JORDAN — Heather Zigler was 9 years old sitting just left of center stage when Garth Brooks last played MetraPark in 1998.
Halfway through the show, Brooks caught her gaze and, with his wide grin, shouted out from his perch, "Hi, Heather!"
It was the second most exciting thing to happen to Heather that day. The first was hanging out with Brooks and Trisha Yearwood before the concert.
With Brooks returning to Billings this week, Heather's family plans to get everyone back together again and catch the show. Heather now lives with her husband and son in Illinois and the concert will be a specific kind of homecoming for her.
"Twenty years ago we didn't know if she was gonna be here 20 years later," said Heather's sister Ally Murnion.
Heather grew up on a farm 26 miles north of Ingomar listening to Garth Brooks in her mom's car. She was born with a heart defect that led to open-heart surgery when she was 7 days old. The family had to make frequent trips to Billings for doctors appointments or to board flights for the children's hospital in Denver.
"Everywhere you went was a really long way," said Heather's mother, Cathy Murnion.
Cathy's collection of Garth Brooks tapes essentially became the soundtrack for Heather's childhood as the pair traveled from their home to school or to Billings or simply tooled around town.
Her initial surgery as a newborn only fixed part of the problem in her heart. Heather needed a second surgery to complete the repair and so she had spent all of her young life visiting doctors and waiting for the O.K. for the next surgery. No one was sure if Heather would live long enough to make it.
It was a stressful, scary time.
It led to Heather, as a young child listening to Garth Brooks in her mom's car, to connect deeply with one of his most famous songs, "The River." In it, Brooks sings about learning from the past and being at peace with whatever the future may bring.
"It is my favorite song," Heather wrote at the time. "I've been singing it since I was 3 years old."
And so when Metra announced in 1998 that Brooks would be performing a handful of shows there that summer, Heather's parents wanted to make sure she would be there. It was a difficult task at a time when getting tickets to a big show in Billings involved standing in line for wristbands one day to save a place in line a few days later when tickets actually went on sale.
Cathy, an elementary school teacher, made the two trips from their farm — a nearly three-hour drive — to ensure she would get the tickets.
In the end, with the concert as popular was it was, the best she could get were two different tickets, each for a single seat in separate sections of the arena near the back wall. It was discouraging.
So Cathy called the Metra to see if there were a way to at least get two seats together. As Cathy explained her situation, the Metra offered her two new tickets seated together and then suggested she reach out to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the charity with which Brooks closely works.
But in 1998, Make-A-Wish, which works to help terminally or gravely ill children go and do things they otherwise wouldn't be able to, had yet to set up an office in Montana.
Cathy was eventually put in contact with Make-A-Wish in California and working with the organization was able to get two tickets in the first few rows and backstage passes to meet Brooks and Yearwood, his opener, before the show.
The two tickets she had purchased through the Metra allowed a 7-year-old Ally and their dad Pat to also go to the concert.
It was an amazing experience.
Cathy accompanied Heather back stage before the show. They waited outside Brooks' dressing room door for a moment and then he appeared and led them into the room wearing a T-shirt and ball cap. Yearwood joined them a few minutes later.
Brooks immediately engaged with Heather. She was shy and nervous, hesitant to respond.
"He got right on her level and talked to her right away," Cathy said. Heather warmed up and "became like a magpie. She just talked and talked and talked."
Heather had brought stick horses for Brooks to give to his children and Brooks in turn gave her four T-shirts, a stack of videos and a tour book, and then he and Yearwood autographed pictures for her.
"She was just amazed," Cathy said. "An ear-to-ear grin."
For the most part, Heather's health has progressively improved in the last two decades. She gave birth to her first child and got married three years ago and then moved to Illinois last summer.
The distance has been hard on both Heather and those in her family who have remained in Montana. When Ally, who works for the Billings Chamber of Commerce, learned that Brooks was coming back to Billings this June, she hatched a plan to get Heather out to Billings and surprise her by taking her to the concert.
But there was no surprising her. Heather was well aware that Brooks was coming back to town and was almost expecting the call from her sister.
The trip is further complicated by an outpatient procedure related to Heather's heart condition she has the week before the show.
Heather was born with truncus arteriosus, a rare defect in the vessels of the heart. The condition occurs when the two main vessels that carry blood out of the heart — the pulmonary artery, which carries blood to the lungs and the aorta, which carries blood to the body — grow together, forming one vessel. It often leaves a gap in the wall between the bottom two chambers of the heart.
To correct the condition, surgeons have to create a new second vessel, fix the two valves and repair the wall between the two bottom chambers of the heart.
At the time, the procedure had to be done over two surgeries. In her first, at 7 days old, doctors created a pulmonary artery and repaired the gap between the two chambers of her heart.
Before the surgery, the doctor told Cathy and Pat that Heather had a 10 percent chance of surviving.
The second heart surgery was finally approved in the fall of 1998, just months after the Garth Brooks concert when Heather was 9. Surgeons repaired the two faulty valves and sent Heather on her way. It was a huge success.
Sports were too much of a risk but Heather could do 4-H and she participated with a vengeance. She had her own horse and she raised pigs, working as hard as any of the other kids.
"She's so damned stubborn it couldn't have been any other way," Pat said.
All that changed when she turned 14. The aortic valve surgeons had placed in her heart when she was 9 had calcified and was no longer working properly. It needed to be replaced.
Heather flew to Denver one more time for her third open-heart surgery.
"It was horrendous," Cathy said. "We don't have pictures from that one."
What was originally supposed to be a six-hour procedure lasted 14 hours. Complications in the surgery left the surgeon scrambling. When the operation was finally over and Heather was wheeled to recovery, she wouldn't wake up.
"It was horrible," Cathy said.
After a week in a coma, Heather finally came to. For the family it was terrifying. They didn't know if Heather would ever wake up and if she did they wondered if her personality would be altered or if there would be neurological damage.
She ended up making a full recovery and doctors now theorize Heather had a small stroke on the operating table.
While it was the same old Heather, her health was just a little shakier after that. During a party at a friend's house the next year, Heather collapsed while playing a game.
To be safe, their doctor told her to come back to Denver for tests. Once there, doctors performed a stress test on Heather's heart and decided she needed an implanted defibrillator, something that could help regulate her heart beat and shock her heart back to life should it slow or stop beating.
The device has to be replaced from time to time and it is this procedure Heather will have the week before the Garth Brooks concert. The hope is she can put off the procedure until after the concert or, if not, be recovered enough to travel.
For the whole family, the concert feels like a poignant return.
"Just having her see him in person again," Ally said. "I'm sure she's going to cry through the whole concert."
Ally and Heather have seen their relationship deepen as they've gotten older. They're a year and a half apart in age and as teenagers, they fought all the time.
Still, they supported each other. Jordan is a sports town, Ally said, and it was always hard on Heather that she couldn't participate. Ally excelled at track and volleyball and Heather was always at the games and the meets cheering her on.
Ally for her part, once she moved to Billings, often had to be the one to accompany Heather on the medical flights down to Denver. The close calls from their childhood and the pulling together as family when life got scary had an impact on everyone.
"It made me who I am today," Ally said.
Now as adults, and particularly since Heather moved to Illinois, she and Ally have become closer than they've ever been. Ally, along with Pat and Cathy, are ready to see her back in Montana. And Heather's ready to be back too.
"She's ready to come home and be with family," Ally said.