I learned of Jennifer’s passing on Sunday evening while scrolling my phone, watching the mid-season finale of “The Walking Dead.” Given that it was one of her favorite shows, I think she would have appreciated that.

I’ve been consumed ever since, though, with a healthy amount of guilt, because throughout her short, fierce cancer battle, I never reached out. Not once.

It’s not that I didn’t want to. When she shared the news on Facebook, I meant to send her a message, letting her know she was on my mind. We weren’t the closest of friends, but she was pregnant with her son, Ben, around the same time my ex-wife was pregnant with my oldest, and I think we met for the first time in the waiting room of the obstetrician’s office both women shared.

She knew me from this column, and every so often, she reached out to offer some commentary on something I had written. She was a conservative, so we didn’t always see eye to eye politically, but she was reasonable and rational and loved a spirited conversation. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone as passionate about the military or as patriotic as Jen was (or as enthusiastic a baseball mom as she was). She never failed to post a Friday photo of herself wearing a red top every week for “R.E.D.” Friday — “Remember Everyone Deployed,” and she was a vocal advocate for veterans issues and military respect.

Back in 2018, during a period of personal strife, I told her about a job opening at Cornerstone of Recovery, where I now work. She applied for and got the position, and while she never struggled with drugs or alcohol herself, she could be as tender as she could be fierce, and her compassion for the lost and wounded souls who came through the door knew no bounds. The receptionists are often the first individuals in treatment that patients meet when they arrive on campus, and for so many of them, the empathy and sympathy they get from those individuals are the first genuine gestures of kindness they’ve received in a very long time.

Jen loved her job, even though she wasn’t here long. She was a restless sort, still yearning to find her place and her passion, but shortly after she left Cornerstone, the cruel hands of fate delivered to her a devastating blow. Cancer, which she’d beaten once several years earlier when a case of melanoma threatened her life, had returned.

This time, she wouldn’t escape it. And I’m still cursing myself because I never got around to sharing with her words of encouragement or hope or just to chat about something mindless and inane, like “The Walking Dead,” to take her mind off of it for a while. Something always seemed to interfere, and it just didn’t seem appropriate to send anything less than my most heartfelt greetings. Words are my commodity, and Jen deserved more, I thought, than a simple, “Hang in there!”

There would always be, I thought, another time. The right time, when I could set aside 30 minutes and write something at length that let her know how much I admired her. How much I was rooting for her. How very much I hoped she would prevail. As the weeks stretched on, the more I felt the need to do so every time I encountered her social media posts in my Facebook feed … and the more I procrastinated, until it was just too damn late.

I’m sorry, Jen. You deserved better. I think you knew, or I hope you did, how much you were loved, and not just by me. The outpouring of support I’ve seen in the social media sphere has been profuse, and for good reason: Yours was a spirit that burned bright and hot. You liked to joke about being a redhead, and you certainly lived up to the stereotype — quick-tempered, passionate, exuberant and brash. There seemed to be no middle ground with you, but for everyone who shied away from you, there were a dozen waiting in line to be a part of your orbit.

That, I think, is a fine legacy to leave — that, and the fact that such fire has been passed on to your children. Ben and Kristin, my heart aches for you on this day, and I can’t begin to imagine the pain you must feel at the loss of such an indomitable spirit and matriarch. Know this: She lives on in both of you, and in the rest of us who remember her fondly.

I wish I had taken the time to tell her that while she was still alive. It’s a regret I’ll live with for a long while, and if there’s any lesson to be learned from it, it’s this: Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity or the perfect words. Hug your people, remind them that they’re loved and tell them how much they mean to you, while you still have the chance. A well-written eulogy is a fine thing, but it pales in comparison to the difference we make in the lives of those who still walk this earth, no matter how hurt, broken or sick they might be.

Rest easy, Jen. Thank you for allowing me into your orbit and for the children you helped raise into fine human beings. The world was a better place with you in it, and I wish I had told you so before you left.

Steve Wildsmith was an editor and writer for The Daily Times for nearly 17 years; a recovering addict, he now works in media and marketing for Cornerstone of Recovery, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Blount County. Contact him at wildsmithsteve@gmail.com.

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