By Lee Rasizer, CCA Public Relations Coordinator
Sheer joy, and the sense of accomplishment that comes with being the first in a family to graduate college, were palpable during Heather Woten’s shuffle across the stage at last month’s commencement.
The moment even featured its own indelible soundtrack.
“Heather Ree!” her father, Shawn, could be heard shouting as Woten’s turn to rub elbows with CCA officials was announced and obligatory photos taken. The nickname originally was a byproduct of her brother’s inability to pronounce the middle name ‘Marie’ as a child and has stuck with Woten as family tradition through the years.
On the surface, it was about as normal as these celebratory moments get.
Woten’s new husband, Sean, knew otherwise.
Tucked far outside the stage, sitting alone amid a row of empty folding chairs, he soaked in the scene full of pride – and context.
It wasn’t even a year that he and Heather, that same brother and two close friends, were in a crowded place just like this, with excitement and anticipation surrounding them.
Aurora’s Century Theaters, Theater No. 9 specifically, was supposed to be a feel-good outing to see a much-anticipated feature film. It became another life-altering moment, but one unwelcome, uninvited.
The interceding months in Woten’s case weren’t physical, or worse, filled with memories of her passing.
Fear. Confinement. Paranoia. Those instead had been constant companions since last July.
But arming herself with determination, focus and courage, she would persevere. Accepting her diploma, and walking through graduation meant that much.
“It’s going to be in the back of my mind,” Woten admitted before the ceremony. “But it’s a safe place and you can’t ruin everything you go through, every crowded event, a graduation, a sporting event, because of one situation that happened. I say that like it’s easy. I still can’t even do it, so I’m still going to be nervous and looking around. But I will be able to do it. … You’ve got to get through it.”
Demons, begone. Heather Ree’s moving on.
“It means the world to me,” her husband said, wiping away tears only moments after his bride of three months was officially recognized with the announcement of her name.
“I’m just so happy to see her be able to get back to her life, after seeing how it was going through that. She was nowhere OK for a while. And to see her back to her normal life means the world. … It’s one of the greatest moments of my life to see her go across that stage.”
Attending CCA just a month after 12 were killed and numerous injured in the Aurora tragedy was one small step among many Woten took to try and recapture her equilibrium.
Hitting the books, attending classes, concentrating on assignments were mundane tasks that could temporarily remove her from what seemingly had been an out-of-body experience.
Yes, sitting in the second row on the left side at a theater Woten had attended countless times as an Aurora native to watch the opening of “The Dark Knight Rises” remains etched in her memory. Hearing a gunshot, then another, sitting frozen, then feeling herself being pulled down by Sean and crawling out of chaos before law enforcement arrived remains tangible.
But even today, these elements periodically seem unreal in the mind’s eye. It’s as if a ghost temporarily provides a smoke screen to the horrors experienced, but occasionally airing it becomes aired out, and reality stares back at her, unblinking.
The show of strength embodied by her mere attendance at graduation was a long time coming, given the continued existence, if fading, of such a capricious mindset.
“I need to rise above this tragedy that’s happened. I need to rise about it and get my daily life, semester life, and yearly life done. My goals need to be done,” she said emphatically. “And I have to rise above whatever trauma, whatever horror or sadness, is involved.”
The first couple months after the shootings illuminate Woten’s fragility. She slept in her parents’ bed due to fear. She saw a weapon-yielding bogeyman in nearly every shadow. She was too scared to attend sporting events, and, at first, even in the grocery store, she would watch everyone’s movements closely.
“Now, unless it’s on my mind then I don’t care and I can do anything I want to,” recalled Woten, who attended CCA under her maiden name Ford. “But if there’s a little speck of, ‘Oh my God, what was that?’ If any of that enters my mind, then I’ll be paranoid for the rest of the day.”
Woten admitted that even before last July’s tragedy she would always a cautious person, though not lacking independence.
The Hinkley High School graduate described herself growing up as the go-to person for people with difficulties solving problems or having trouble extricating themselves from life’s situations.
That ability to coax answers and assuage fears led her to study Psychology at CCA and plot a future career as a counselor as she continues her education studying Human Development/Human Studies coursework online at Colorado State University.
But an understanding of the human condition, and time, so far hasn’t been enough to sufficiently tackle her lingering issues.
“Every once in a while you just have a bad dream or a bad thought. I’m still dealing with that,” she explained. “I don’t know if that’s good to say, but I’m jealous of people because they’re over it and I’m not. And I’m like, ‘Why can’t I be like that?’ They can deal with it a lot easier than I can.
“That’s the hardest part for me. I want to get over it so bad, but I can’t.”
Attending CCA graduation is one giant leap in that direction after what she calls “baby steps” in the healing process.
Commencement is an act of defiance as much as recognition of accomplishment, in her mind. Having her name called aloud, telling her story publicly, expose her in a way that’s uncomfortable. But it’s also part of combating the overwhelming sickness she’s felt living in fear, and hiding to an extent.
“I want to be able to say, ‘I did it,” she said in the days leading up to graduation. “And I’m not going to let one jerk ruin it for me.”
At graduation, there were the anticipated nerves and numerous sideways glances checking out the auditorium scene. But there were strong counterbalances, which, like burying herself in schoolwork had done previously, put mistrust in the rear view.
Woten laughed at the speeches. She smiled at her dad’s shout-out. She absolutely beamed afterward.
This moment was a big deal. The pride she felt and saw in the faces of her family was a slice of life without attached asterisks.
“I’m happy. I’m just happy,” Woten said after receiving congratulations from her family post-ceremony. “I don’t even know what to say. It was just great.”
Last July 27, a surprise birthday party was planned for Woten.
Obfuscation was planned to pry her from the house, so that the festivities could be executed behind the scenes in secrecy.
Only, the center of attention wouldn’t go along with the plan to get her to a flea market for the day with Sean, fearing the public outing.
So, a quiet family celebration replaced the surprise.
“I did get the best present I could ever have,” she said. “Still being here.”
There were other wrapped gifts, and plenty of them. Woten admitted to being “spoiled,” in fact, with attention.
One of those presents came from her aunt. It was a necklace adorned with a ribbon, encrusted with small diamonds.
It was designed to serve as a bejeweled mark of a survivor, which Woten certainly qualifies. Some may argue that only those who were hurt or fatally injured last July 20 have been victims of crime.
The mental anguish Woten has experienced tells her otherwise.
But she also feels fortunate, in a sense. She got out of the darkness and back into the light. Others weren’t as fortunate.
“The first time I wore the necklace was in November, because I didn’t feel right wearing it. I felt like I shouldn’t flaunt anything. Yes, I made it out but 12 people didn’t. So it was very uncomfortable in a way,” she explained.
As Woten stood in the waiting area, just minutes before the commencement ceremony, that very necklace sat loosely on her graduation gown, swaying as she moved.
The juxtaposition of the necklace and her outfit was stark, given all the circumstances of the previous 10 months. Both signified moving on in a sense: one mentally; one physically.
Woten explained that she wasn’t wearing the ribbon for herself, but in honor of the four CCA students who lost their lives the night she was somehow spared, and “everybody that was going to attend CCA because they deserve it.”
What’s clear is that Woten may never fully comprehend why she was spared on that violent night, To this day, she questions even why she was there in the first place.
Her dog was acting oddly as she prepared to leave for the theater that night, as if, providing a warning.
As Woten and her party arrived at Century Theatres, her mind harkened back to a shooting at that site a decade earlier – something that had never happened previously.
She didn’t listen to her dog, or her gut, and it changed her life.
Perhaps as a counselor she’ll now bring an undercurrent of understanding she never would have exhibited in the profession without the horror she experienced.
Maybe it was necessary to reinforce the notion that helping people, whether it’s families, children, those in grief or troubled marriages, was unequivocally the right path.
There was no such ambiguity going through commencement. This was another life-changer, but one that can be considered fondly.
“I think this will get her back to the Heather of five years ago when I first got together with her,” husband Sean surmised.
The two plan on starting a family once she graduates CSU this December.
They also are intent on doing so in Aurora, their hometown – scars and all.
There will be no more hiding.
“The theaters been ruined for me but Aurora will never be ruined for me,” Woten said. “I will not let that be taken away from me.”