The last time I flew into Denver was May 2002. It was to claim my late husband’s body, pack up our home and attend the first of three services he was to have. Three services to accommodate all his family and friends and the different aspects of his life.
I had been at my parents’ home in California, recovering from a heart condition that had come on strong and fast. I had been so weak in the last weeks I spent in Colorado, and my husband wasn’t able to take care of me. Things were falling apart at such a rapid rate, that looking back, it’s as if he was acting the way he was so I would break. So my parents would insist I come home and meet with their specialists and get answers they thought they needed regarding my health. It was such a screwed up time, and neither of us were thinking clearly or acting rationally. So, when I got the call that my husband was dead, and that his sponsor and dear friends, whom I had sent to our home to check on him, had found him, my brain sort of imploded. I recall bits and pieces of that three days between the call from the Police Department and the flight to Denver. But I remember everything about that flight.
A dear friend was flying with me, as my parents were taking a later flight. I was still in the process of making calls and trying to answer questions from family and friends. Planning memorial services. Making decisions about our home, his car, his body. Death is so hard. Suicide is beyond hard. So hard for the person that dies in such a way and so very hard for those who are left behind. So many people were angry at me. So many people pitied me. So many people didn’t know what to do or say. And, a few of the very best people dropped everything to hold me up. I am forever indebted to those people.
On that last flight to DIA so many years ago, I remember crying all the way to the airport. My friend practically glued to my side. When we checked in, and I handed my ID to the representative at the counter, I also provided the letter from the Neptune Society. The letter that explained that I was flying to claim my husband’s body and attend his memorial service. I had been told by the reservation representative when I booked my ticket to do that. I still remember the way the counter representative looked at me. I still remember her saying “Oh, my dear. You are so young. I am so very sorry.” And I remember breaking down. We checked our bags, and we received our boarding passes. We went through security. It was just a few months after 9/11 and airports were still figuring out all the new screenings and protocol. When we handed our IDs and boarding passes to the TSA agent, and he asked me what my purpose for travel was, I answered “my husband is dead. I have to deal with it.” I don’t believe that was the answer he was expecting.
I didn’t even realize that my boarding passes had shown that my friend and I had been upgraded to First Class. I didn’t realize it until the attendant on board greeting us knew my name and told my friend and me that she would escort us to our seats. The first row. She asked if I needed anything. I told her my husband. And I started to cry. And then I remember laughing. That nervous, this can’t be real laugh because the only other time I had flown First Class was with my late husband. He had won a trip from his company. And he flew me First Class to meet him. And here I was, flying First Class to go back to where my home had been with my husband who was now dead. My friend got me a drink. A stiff drink. And I cried for the almost two and half hour flight. When we landed the pilot came out and told me how sorry he was. He wished me strength.
That was the last time I flew to Denver. Up until that flight, the Denver flight was second nature to me. For so many years before I moved to Denver, I had flown to Denver at least once a month. At least. For almost 7 years. Denver had always meant I would soon be with Greg. Denver, in a way, had always been like coming home. After he died, Denver just became a place of pain. Of anger. Of questions I couldn’t answer. Of arguments I couldn’t take back. Of broken dreams. Of unfulfilled promises. So I avoided Denver like the plague.
When I went to Aspen to visit a dear friend and scatter Greg’s ashes, I flew directly into Aspen. Aspen was the only part of the state I could visit. And I did. A few times after his death. It was the place where we went for long weekends. Where I learned to fly fish. Where we were engaged. Aspen was a place of joy for me. So that is where I went when I needed to be close to Greg. Even though I still had amazing friends and Greg’s family in Denver, I just couldn’t go there. There were just too many ghosts.
For over 13 years I avoided flying into Denver. I have wanted to visit friends and family and decided against it as I was about to book tickets. I have made sure that if I am flying anywhere else with a layover, that I don’t have a layover in Denver. Like I said, I avoided it like the plague. Until I couldn’t.
This past August, my family was headed to Michigan for a wedding and then Pittsburgh to see family. Coming home from Pittsburgh the only flight that worked for our budget and schedule was one that went through Denver. Believe me, I spent hours trying to figure out something else. That flight was the only one that worked. So I booked it. And the anxiety started almost immediately.
My husband asked if I wanted to book a few days in Denver, either with or without him and our boys, so I could see family and friends. And, a part of me really wanted to. But a part of me knew that just this flight, as silly as it seems, was going to be all I could handle that day. It would end up being just a very short layover.
The morning we left Pittsburgh, I started saying little prayers (or pleas) for strength and calm. Please don’t let me lose it on the flight. Please don’t let me lose it and make my husband worry about me. Please don’t make me have to explain to my sons who don’t yet know their mommy was married before why mommy is so upset. Please don’t let me throw up on the plane.
I was actually very calm until the pilot came on to let us know we were about an hour out of Denver. Clear skies and a smooth landing were anticipated. And, I couldn’t stop thinking about Greg. About the life we tried to make there. About all the years I spent flying in and out of that airport. About the fall foliage and snowball fights and springs and summers spent on the rivers fishing. Of football and hockey and basketball and baseball and how we loved all of it being RIGHT THERE downtown. And before I knew it, I realized that all the things I was remembering about Denver were the awesome times we had enjoyed there. For the first time, in a very long time, the joy was first and foremost. The pain was just peripheral.
We landed, and I took a deep long breath. And I asked my husband if he wouldn’t mind taking the boys ahead. We had a very short layover, and we would be boarding our flight home almost immediately. But I just wanted a moment in that place. In that terminal. In that city. Just a moment. To reflect. To honor. To just be.
One of the first things I saw coming out of the gate was a Tornado Shelter sign. They are all over the terminal – in alcoves and the restrooms. Greg used to joke that if anyone was ever going to get stuck in DIA during a tornado it would be me. I am just the kind of person that has all kinds of crazy stuff happen to her. So the signs were always sort of a joke.
So, I stood by that sign and stared at it for a few minutes. And I took a huge breath of Colorado (albeit terminal) air. And I smiled when I realized I didn’t need shelter from that tornado anymore. The storm had passed. And I was still standing.
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