USA TODAY: “Gabby Giffords’ comeback: Word by word, step by step”
By Susan Page
September 28, 2014
Gabby Giffords is stuck.
Sitting at her kitchen table, nose-to-nose with speech therapist Fabi Hirsch, the former Arizona congresswoman is painstakingly practicing the brief speech she plans to deliver this fall at appearances advocating tighter gun laws. The text in front of her reads, “We stand for common sense,” but to her growing frustration she keeps saying, “We stand for common self.”
Hirsch says the phrase alone a few times as Giffords closes her eyes to listen. Then they recite it together, slowly. Finally Giffords nails it: “We stand for common sense.”
Word by word, step by step, inch by inch, Gabby Giffords is coming back from the assassination attempt in suburban Tucson on Jan. 8, 2011, which killed six people and sent a bullet into her brain.
Spurred by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School two years later, she and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, founded Americans for Responsible Solutions. Their new book, Enough: Our Fight to Keep America Safe from Gun Violence, is being published Tuesday by Scribner — a sort of sequel to their 2012 book, Gabby, which chronicled the shooting and her all-but-miraculous survival.
Now a day with Giffords and Kelly at their colorful, comfortable Spanish-style house gives a glimpse into how far she has come, and how far she has to go.
Intact are her signature smile, warm manner, quick laugh and sharp memory. She occasionally launches into song lyrics. She loves to ride her recumbent bike, the steering stick in her good left hand, in nearby Reid Park. Stamina permitting, she hopes to join this year’s El Tour de Tucson, an annual event that draws thousands of cyclists on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
But her right leg is in a brace and she walks slowly and stiffly, with the help of a cane. She has limited use of her right arm. She struggles to speak in sentences, instead responding to questions and joining into conversations with a burst of key words. She has put aside her dream of having children.
It has not been an easy recovery. It still isn’t.
“Hard, really hard,” she says in an interview with USA TODAY. “Really, really, really hard.”
That said, she has progressed further than she thought possible in the terrifying weeks after she awoke from a coma, remembering little about the shooting at a “Congress on Your Corner” event on a Saturday morning outside a grocery store. At one point, Kelly shorthands a reference to the tragedy simply as “The Safeway.”
With the death of former White House press secretary James Brady last month, Giffords is the nation’s most prominent victim of gun violence. What does that mean to her?
“Opportunity,” she responds.
Kelly prompts, “Opportunity to do — ?”
“The right thing,” she says.
“To make a positive change,” he adds.
“Yes, yes,” she says.
The “right thing” she and Kelly have decided to do is to push for laws that would make it harder for criminals, stalkers and the mentally ill to buy guns. Despite national revulsion to a string of mass shootings and overwhelming support in polls, a bipartisan proposal they lobbied for to expand federal background checks for gun buyers failed to get over a key hurdle last year. It fell six votes short of the 60 needed to move forward in the Senate.
Giffords says she was disappointed but not surprised.
“Slow, really slow,” she says of the process ahead, noting it took decades for the National Rifle Association to build its clout. Asked about the decision by a friend and fellow Arizonan, Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, to vote against the measure, she says “millions!” — a reference to the NRA’s sizable campaign contributions to him and other politicians.
Kelly, a former combat pilot for the Navy and space shuttle commander for NASA, admits he was more surprised than she was by Congress’ failure to act. “I found out that their response to one of their co-workers, another member of Congress, getting shot from a guy who clearly should not have had a gun was to do nothing,” he says. “It’s been an education for me.”
Both insist they are in the fight for the long haul, with the goal of forging a formidable movement that would provide a balance to the power of the NRA. Their group’s political action committee last month reported raising $17.5 million for the 2014 campaign cycle and spending $2.5 million so far. Neither Giffords nor Kelly takes a salary from the group; Kelly does some outside speaking and consulting.
The super PAC’s biggest expenditures have been nearly $1 million against Martha McSally, the Republican challenger for Giffords’ former congressional seat. A searing TV ad (a Politico headline about it read, “Gabby Giffords gets mean”) showed a local woman tearfully describing how an enraged ex-boyfriend had murdered her 19-year-old daughter.
McSally, a retired Air Force pilot, last week released a statement saying she supports tighter rules on stalkers, and Americans for Responsible Solutions took down the ad. “We moved her a little bit in the right direction,” Kelly says.
McSally spokesman Patrick Ptak disputes that. “We have enormous respect for Congresswoman Giffords and what she’s had to overcome, but this latest ad was disgraceful,” Ptak says, saying it wasn’t a change in position.
“Giffords is the heir to Jim Brady as the face of gun safety,” says Jonathan Cowan, president of the centrist Third Way think tank and founder of an earlier group, Americans for Gun Safety. “She inspires supporters, can raise large sums of money, and can walk into the offices of any elected politician of either party. She’s got gun cred. She and her husband come at this as gun owners, which is essential for the 40% of voting households with a gun in the home. She is precisely the type of foe the NRA fears.”
Indeed, while the NRA is airing a TV ad in Arizona and elsewhere mocking Michael Bloomberg and the efforts of his group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, it hasn’t made similar public gibes toward Giffords. NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam declined to comment for this story.
“We’re going to have to turn around the giant ship,” Kelly says. “It’s like the aircraft carrier: No turning around immediately.”
Their public battle, like her personal one, is being taken step by step. Inch by inch.
WHAT SHE MISSES
The bronze plaque that once marked the entrance to Giffords’ suite in the Longworth House Office Building in Washington now sits in a niche in the foyer of their home. “Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona,” it reads.
Asked what she misses most from her former life, Giffords doesn’t hesitate. “Oh, Congress. Yes. So exciting. Wonderful. Miss Congress. So busy. So busy, busy, busy, busy.”
She loves politics. At age 30, she was elected to the Arizona House; at 32 to the state Senate; at 36 to the U.S. House. She was re-elected in 2008 and 2010, one of only a dozen Democrats across the country in congressional districts carried by John McCain to hold their seats as Republicans took control. Her third term had just started when she was shot.
Now, at 44, she is still busy, but in a life defined and circumscribed by the injuries she suffered.
“Gabby has never been someone to cry in her soup or to say ‘woe is me,’” says Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, national Democratic chairwoman and one of her closest friends since they met at a young leaders program in Aspen almost a decade ago. “She seizes life in a way that turns difficulty into triumph.”
The injuries from the shooting have meant changes, Wasserman Schultz says, “but in terms of her spirit and her grit and her work ethic and her fierceness and her compassion, she’s 100% there.”
Hirsch comes to the house three times a week for speech therapy — starting with conversation, moving on to speech practice, checking on homework she assigns that uses a language app she has loaded on Giffords’ iPad. Their cups of tea cool. Nelson, her yellow lab, sprawls nearby. By the end of an hour of focus, effort and frustration, Giffords looks exhausted.
At the time of the shooting, she was undergoing IVF treatments in hopes of getting pregnant, with a key medical procedure scheduled at Bethesda Naval Hospital two days later. In the interview, she says it is no longer realistic for them to consider having children through use of a surrogate mother or adoption.
“Not really,” she says quietly.
“That ship has sailed,” Kelly says.
His life also has been transformed by the shooting.
The son of two police officers in West Orange, N.J., Kelly had been a Navy captain and test pilot who flew combat missions during the first Gulf War. He joined NASA and flew four missions aboard the space shuttle Endeavour, including commanding its final flight in May 2011.
His twin brother, Scott Kelly, also an astronaut, is set to launch aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft from Kazakhstan next spring for a year-long mission aboard the International Space Station. Mark Kelly will participate in a way, undergoing medical tests to compare with his identical twin through the year and afterward to measure the effects of a long deployment in space. (They are the only siblings to have traveled in space.)
“I miss my job as an astronaut, absolutely,” Kelly says when asked what he misses most from his previous life. “I think it’s one of the greatest jobs on and off the planet Earth. It is so incredible to work with a team and people and try to do something that’s really, really difficult.” In that way, it’s similar to his new mission on gun laws, he says, but adds, “Launching a rocket ship is like nothing else.”
Indeed, Kelly hopes he might be able to return to space one day – unlikely with NASA, but conceivably through a commercial space venture. He has been a consultant for SpaceX, the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, a private space transport company headquartered in Hawthorne, Calif.
“SpaceX, probably the first couple flights they do will be with a civilian astronaut that they hire,” he says. Could he do that? “If I get invited to,” he responds. “Given the opportunity, I would seriously consider it.”
He recognizes the dangers involved. “The first flight in anything that a person could fly on is incredibly risky,” he says. So would his wife be in favor of the idea?
“Yes, yes,” she says.
He also doesn’t rule out the idea of one day running for office himself.
“I would never say never,” Kelly says. “Under the right circumstances, maybe a different time and place, I wouldn’t count it out. But what’s important to us right now is being effective on this issue, and if I was to do that, I think as a team, and as an organization, maybe we would be less effective.”
PROTECTOR AND PROVOCATEUR
Kelly, 50, who sports a shaved head and trim mustache, has a muscular frame and a blunt manner. He acts as both protector and provocateur for his wife, encouraging her to engage in conversation, ask questions, finish sentences. He expands on her thoughts and relates her anecdotes when she offers a key word or phrase.
His mother-in-law, Gloria Giffords, a lively and outspoken 76-year-old, refers to him affectionately as “the Commander.”
All three of them, plus two aides and a reporter, pile into a black SUV for the ride to the foothills for the Tucson YWCA Women’s Leadership Conference. The former congresswoman is being honored with the group’s inaugural “Changemaker” award.
Kelly drives; Gabby gives directions; Gloria keeps up a running commentary from the third-row seat about her daughter’s propensity to scout for clothes at Buffalo Exchange, a Tucson-based chain that features “recycled” fashions. That is, used ones. (The dark red silk jacket her daughter is wearing today was bought new, though.)
When they are introduced in the ballroom, the mostly female crowd of about 400 rises to its feet, applauding. Cameras from four local TV stations line the back wall.
“I’m one proud mom,” Gloria Giffords tells them as she introduces her daughter and son-in-law. “Gabby’s one tough cookie. She never quit. She’s a fighter. . . . Her advice to me when I feel a little droopy? ‘Suck it up, buttercup,’” she says to laughter.
Then Kelly introduces his wife.
“I thought I had a risky job; I had flown 39 combat missions and at that point (when they first met) two flights into space,” he told them. “But it turned out that Gabby was the one who would nearly lose her life serving her country.”
Finally, she speaks.
“It’s been a long, hard haul, but I’m getting better,” she tells them, in a brief speech that she has perfected through hours of practice. Speaking slowly and deliberately, she says, “My spirit is as strong as ever. I’m still fighting to make the world a safer place, and you can, too.” She urges them: “Be passionate. Be courageous. Be your best.”
As she slowly walks out of the ballroom to another standing ovation, Rep. Ron Barber, a former staffer who succeeded her in office and is attending the luncheon, comes forward to greet her with a long, emotional hug. Barber is in one of the toughest House races of the year against McSally, a contest that the Center for Responsible Politics calculates already has drawn $2.9 million in outside spending.
That night, Giffords and Kelly and his 17-year-old daughter, Claire, head out to a hot new downtown restaurant, Pizzeria Bianco, for dinner.
They pass around artisan pizza, share salad, chatter about the day. Claire, a high school senior, ribs her father about becoming a museum piece. Earlier in the week, he had visited the Endeavour, now on exhibit at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
Then Lubna Alyousfi and Joseph Witzke, their leftover pizza boxed to go, hesitantly walk up to the table to introduce themselves and ask to take a photo. It happens nearly everywhere Giffords goes.
Giffords and Kelly greet the young couple, stand, pose, smile. Alyousfi, 27, a paralegal, says she plans to immediately post the photo on Instagram.
“I’m so happy that she’s doing so well,” Witzke, 31, a real estate agent, says afterward. “To go through what she went through, and to be an advocate for other people — she’s a hero.”
After dinner, the day’s 90-plus-degree temperatures finally eased, Giffords and Kelly emerge from the restaurant as one of Tucson’s new Sun Link streetcars approaches down Congress Street. When she was serving in the House, Giffords helped obtain a $63 million federal transportation grant for it in 2010, when the system was being developed. It began operating this summer.
“Gabby got the money to build the trolley,” Kelly brags. She stands and watches as the streetcar rattles down the track, a dozen passengers riding inside.