Even here, I couldn’t escape her smile. Denver International Airport’s Terminal C was artificially cool despite the July heat outside, and I tried to focus on the movement of equipment and people—that life-blood flowing around me—but I couldn’t. I just kept staring at that smile, which was plastered, larger-than-life, on a TV screen tuned to CNN, and listening to Anderson Cooper drone on about shootings, and guns, and too-short lives.
That massive grin only hinted at my friend’s enthusiasm for living. And that smile had been playing on repeat in my head for the past seven days. Cooper said her name—Jessica Redfield Ghawi—and my heart lurched. Other passengers gazed up as well, by now familiar with the image of the redhead on the screen. From the moment the Aurora Theatre victims’ tribute hit the screen, the terminal was nearly silent.
It had been a week since a gunman took 12 lives at the premiere of the Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, and simply living in Colorado at that time was haunting and unhinging in its own right. What made it worse was that the woman in the tribute video was not some unknown victim viewed in an airport gate queue. I knew her. The reason I was waiting to board a plane bound for San Antonio that day was to attend my 24-year-old friend’s memorial service.
At an early season Colorado Avalanche game in the fall of 2011, I stood near the green stairwell doors three stories down from the Pepsi Center press box, waiting to catch up with Jessica. The smell of popcorn and melted butter lingered in the tiled walkway as a group of Avalanche fans walked through the concourse after the first period. The game was on pace to be disappointing, an apt indication of the doomed season to come.
It was enough to make me, a lifelong Avs fan, depressed, until Jessica burst through the stairwell door with a purposeful bang. Her red dress and heels, both brighter than her red hair, were probably a little much for the press section, but that’s just the way she was. Those who didn’t know her might have concluded Jessica’s too-high heels were the reason she seemed to walk with the awkwardness of someone on stilts. In truth, she just moved too fast for her feet to keep up.
She smiled wide and rushed me for a hug. I asked her about the press box, where she was interning with a local radio station. She said she was getting all kinds of grief. A couple of beat writers were teasing her because her red dress too closely resembled the colors of the visiting Chicago Blackhawks. She seemed amused by the attention and hurried on to tell me about interviewing players, interacting with journalists, and—hopefully, someday—finding her place among the teasers as a hockey beat reporter.
We’d had this conversation before. Jessica and I met through mutual friends at an Avalanche fan gathering about a month before that game. Since then, we’d talked often about everything from where to find a dentist—she was a transplant; I grew up in Denver—to the various reasons why I thought she needed to switch her hockey allegiance from the Vancouver Canucks to the Avs. We were both in college with hopes to break into journalism, and our chats had the easy banter of two people living through a shared transition.
After a few minutes, Jessica announced that she had to go back to the press box. She turned too quickly and stepped out of her heel. For a moment, I worried that she’d fall. She froze, balanced herself, and with a half smile, jokingly ordered me not to say a word.
I best like to remember Jessica this way, with a half smile after a small slip-up—bursting with so much enthusiasm.
In the hours after the Aurora theatre shooting, Jessica—my always smiling, always moving, always dreaming friend—was the first victim reported dead. In the days that followed, probably from shock, I treated her death as if it was just another normal life event. As if dealing with deceased friends was normal for a 21-year-old. It wasn’t until standing in that airplane queue on the way to her memorial service that the shock wore off. And left me here, fighting back tears because I knew I’d never see her again.
There are ways to remember Jessica. A plaque marks the spot she once sat in the Pepsi Center press box. A Precious Child sponsors an annual sports equipment drive, which Jessica helped conceptualize, and a group in San Antonio created a scholarship for women who want to follow in Jessica’s sports journalism footsteps. Still, since she died, I’ve been trying to do more to keep her smile a vivid memory.
That’s why, this past May, I spent an early Sunday morning waiting near mile marker five during the Colfax Half Marathon. Runners passed in costumes, some remembering lost loved ones and their own causes. I wore a shirt with pictures of the Aurora 12 as the designated representative for the tribute run at that mile. Several of the athletes I was waiting for were friends who suffered grave losses of their own in the shooting. When they passed by, I handed them a blue ribbon with Jessica’s name.
Two years after that plane ride, I’ve come to accept that Jessica’s death is not an event to get over—not for me, her family and friends, or for our community. I’ve come to accept that Jessica will always motivate me to keep striving and rising in the profession we shared, and that she can no longer pursue. I still take time, regularly, to remember what we’ve all lost: The hugs among family members. The late-night conversations about hockey dominance. And of course, that smile.
Coloradans won’t forget when those shots were fired in Aurora. Our hearts pump on, but we can’t seem to forget the arrhythmia from that July night. What’s more, I don’t want to.