-old Smith died from complications of COVID-19 on November 18, just a week before Thanksgiving. Five days earlier, she was supposed to marry the love of her life. She would have turned 30 at the end of December.
Almost 24,000 Texans have died due to COVID-19. Less than 1% of those people were between the ages of 20 and 29. In Lubbock, data shows only two people under age 29 have died from complications of the virus.
Smith was one of those people. She was more than a statistic. Her friends and family want her to be remembered as a passionate, strong woman who made a difference in her life cut too short.
A turn for the worse
Smith’s fiancé Jamie Bassett said they scaled down their wedding plans earlier in the pandemic. They were going to have a small ceremony with immediate family at the same field where Bassett proposed exactly a year before.
“Even if we couldn’t have the full wedding because we don’t want to kill all of our grandmas and grandpas in the process, we wanted our day,” Bassett said.
Then Smith got sick. Bassett said at first, Smith just didn’t feel well. Over a few days, that developed into a cough. She could taste food and drinks, but they didn’t taste right. And she was so fatigued. Smith went to a hospital, where she was diagnosed with COVID-19 and pneumonia.
“They sent her home from the hospital that night because, basically, since she could walk into the hospital she could walk out,” Bassett said. “Go home, monitor your oxygen the best you can, that sort of thing.”
Bassett said Smith was admitted to a Lubbock hospital after her oxygen levels dipped. She was struggling with anxiety and hyperventilating, making it even harder for her to breathe. But after a few days, her fiancé says Smith was doing better.
“She was texting and Facetiming, talking on the phone, sending memes,” he said.
Smith’s mom called Bassett early that Wednesday morning. Despite strict COVID-19 visitation rules, the hospital was going to let family members see her. Bassett knew that wasn’t a good sign.
“When we got to the hospital, they told us they lost her pulse a total of four times and brought her back through CPR three times,” Bassett said. “But the last one they couldn’t bring her back.”
She died before her loved ones could say goodbye. Reality quickly hit Bassett.
“Seeing her laying there in the bed,” he recalled. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that moment a lot, actually.”
"Suck it up, bro"
Instead of reciting his wedding vows to his beautiful bride, Bassett read them at her funeral.
“Stephanie, today I wanted to share with you stories of times when I knew absolutely, unequivocally, that you were the person I wanted to marry,” he said from the sanctuary pulpit.
He said through her actions, Smith showed him a life that he wanted for forever. He has countless examples, but pinpointed three he wanted to share.
He talks about the time they bundled essential items to give to homeless people in need. He recalls when Smith volunteered with Operation Baby Watch, a program that provides hospitalized foster children with a caring adult sitter. One little girl made a lasting impact on Smith. She cried when she told Bassett about the experience.
“You sat with her, and you sang to her, and you let her play with your hair,” Bassett said. “Stephanie, I told you this a lot of times -- that was the proudest I’ve ever been of anyone.”
The last story the grieving groom shared was about when “he knew.” Bassett said he used to not think he was good enough for Smith. She was so funny, and caring and smart. When he accepted that she really did want to be with him, he immediately bought a wedding ring.
Smith’s family members also spoke at her funeral. Her older brother Aaron describes her as loyal, funny and his best friend.
Aaron Smith described his sister as a “bro.” Later in the service, Minister Colley led the attendees to all say “suck it up, bro,” a phrase Smith’s loved ones joked she would tell each of them if she saw them mourn for her. Smith was known for being direct.
“A word that keeps coming up is unapologetic, when we talk about Stephanie,” Aaron Smith said. “She was unapologetically herself. And I think we all fell in love with her for it.”
Smith made a career as the first executive director of the South Plains College Alumni Association, her hometown’s community college. She started working at her alma mater soon after graduating from Texas Tech University.
Julie Gerstenberger, Smith’s boss and director of development and alumni relations at South Plains College, said Smith was the ideal person to develop the association. The two women worked together for six years but knew each other longer. Gerstenberger said Smith was special.
They worked in a three-person office. Gerstenberger said over this past pandemic year, even if they weren’t physically in the same space, they were constantly in communication. They talked about professional and personal matters.
Gerstenberger said she thinks she is still somewhat in disbelief of Smith’s passing. How can a vibrant young woman be here one day and gone the next?
“That’s the part that I still cannot wrap my head around,” Gerstenberger said. “And now we have the holidays coming up, so we’ll be away from the office of course for an extended period. I’m sure January is when reality will rear its ugly head and it’ll settle in.”
The community college has started a scholarship in Smith’s name, a legacy her family, Bassett and Gerstenberger are all proud of.
Gerstenberger said she thinks Smith knew that the work she was doing, professionally and personally, made a difference.
“But man, I wish she could really see this proof of it right now,” Gerstenberger said. “It would just be such a blessing to her. But it’s a blessing to her family and that’s good.”
At her funeral, Smith’s dad Sonny said she didn’t just have hobbies, she had passions. Like her love for photography, whether she was taking one of a million selfies or capturing a wedding. She did everything with a full heart.
“Twenty-nine wonderful years. Twenty-nine years of that laugh, 29 years of smiles. Kisses and hugs,” Sonny Smith said. “I’ll be grateful for that.”
Contributions to the scholarship fund are welcome in any amount. Donations can be made securely online at www.southplainscollege.edu/donate. Checks can be made to the SPC Foundation and mailed to the Office of Development and Alumni Relations, South Plains College, 1401 S. College Ave., Levelland, Texas 79336.
Have a news tip? Email Sarah Self-Walbrick at email@example.com. Follow her reporting on Twitter @SarahFromTTUPM.
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