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When Jamie Bassett proposed to Stephanie Smith last year, he knew she would be surprised. They were taking Christmas card photos when Bassett suddenly got on one knee during the photo shoot and pulled out a ring.
“I had a lot of stuff I planned to say but I kind of blacked out at the moment,” Bassett told BuzzFeed News. “I just held the ring out and said, ‘You want to do this forever?’ And she said yes.”
That night, while out celebrating their engagement with family and friends in Lubbock, Texas, where the couple lived, her brother Aaron Smith recalled that he had “never seen her so happy in my life.”
“I remember a point in that night, me and Stephanie were by ourselves, and we just hugged each other and cried, like, This is amazing,” Aaron told BuzzFeed News.
Bassett and Stephanie never got to have the wedding that they planned for all year. Stephanie, 29, was diagnosed with COVID-19 and pneumonia the week before they were supposed to marry, and on Nov. 18, five days after their wedding date, she died at the hospital.
Stephanie’s death was not something Bassett or her family expected, despite her diagnosis.
“When I got the call [about her positive COVID test], it was awful, but I’ve had five friends who got COVID who walked away perfectly fine,” Aaron said. “And Stephanie is perfectly healthy, so I wasn’t worried that much.”
They were concerned about keeping her oxygen levels up because Stephanie would get anxiety attacks in the morning, though by lunchtime her condition would improve, Bassett said. Aaron was also worried that Stephanie felt lonely at the hospital since no one was allowed to visit her, so they tried to stay in contact through text messages.
“It was just a mood of like, Let’s get over this, let’s get her out of here, and let’s replan the wedding for next year or something,” Aaron said, adding that Stephanie was eager to get married, and even talked about having the wedding the next month. “She was ready to do it as soon as she got out of there.”
They moved her to the ICU the day before she died to better monitor her during the anxiety attacks, and a nurse had told her mom that she was “doing super” there, Bassett said.
At around 2 a.m., she texted Bassett that night saying she wanted a Coke. That was her last message to him.
A few hours later, Stephanie’s mom called Bassett to say that the hospital was going to allow her to see Stephanie in person. Knowing that is usually allowed before a patient takes a turn for the worse, Bassett braced himself.
They drove to the hospital together, and when they arrived, the medical staff told them that Stephanie had died.
Even with the pandemic, 2020 was a busy year for Stephanie. On top of her full-time job as an alumni coordinator for South Plains College, her alma mater in Levelland, and her side gig as a successful freelance photographer, she was planning her wedding.
“She was massively busy,” said Aaron, who was going to officiate their wedding. “She always got things done.”
Stephanie took a lot of pride in the work that she did at the college, where she oversaw alumni relations.
"This was her first job out of college," Julie Gerstenberger, the director of development at South Plains College, told BuzzFeed News. "Her intelligence, her enthusiasm, her personality, her warmth, her work ethic. All of those things made her such a wonderful colleague."
After her death, South Plains College set up a scholarship in her name, and donations to the scholarship from the public quickly surpassed the $10,000 endowment minimum, Gerstenberger said.
"It is not typical that donations in the form of memorials, especially, equal $10,000. It's rare," she said. "It definitely speaks to Stephanie's influence and legacy."
Gerstenberger said she will work with the family to determine the recipient of the scholarship in the coming weeks.
“It’s exciting. It feels like Stephanie is still doing her work,” Aaron said. “That’s all she’s really wanted.”
When Jeffrey Lance, a bandmate and longtime friend of Bassett's, first met Stephanie, they liked her immediately.
“She was very effortlessly cool and extremely funny. She was a lot of fun to be around. She made people at ease. Even the first time I met her was very natural,” Lance told BuzzFeed News. “Everybody in the band loved her very, very much.”
She shone especially brightly, Lance recalled, whenever they shared their feelings about gender expression with Stephanie.
“I felt kind of weird about my gender expression sometimes and said things like, ‘I want to wear dresses or paint my nails or wear makeup,' and Stephanie was always extremely encouraging of that. She was like, ‘You absolutely should do it,’ [or] ‘Check this little tutorial out,’” they said. “Stephanie was always just a very supportive person in everything.”
In their decadelong friendship with Bassett, Lance said they had never seen him more comfortable around a person than he was with Stephanie.
With her, Bassett was “100% himself and at ease, and always having a good time,” they said. “It was very clear that they loved each other more than anything in the world.”
Bassett, whose parents are in the Dallas area, also fit right in with the Smiths, a close-knit family. The couple had dinner with the family every Wednesday, a tradition Bassett has kept up even in the weeks since Stephanie’s death.
“For all intents and purposes, [Stephanie’s mom and dad] were my parents away from my real parents,” Bassett said.
He also added to the sibling relationship between Aaron and Stephanie, who were two years apart in age and inseparable growing up.
“We both went through our punk and emo phase at the same time and had a blast with each other. When we got older, it stayed the same,” Aaron said. “Then she met Jamie, and I felt like I gained a brother.”
Aaron acknowledged the public’s anger over how politicians both at the federal and local levels have dealt with the pandemic.
Case counts and the death toll in Texas have skyrocketed in recent months, including in Lubbock. According to the city’s data, and there are currently more patients in need of hospital beds than there are beds available in Lubbock.
Mayor Dan Pope, who has promoted the importance of “personal responsibility” in the city’s response to the pandemic, “has done nothing to help the city at all,” Aaron said.
Stephanie’s death received a lot of attention outside their community, after the Twitter account Faces of COVID’s post about her went viral.
Bassett said that although he appreciates how much her story has moved people, he struggles with the number of internet strangers who tweet their condolences at him.
“There’s only so many times you can read ‘I’m so, so sorry for your loss’ from a complete stranger and not kind of feel like there’s one giant person named Complete Stranger saying ‘Sorry for your loss,’” he said.
For Bassett, he said it's the small, everyday moments that are the hardest.
“My grief and anguish has been focused on my own personal — the things that I’m missing,” Bassett said. “Opening the door to the house and seeing her sit on the couch. Texting her when I solve something at work. Inside jokes, updates throughout the day, pictures of our dog. That kind of stuff.”