During my summer travels, I met a woman at an airport whose soul has been burned into my heart.
It was the day after my 45th birthday. A day before the seventh month mark of the Marshall Fire aftermath.
This woman I met, she shares my middle name. She had the softest voice. The kindest eyes — ones that welled up frequently, ready to spill like an overzealous backyard kiddie pool.
She was visiting her daughter. I was with my kid as we were wrapping up a week at the lake, heading back to Denver.
She was talking about the violent spring tornadoes that tore across Kentucky and nearby states that erased homes and killed dozens.
“I know how those people feel,” she said, a small wavering voice cracking.
I asked where she lived. Boulder area, she said.
“Neat, I work for the Boulder papers,” I said. “Where do you call home?”
She smiled, but her gaze sunk deep, in a far-off purgatory, her eyes locked on the taxied airplanes.
“I can’t read the news anymore. It’s too hard for me,” she said. “I’m going home but not to my home. I lost mine in the Marshall Fire.”
“My cat was in the house.”
“My son and husband were the only ones who could ever coax her out from her corners and shadows,” she said. “I never could. I don’t even know if I would have been able to save her even if I had more notice.”
She began to describe the chaos, clutching her faux snakeskin purse that fully mesmerized the young boy sitting next to her.
“I didn’t know what was happening,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m still in a dream. I thought I could go back to my home. I thought I could go back.”
She said she got a call that she had to leave right away. She grabbed her purse and her keys and ran out the door. Those two assets, along with her husband and daughter who were not home at the time, were the only things that escaped the inferno.
After a lifetime of marriage, memories and kids, she was left with a car and a purse.
“I have no wedding pictures,” she said, her eyes welling up again as she described her younger sister’s dress and crown of flowers. “She stole the show. But now I can only see it in my mind.”
Her eyes were the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen, but they held so much pain.
She said she’s been seeing a therapist every day since the Dec. 30 blaze that destroyed more than 1,000 homes. She said she has a hard time talking to anybody, even her therapist sometimes. In the beginning of the aftermath, she was numb. She said there were days she couldn’t move.
“I should have known,” she said. “I should have known.”
But there’s no way she really could have known, she said. Emergency alerts and texts from family members fired so rapidly, so she got in the car and left.
“I’ll be back,” she thought.
She said she smelled smoke on her way out, but would have never been prepared for what its wrath had in store.
She’d get intertwined in details, talking to me, gazing at the tarmac. She seemed very thankful to have an empathetic ear. She’d catch herself when her eyes welled up. At times she seemed entirely defeated.
“I’m sorry, I talk too much,” she said.
You and me both, sweet woman. Despite wearing an N95 mask that doubled as a tear collector, I could read her entire face. I felt very kindred to her.
She still sits fresh in my mind. I can’t fathom her pain, an ache that brings tears to my own eyes.
“When my husband called and told me he was informed the home was gone, I wanted to throw up,” she said.
Our serendipitous intersection put much of my trivial bullshit into focus. Yes I feel slighted by the hand of the cosmos at many times in my life, but I am truly lucky. And I hope that I offered the same healing that she offered me.
When we departed the plane in Denver, between the chaos, I offered a distant wave across the chaotic plane. She smiled and waved back. I wish I could tell her everything was going to be OK. I wanted to hug her, the way I hug my mom. But instead I clutched my child and held her so tight as tears dropped into her flaxen hair.