U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, pictured after treatment for a gunshot wound to the head.

Courtesy P.K. Weis

Before taking his wife out for her first glimpse of Tucson since Jan. 8, Mark Kelly stuffed his pockets with Kleenex.

It was a good thing he did.

One of the first things Gabrielle Giffords noticed during a ride downtown Saturday was a message on the marquee of the Rialto Theatre.

"We love you Gabby," she blurted from her seat in their SUV, reading the sign aloud.

Her eyes misted. Kelly reached into his pocket.

It was one of several times he would do so during the congresswoman's first trip home since she was shot in the head at a constituent event early this year.

The trip was good medicine for his wife, said Kelly, a space shuttle astronaut.

"After everything she's been through, this was a milestone. It was motivational for her to drive through the district and see some of the people she represents and see how things are."

The visit was bittersweet, though, Kelly said, because after five-plus months away, two days didn't seem like nearly enough time to reconnect.

"She had mixed emotions about it. She was happy to come back but at the same time, it was only for a weekend."

When the trip was over, "I was a little concerned I'd have a hard time getting her back on the plane."

The trek to her hometown was one of the first things on Giffords' to-do list after being released Wednesday from a rehabilitation hospital in Houston.

Two days later, the couple - and an entourage that included Giffords' parents, one of Kelly's daughters, a private nurse and a U.S. Capitol Police security detail - were on a private jet borrowed from friends.

Before landing at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the aircraft circled the Monument Fire near Sierra Vista, part of her congressional district.

Giffords wanted to "see firsthand the devastation down there near Fort Huachuca," Kelly said.

Once in Tucson, the couple split most of their time between Giffords' parents' house and Giffords' midtown home, he said.

On Friday night, they got Mexican takeout for dinner from Milagros Cafe at East Fort Lowell and North Country Club roads.

On Saturday afternoon, they went for a ride downtown, checking out Club Congress, the Rialto and the Fox Theatre, and then on to Giffords' new constituency office on East Fort Lowell Road.

Later Saturday, Giffords attended a reunion with her staffers, including Ron Barber, who was wounded in the shooting and whom Giffords had not seen since.

As Giffords entered the room, the song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" played on a stereo.

"It was quite a touching moment," Kelly recalled in a phone interview with the Arizona Daily Star on Sunday.

"They were a little teary, hugging each other and just really excited to see each other." Giffords and Barber "did a little comparison of injuries," he added.

Kelly said his wife now knows that six people died and 12 others were wounded in the Jan. 8 shooting, but she does not yet know all their identities.

She's not aware, for example, that her staffer Gabe Zimmerman and her friend, federal Judge John Roll, were among those killed.

Loved ones have been breaking news of the tragedy gradually, so as not to overwhelm her with grief during her arduous recovery, Kelly said.

On Sunday, the couple and Giffords' family had a Father's Day breakfast of eggs, bagels, fruit salad and leftovers from Friday night's Mexican meal.

By 11 a.m., they were back in the air headed for Houston, where Giffords will continue rehabilitation therapy as an outpatient.

Kelly said he was impressed throughout the trip with his wife's mental quickness and her ability to recall detailed information from before her injury.

On their drive to a staffer's house for the reunion, for instance, Giffords advised the Capitol police officer behind the wheel that he was about to make a wrong turn and gave him directions to where they were headed.

While Giffords hasn't yet regained all her speaking ability, "as far as what she remembers and comprehends, at times I feel she's 100 percent," Kelly said.

Despite persistent rumors on the Internet, Kelly said he has no designs on public office and is "absolutely" convinced his wife will return to political life.

"Her communication skills are getting better every week," he said.

"Six months from now we are all going to be amazed at where she is."


Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at calaimo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4138.