A year after the horrific shooting that killed six people and nearly ended her own life, Gabrielle Giffords returned to the scene of the crime. In an excerpt from the upcoming paperback edition of Gabby: A Story of Courage, Love and Resilience, Giffords’s husband Mark Kelly writes about the emotional journey.
What do you remember, Gabby?
“I remember mittens, parked.”
It was exactly one year from the day that Gabby and 12 others were shot and six innocent victims were murdered, and we are at the parking lot of the Safeway at the corner of Oracle and Ina in Tucson. Gabby didn’t really want to return for the anniversary but I encouraged her to. I thought that there might be some sort of closure if she returned to the very spot that forever changed her life. We didn’t tell anyone. Pia Carusone, Gabby’s chief of staff, and I discussed whether it would be a good idea to let the media know. There would have been a lot of interest, and it would certainly have been a powerful moment on TV. But this had to be a private time for Gabby to reflect on the tragedy that had devastated so many lives that day.
Earlier that afternoon I had done a television interview remotely from Gabby’s congressional office. After the interview the cameraman saw me jump into a car with Gabby. He didn’t know that we were en route to the Safeway. We weren’t aware that he had followed us until Gabby and I got out of the car in the Safeway parking lot. He appeared out of nowhere. He was respectful and didn’t get too close, allowing her a little privacy. We walked around to the front of the store, and the crowd slowly grew as the shoppers recognized that familiar face and walk. We had a short conversation with the assistant store manager who had been there on Jan. 8. Gabby took a close look at the rock garden memorial that Safeway built at the site, and then she and I started to talk about where she had been, where the shooter had been, who was standing around her, and where she fell after the 9mm round pierced her skull. She was interested, sad, and solemn. So was I. Gabby was taking it all in. She walked back and forth several times. She greeted the folks lining up around her and then she said to me, “I remember.”
Most of us can’t remember where we parked our car when we walk out of a store. It happens to me often. But here was Gabby, who has defied the odds, and one of the two things that she remembers from that day is where she parked. She pointed to the spot, and it was exactly one year later. Up until this day the last thing she remembered leading up to 10:10 Arizona Time on January 8, 2010, was learning of the death of her favorite waitress the night before.
The anniversary weekend was good for Gabby, good for me and I think good for many of the remarkable people in the City of Tucson, Arizona. It was a chance for healing and closure and a moment to honor six special souls: Christina-Taylor Green, Dorwan Stoddard, Judge John Roll, Phyllis Schneck, Dorothy Morris and Gabriel Zimmerman. Gabby had known Judge Roll for years, and Gabe was a cherished member of her staff. Gabby would never have the opportunity to meet Christina, Dorwan, Phyllis and Dorothy.
Gabby was still in therapy six days per week, Sunday through Friday, though Sunday consisted of only one hour of music therapy. The therapy was working, and we had settled into a routine. That was why we were still living in Houston. Up at 7 a.m., out the door at 8 a.m, arrive at TIRR, and at 9 a.m., begin the sequence of physical, occupational and speech therapy. This was followed by more speech therapy in the afternoon. The harder Gabby worked the better she got. But as we approached the anniversary it was starting to become apparent to her and to me that she wouldn’t be returning to Congress. One afternoon shortly after New Year’s, Gabby and I were sitting on the couch in our living room in Houston. She turned to me and simply said, “step down.” It didn’t take me more than a second to understand the meaning of those two words; Gabby intended to resign her seat in Congress.
We headed to Tucson for the anniversary knowing that this would be one of the last things she did as a Congresswoman with the constituents she loved so much. We arrived on Thursday afternoon, January 5, and spent much of the time with her staff and some of the families of the victims. Gabby had a short visit with Daniel Hernandez, the intern who had administered first aid and is credited with saving her life. Daniel is a big guy, and to see the two of them hug in Gabby’s office was like watching a bear hug a bird.
One of the more difficult things Gabby did as we approached the anniversary was meet with the families of the victims. This is an emotional, draining experience for her. It is also a work in progress. During the Thanksgiving weekend just eleven months after the shooting, we scheduled a meeting with the Green family. Gabby was understandably nervous. John and Roxanna lost their smart and precious little girl on January 8 because she wanted to learn first-hand about democracy and meet Gabrielle Giffords. Christina never got to do that. She was shot through the chest and murdered just seconds before she was to be introduced to her congresswoman. Now Christina’s parents and their son Dallas were meeting Gabby instead. It was an emotional encounter. Gabby and I expressed our grief for their loss. Christina was just the kind of kid Gabby loved to meet. She was smart, athletic, inquisitive, a force to be reckoned with. She was the star of her baseball team—no surprise, since baseball was in the Green family DNA. The meeting lasted an hour and we made a commitment to keep in touch. Gabby and I think of Christina often. It may be hard to imagine that you can miss someone you have never met. You can.
On the evening of January 8, 2012, we arrived at the University of Arizona, accompanied by more security than Gabby typically travelled with. While there were no known threats, this was one of those opportunities for another disturbed individual to violently and publicly strike out. So my tough-as-nails wife donned the bullet proof vest of perhaps the smallest member of the Tucson Police Department. With a scarf around her neck, Gabby was able to camouflage the vest. It was unfathomable to me that someone might try to harm Gabby again, but I didn’t want to risk anything, and I really appreciated the extra measures taken by Gabby’s Capitol Police detail, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department and the Tucson Police Department.
As Gabby took the stage in front of a crowd of thousands, I could tell that despite the sadness of the moment she felt buoyed by doing something that didn’t involve either painful physical therapy or mind jarring, frustrating speech therapy. She was once again U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and she was at work. That night on stage Gabby belted out the Pledge of Allegiance with few mistakes. I suspect that it might have seemed practiced, but the truth is that I had asked Gabby a few weeks earlier if she could recite it, and I only needed to get her started with the first word, “I.” I had checked one more time the day before to see if she had suddenly forgotten but she was good to go. I can’t say that I’ve ever been more thrilled to hear those words and reflect on what they stand for. I loved her so much.