Thursday, July 2, 2015
This spring, I sat down with Gabby and Mark in their homey kitchen. Nelson, a former service dog with a fondness for chewing water bottles, settled near us. Like many couples, Mark and Gabby have a sweet shorthand, complete with gentle teasing that makes Gabby smile widely. A conversation with one is a conversation with both, as Mark helps clarify when speech fails her, which it often does because of her brain injury. But by no means does he speak for her. Gabby can bring Mark back to a point she wants to make with a single word.
The shooting, which killed six people and injured 13, left Gabby paralyzed on the right side of her body, but after years of intense physical therapy, she has made progress toward greater mobility. The bigger struggle is with expressing herself: The bullet damaged the part of her brain that controls language. Still, Gabby is clearly bursting with thoughts—her mind outpaces her mouth. As Mark talks about gun violence in the United States, she reels off nations— "Yemen, Mexico, Iraq, Brazil"—that have death rates from shootings that are thought to be on par with the U.S. Gabby has almost daily speech therapy, and a goal to be able to speak nonstop for 20 minutes. To demonstrate, she gives the first lines of a new speech: "I'm Gabby Giffords and I used to be in Congress. But don't hold that against me!"
Gabby has traded stumping for very different activities: "Yoga twice a week, French horn, Spanish lessons, riding my bike." She also spends more time with her husband. Before the shooting, she was commuting between Washington, DC, and Tucson, and Mark was based in Houston. Now, they go on drives in the desert, see movies and eat out often. They are both avid cyclers, and are planning to do the 40-mile El Tour de Tucson in November. That morning, Gabby had logged 11 miles on her recumbent bicycle. When I ask her why she loves to bike, she responds simply, "Freedom."
Gabby doesn't appear to dwell on what could have been—the Senate seat that came open just weeks after her shooting, the children she hoped to have. Her desire to move on even extends to the man who shot her. When Mark asks her if she has forgiven him, she emphatically shakes her head no. "Do you feel like you need to?" he asks gently. Gabby shakes her head again. Says Mark: "If what happened to Gabby happened to me, I would be bitter. I don't think there are many people who could be as positive about life as she is."