Gloria Giffords: 'I don't dwell on recrimination and anger'

2011-11-15T00:00:00Z 2014-07-30T17:30:38Z Gloria Giffords: 'I don't dwell on recrimination and anger'Stephanie Innes Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
November 15, 2011 12:00 am  • 

"Somebody just shot my baby."

It was the morning of Jan. 8 and Gloria Giffords had received a cellphone call from her son-in-law, Mark Kelly, with the few details he knew about a shooting involving her daughter, Gabrielle. She said the first words that came to her mind to an employee at the midtown Tucson UPS store where she'd gone to mail a package.

Then Giffords, 73, got into a stranger's car, mistaking it for her own.

Those initial symptoms of confusion and shock were not the norm for Gloria Giffords.

As staff members and friends fought back tears when they visited U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the days after she was shot through the left side of her brain, they were often cheered by the congresswoman's relentlessly positive mother.

Three hours after her daughter was shot, Gloria was by her side and has been there ever since. In the book by Kelly, Giffords and Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow released today, "Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope," Kelly calls Gloria a "raging optimist" whose strength has been instrumental in Gabby Giffords' remarkable recovery. Gloria says she sees it more as unwavering faith.

"Once I got into my car - my own gray car, the right car - I shut the door and I heard something. I heard, 'Be still and know that I am God,' " Gloria said during an interview at her daughter's Tucson office over the weekend. "This thing came over me, like a wash of warmth, like a blanket, and I wasn't afraid. I thought, wherever she is, she's intact, she's perfect, she's whole, and whether on this plane of reality or somewhere else, she's God's perfect child."

Gloria, an art historian and artist known to those in her inner circle by her childhood nickname Jinx, is a Christian Scientist and her husband, Spencer, is Jewish. The couple raised their two daughters in both faiths, and eventually Gabby chose Judaism when she was in her 30s.

Always Looking Forward

As a parade of who's who in American politics came in to visit her daughter over the past 10 months, Gloria says she didn't have a clue who most of them were. And she didn't know most of Gabby's Washington, D.C., staff members until Jan. 8.

"I have my own life. I do my own things," she said. "Gabby's been a liberated woman since she was 18. We have always just kind of stood there amazed. We always said, 'We don't care what you are doing; we are just enjoying being along with whatever you do.' "

And whether her daughter continues in politics is not a concern for Gloria, either. Just being with Gabby is a "joyous experience" that remains her focus.

One of the things mother and daughter like to do most together is read. Gloria recently finished reading her daughter the book "George Washington, A Life" by Ron Chernow. They also enjoyed "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett and "Learning to Breathe" by photojournalist Alison Wright, which recounts the author's recovery after nearly dying in a bus crash. During a recent therapy stint in North Carolina, Gabby and her mom read "The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation," which is about a former plow horse that amazed the country by becoming a top show jumping champion.

Gloria says she has always considered Jan. 8 a bump in the road for Gabby, who was raised in a household that emphasized "no sniveling."

"You get over the bump and you move forward. Always looking forward, no looking back. No regrets," Gloria said. "She's not a whiner. She's had a lot of pain but never any sniveling."

As she sat in her car on Jan. 8, Gloria reminded herself of what she always taught her daughters - to look forward - and she got to work making sure everyone in the family had been notified. When she called Spencer, he was in no condition to drive. He'd already been called by Kelly and was distraught. Then she called Gabby's close friend Raoul Erickson.

"Raoul started howling, making these scary, scary noises," Gloria said. "Then he stopped. He said, 'What do you want me to do?' I said, 'I want you to go out to the house. Go really, really slowly and get Spencer. I don't know what is happening, but whatever it is, Spencer has to be here.' And so Raoul did that."

A Bump in the Road

Gloria never heard the erroneous media reports that her daughter was dead. On the way to the University of Arizona Medical Center, she did not turn on the radio and repeatedly told herself to drive carefully, to not go too fast. She talked herself through the drive - "do what you have to do, watch your signals, make a left turn here, right turn here. ..." She recalls being at the hospital and hearing her other daughter, Melissa Giffords, asking someone to turn off the television.

"The television was just background noise. I was really focusing on something different. ... I knew that she was God's child, perfect. I knew that she was never going to change," Gloria said.

Though she stayed focused and tried to be calm, it was chilling to be at the hospital waiting for news, particularly when her family was ushered into a private room.

"If my daughter is still alive, would you tell her that I love her?" she recalls telling one of the doctors.

After about 2 1/2 hours, trauma surgeon Dr. Randall Friese returned to the room where the Giffords family was waiting.

"You can tell her yourself," she remembers him saying.

She recounts that first sight of her daughter - a slight figure lying in a bed with machines beeping behind her and blood running out of her mouth, her eyes and her nostrils.

"I got this feeling she was really pissed. I got this annoyance coming off her body, like man, she was not happy," Gloria said. "I told her, 'It's a bump in the road, Gab.' "

Kelly's Resolve

Since that time, when Gabby at first could not speak, eat or walk, Gloria has consciously tried to live in the here and now.

"I try to keep a thought process where I don't dwell on recrimination and anger," she said. "And now, being with her every day is a hoot. I see a lot of things in her that I remember as a kid growing up and as a young woman. Being with her at any step in her progress has been a joyous experience for me."

She's had the occasional moment when her mind will go to a dark place.

"Mark is a commander, and I see why they put him in charge of those missions. He compartmentalizes, puts things in boxes," Gloria said of her son-in-law. "We were having some sort of philosophical discussion, and I said I didn't know what I would have done if we'd lost Gabby. He said, 'We didn't, so don't think about it.' So I didn't. I put it on the shelf."

She credits Kelly with much of her daughter's remarkable recovery.

"I adore him," she said. "I am absolutely convinced Gabby would not be where she is today in a lot of respects had it not been for his advocacy."

Along the way, Gloria met President George H. W. Bush, who visited Gabby in Houston, held her hand, and was "absolutely charming," she said. She described President Obama and his wife as so casual and loving that they seemed like family. And Vice President Joe Biden was like "everyone's avuncular uncle."

The Same Person

She's learned a lot about brain trauma and its effects, including a condition called aphasia. Aphasia is not a loss or lack of intellect, she stresses. Rather, it's difficulty with speech and language. Her daughter has trouble finding the right words, but she's improving all the time, her mother said.

"There's something different, it's a different reality now. But I think it's probably going to be better than we imagined."

Gabby is still the helpful, concerned person she's always been, her mother said. For example, when she takes her daily walks in Houston, she always brings a bag with her to collect litter along the way. She's also become an inspiration and friend to other people with brain injuries, as they have to her.

At her rehabilitation hospital in Houston, Gabby has befriended skateboarders, football players and a concert cellist - all of them suffering brain trauma, her mother said. She's also been saddened and concerned when some of them have had to stop treatment because of insurance companies that won't pay the bill. Her congressional office has already begun advocating for better insurance coverage for people with brain injuries.

"Gabby remembers every boy she ever kissed, every song she ever sang, everyone she's ever dealt with politically or otherwise. She's all there," her mother said. "She's the same person - compassionate, funny, smart, hip, conscious, politically astute. She's all there, and her intellect is intact."

Keep Getting Better

Since she was shot through the left side of her brain, Gabby's movement on the right side of her body has been severely affected. She writes with her left hand now and still has trouble with her right leg. But she balked at the suggestion she ride a three-wheel bike. Gabby had been an avid cyclist before Jan. 8 and is determined to get back as much of her previous life as possible, including riding on two wheels.

"Whatever she wants, we're right behind her," Gloria said.

If anything is bogging Gloria down right now, it is that Jan. 8 permanently affected so many people, particularly the families of the people who died in the shooting.

"This is not an episode that just happened to me or to Gabby," Gloria says. "Besides the people that were assassinated, slaughtered that day, and other than the people who were wounded and shot, the radius is like a pebble dropped in a pond. A lot of people were impacted terribly."

She also describes a great sadness and outrage that there are children, spouses, parents and friends who have suffered similar injuries, "and aren't coming back to their families, in any number of ways."

In a lot of respects, Gabby represents issues that Tucsonans, Arizonans and Americans have to grasp, Gloria says. She mentions the Legislature naming a state gun after the shooting, and insufficient funding for mental health.

"I'm a mother of a child whose life was irreparably altered," she said.

But she has never wavered in a belief that her daughter's recovery will not hit any plateaus. Gloria says her daughter will keep getting better.

"It doesn't matter what Gabby does," her mother said. "Who she is and what she is will be applicable to anything she chooses to do. Whatever she feels she's going to do the best job at, that is I'm sure what she's going to do. ... And you know, that is pretty admirable."

Message from Gabby

Here is what Giffords says in her recorded message to the people of Southern Arizona:

Hello, this is Gabby Giffords.

I miss you. I miss Tucson, the mountains, blue skies, even the heat.

I'm getting stronger. I'm getting better.

It has been a hard year - for all of us. Thinking of that day makes me sad. Six people died. Six innocent people. So many people hurt.

There is lot to say. I will speak better.

I want to get back to work. Representing Arizona is my honor.

My staff is there to help you. They keep me informed on your behalf.

I miss you, I miss home. I will see you real soon.

Thank you.

Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at sinnes@azstarnet.com or 573-4134.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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