I’m CSPC elder Julian Smiley, and this is how I’m living deeply.
She’s not lying there beside me at night. After 50 years, that’s a strange feeling. I cried a lot during the 9 months we were losing Nancy. I still do. There’s no question in my mind God brought her into my life because I needed her. The first time I saw her, summer of 1969, I zeroed in. She was gorgeous. And just as pretty inside- there was nothing fake about her. We were both University of Georgia students at the same party. (She’d come with a frat brother of mine who was just a friend of hers.) I’d been taking a psychology class and we were studying hypnosis. So at this party, I was trying it out. Nancy saw me trying to hypnotize everybody and thought I was some kind of weird duck. (I actually teased everyone: ‘Nobody snap your fingers around her because, if I can hypnotize her, I don’t want her to wake up!’) When it was time to go, I offered to take her back to her dorm and she said no. Once she got back, she told her roommate she’d met me and denied my offer. The roommate’s response: ‘You turned him down? Do you know who that is? You call him back right now and tell him you’ll go out!’ As a star running back on UGA’s football team, I was pretty well-known. But Nancy didn’t know anything about football- she didn’t care about football. Anyway, everything worked out and we started dating. She came to the first game- we opened at Clemson that year. We’re warming up down on the field, and all of a sudden I hear this, ‘Hey, Juuuuliaaaan!’ I look over to the stands and there’s beautiful Nancy dressed in purple, one of Clemson’s colors! (I can still hear Coach Donaldson right now: ‘Smiley, get your mind on the game!) So that’s where it started. I think I was maybe a little intriguing to her because she wasn’t used to being around jocks. Her dad, a pastor and an avid UGA fan, married us in 1972. As pretty of a lady as she was, what most stood out about Nancy was her love of Christ. I didn’t realize it at the time, but even though I’d gotten saved as a boy, I never really had the relationship with God that I should have until I saw her walk. Like I said, I needed her.
Nancy and I, with our two children, Jes Smiley and Claire Huenefeld, moved to Knoxville in 1985. We joined CSPC in 1986. My job moved us away for a couple of years, but then we were able to move back. Nancy passed away on March 8th at the young age of 72. Two and a half weeks later, we gathered at the church to celebrate her life and how she lived deeply throughout those 72 years. Since her passing, I can’t tell you how many people have reached out and told me how Nancy (nickname ‘Fancy’) made a difference in their lives. Among the many groups and ministries she was involved with were Lentin Roses (a group of ladies who met to pray together), Pep Moms at CSPC (mentoring and praying with young moms), Passing it Back at CSPC (again, ministering to young moms) and Young Life. That’s a partial activities list, all fueled by the love of a beautiful heart: Nancy just loved the Lord and was a living example in her walk with Him to all who knew her. Friends from all over called to talk about her passing, and they almost all referred to Nancy as Fancy! I was frequently asked how she got the nickname. Well, here’s a partial version: Nancy had transferred to UGA from Wesleyan College for Girls in Macon, GA. She went to Wesleyan at first because her beautiful, loving mother wanted her to attend a college where they served dinner on linen table clothes. (Fancy!) But if you want the complete story, well, I grew up in a family of three boys. I had no idea what kind of fancy underwear women wore! So, after we were married, I started calling Nancy ‘Fancy Pants.’ After Jes and Claire were born, the word ‘pants’ was dropped (no pun intended) and it just became ‘Fancy’ to family and friends for the rest of her life.
July 14th, 2022 started slowly like any other day. Then, all at once, everything changed forever. Though she was still living a pretty normal life, Nancy had been battling the early stages of dementia for several years and didn’t cook any longer. I got up to make breakfast for the two of us that day like usual. Suddenly I heard something hit the floor in the bathroom. So I went in there and Nancy was lying on the floor. She’d fallen and hit her neck on the countertop; broke two vertebrae in her neck and cracked her pelvis. The fall just kicked the dementia into high gear. Nancy ended up in Intensive Care at UT Medical Center for two weeks. From there, we moved her to NHC in Farragut until she passed. I was there every day from the crack of dawn. These were hard, hard days. Sometimes she would wake up, look, and grin like she knew you, but that brief spark would quickly go away. I would help move her around when they would come in to bathe her, and it got to the point at the end where I could literally just pick her up like a baby- she didn’t weigh anything. The last month of her life she had no food. I admit I really struggled watching the woman I loved waste away. You go through anger: ‘Why is this happening to her? Or to me?’ But I can remember, too, when I prayed or thought like that, it was like I got a slap in the face: ‘Hey, I got this.’ God was there, even when Nancy wasn’t really there anymore. Yes, physically she was still there, but she was almost with Jesus already. Claire and I took turns at the end spending the night at NHC. The one night that neither one of us stayed -at 4 in the morning on March 5th- I got a call that Nancy had passed away. Nobody wanted it, nobody wished it, but it was the best thing that could have happened. It had been a long and hard 9 months for our family. Nancy was, and is, totally healed and home with her Heavenly Father! If Claire, Jes, and I didn’t know where she was, it would’ve been harder on us, having to think: ‘Well, is she with Jesus?’ But there’s no doubt in our minds. That assurance is what helped get us through it- that was God working and walking with our family during that time.
To know where she is, it makes it so much easier now. Is it easy? No. Is it still hard? Yes. Is it going to be hard? For a little longer, probably. But at the same time, knowing where she is, this isn’t the end of Nancy’s story. It’s really just the beginning. And it’s because of how she shaped my faith, in all the ways she lived deeply, that I’m able to see it that way. I also learned how to really pray from Nancy. I mean, I thought I prayed, but she was very intentional- she knew how to take things to the Lord. She never was in a prayer rut because she was always thinking of and praying for other people. I don’t know how many times I ever heard her pray for herself; very few. Nancy was on the first prayer team that was ever put together at CSPC. And not just there, but she was very involved in our Sunday school classes and with her groups of friends who met to pray. And she was spontaneous. I mean, if she was talking to you and sensed there was something that needed to be prayed about, she’d look at you and say, ‘Can I pray for you?’ Learning all that from her, well, it really ended up helping me greatly as she was passing. As I’ve mentioned, when I would pray during that time, I would get angry at God- I wanted Him to go ahead and take her home, to totally heal her. And I could feel Him answer: ‘Julian, I got control of this. I’m taking care of you, and of her. In my time, it will all work.’ Some things we have to do in life are not fun, but we’re called to do them. For me, it was being my wife’s prayer warrior as she passed- growing closer to God through pain. I was reminded regularly how good He is. And I had learned it all from her. She saw the good in so many things where other people couldn’t. I mean, I married way over my head- this old jock did pretty good. When I think about all the good Nancy did in her life, it kind of sets the bar for me. I want to finish well, too, and get a similar welcome to the one that greeted her at 4 am on Sunday morning, March 5th, 2023: ‘Well done, good and faithful daughter, enter your eternal home and my loving arms!’