Jenn & Di at the BEN

One of my favorite people on earth, Jennifer Brannan, died this week.

At the moment, I still can’t quite grasp the fact that she’s gone. Also, I’ve never lost a friend with whom I felt so close, so forgive me if I meander a bit: I’ll be OK in a few paragraphs … or maybe a few days.

I don’t think I’ll ever be quite the same, though.

Jenn and I became friends the instant we met.

I say this as someone who doesn’t make friends all that easily. Nor do I take friendship lightly; it usually requires months and years of “tending to,” and even then, so many factors go into having — and being — a true friend, I am amazed that any of us are able to be truly successful at it.

Plus, I have the added quality of being someone who, on occasion, makes a really bad first impression — just ask my boss, Terra Kerkemeyer, or sports editor Phil Knapper. (On second thought: Don’t! Their first-impression stories about me make me cringe!)

Jenn and I clicked, though, right from the start, when I saw her sitting in the darkroom at The Benton Evening News office back in the fall of 1998.

A junior at Benton Consolidated High School, Jenn had signed on as our darkroom assistant, which meant that over the next couple of years, she got to arrive at work an hour or so before everyone else (5:30 or 6 o’clock each weekday morning) to develop film. My fellow editorial staff members and I would get to the office, look at our negatives and tell Jenn which ones we wanted printed for that day’s newspaper. She would print the photos and then head off to BCHS for a full day of school.

(Along with my bad-first-impression tendencies, I’ve also heard I can be a little demanding when it comes to pictures. Not as demanding as our former outdoors editor, Joe McFarland, but a little picky, nevertheless. Jenn never seemed to notice or to mind.)

Later, she worked in our composition department, which often required her to be at the office for the late-night shift on Fridays following a Benton Ranger football or basketball game.

Early mornings and late nights can make for some great conversations at the news office, and with each passing day, Jenn and I got to know each other a little better … sometimes outside the office, “on assignment” or road trips or sharing a pizza at the restaurant now known as Cathy Ann’s.

I lost track of Jenn, momentarily, when she left for Peoria not long after graduation — not because she didn’t keep in touch, but because I was caught up in my own sometimes very self-centered life.

In fact, that Christmas, when I was in the midst of a major case of the holiday blues, a card from Jenn a few days after the event was just what I needed, at just the exact moment I needed it, to get me back on track. Or at least pointed in the right direction.

She was a wonderful listener, even when I would babble on about what was going on in my very low-key thirtysomething world. And then, sometimes I would go into Wise Old Pal Mode and try to dispense Valuable Advice on Life. I’m not sure how “valuable” anything I ever said really was, but Jenn did a fantastic job making me feel as if it all really mattered, somehow.

I loved her sense of humor and her smile, and that she would sometimes get to giggling so hard she couldn’t stop.

I loved her fashion sense and her cool hair, along with the fact that she had such a true knowledge of who she was, even as a high-schooler. For someone so young — a mere teen-ager when we first met! — she seemed so comfortable in her own skin, so happy and healthy with her own identity. (For example, she wore a tuxedo and escorted her girlfriend to Prom — something that took no small amount of guts, even here in the diverse and oh-so-open-minded Franklin County!)

I loved the fact that Jenn loved photography. And music. And movies and rain, so much so that the night we went to see Boys Don’t Cry at the Tivoli Theatre in St. Louis, the fact that it was pouring down rain only served to enhance the entire evening.

I loved how much she cared about her friends. Staci, Cristy, Leslie — all of you and many more, her friends and confidants (and anyone who knew her, really, even casually), loved her … and as much as you loved her, she loved you that much back, and more.

I loved how she loved her family, especially her sisters, Molly and Kim, and her brother, Steven. She was so proud of all of you, so glad to be your big sister (and an aunt to her nieces), and she enjoyed being reunited with you over the past few weeks.

And, oh, how she loved (and missed) her mom …

If there is a silver lining to be found amongst the ugly clouds that have loomed overhead most of this past week, it is the belief that Jenn and her mom, who passed away earlier this year, are now together again. And believe me: I do believe.

I hate the fact that Jenn is gone, physically, and I hate the fact that I won’t get to spend about 50 more years hanging out with her. Yet I am grateful for the past nine years that we have known each other and for every second we spent together during that time.

I loved teasing Jenn about how she was so much shorter than I am — even though I am pretty sure we both measured about 5 feet, 2 inches (and change). I used to stand right next to her and cast a sidelong glance and say, “Look at me! I’m TOWERING over you!” She’d smile and giggle, knowing full well we were the same height.

Truth of the matter is, she towered over all of us.

I love you, Jenn.