It’s freezing in Tucson — well, freezing for Tucson: 67 degrees, dipping just below 40 at night — but there is snow on Mount Lemmon, just north of the city. Former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords piled on four jackets when she went for a bike ride this morning. She’s got a fire going in her living room now to coax the indoor climate toward a more Arizona-appropriate temperature. Still, it’s practically balmy outside compared to D.C., where eight and half inches of snow have turned I-95 into an ice rink and forced Giffords’ husband, Sen. Mark Kelly, to re-route his flight to the Capitol.
Seated beside the fireplace, Giffords has a red pashmina draped around her neck and a well-worn French horn perched on her lap. The pashmina has been fashioned into a sling that holds Giffords paralyzed right arm in place. Her arm, in turn, is holding the bell — the horn’s wide mouth — steady, and augmenting the pitch as she begins to play. She does the Hanukkah song “I Have a Little Dreidel,” “Love Me Tender” by Elvis, and her favorite, the Christmas carol ”Angels We Have Heard on High.” She belts out the chorus — “Glooor-ooor-ooor-ooor-iiiiia!” — triumphantly at the end of that one. Patients with aphasia, the brain condition Giffords has contended with since her attempted assassination a decade ago, often find it easier to sing words than speak them.
It was unusually cold in Tucson, too, eleven years ago this week, the morning Giffords showed up at local Safeway to meet with constituents. One year into her third Congressional term, Giffords was a rising Democratic star: the youngest woman ever elected to Arizona’s state senate, the first Jew to represent Arizona in Congress, and the third woman Arizonans had sent to Washington in the state’s entire history. The New York Times even floated her name as a contender to be the first female president. All of that was before a gunman opened fire on her and a crowd of others gathered in the supermarket parking lot that morning, injuring 17 people and killing six.
Giffords herself was shot in the head at close range. The bullet tunneled through the left hemisphere of her brain, the part that controls the production of language, effectively robbing her of her ability to translate her thoughts into complex sentences. Everything she does these days — the bike riding, the French horn, hours of speech therapy every week — is in service of trying to regain that function. Slowly, her speech pathologist Dr. Fabiane Hirsch says, she is making gains. “In our field, a lot of medical professionals are still taught that there is a short window of recovery and then people plateau and don’t continue to make progress,” Hirsch says. “With Gabby, we continue to see progress over long periods of time.”
“Her cognition, her thinking skills are still intact… Her memory, in general, is probably better than most of ours,” Hirsch explains. “But it really is getting the words out” that is a challenge to this day. Giffords, though, remains determined to keep working. “I rarely even see her get frustrated in therapy,” Hirsch says. “She takes a moment, then says ‘Move ahead!’”
This year, like every year, Giffords will return to the Safeway parking lot on January 8, where she’ll leave flowers. Then she’ll hike the Gabe Zimmerman trail, a two mile loop named for a staffer of hers who was killed that day. When the anniversary has passed, she’ll move ahead: practicing and studying and setting new goals for herself. Last year, at age 51, Giffords celebrated her bat mitzvah. This year, Giffords — once fluent in Spanish — will restart lessons in an effort to regain those skills. Over email, Giffords reflected on the last eleven years, on the tenor of the political conversation in the United States and her hopes for the future.
I’ve heard you say in the past that you don’t think about the anniversary as a day for looking back, so much as a reminder of why to look forward. What are you looking forward to this year?
I’m looking forward to meeting more survivors and advocates across the country, to the extent that it’s safe to do so. One of the things I missed most about 2020 and parts of 2021 was the face-to-face, in-person interactions that energize me and keep me going. As much as I love being home in Tucson with my dog and my husband, nothing beats being on the road, seeing new places and meeting new people. I’ve met so many incredible individuals through my work at Giffords, people who give me the hope and courage that keep me in the fight to end gun violence.
I’m also really excited to start taking Spanish lessons again. Before I was shot, I lived in Mexico for a year as part of my Fullbright and became fluent in Spanish. I started relearning in 2018 but my lessons were put on hold for the past two years.
When you reflect on the last eleven years, can you tell me what your biggest personal triumphs have been? What have been your biggest frustrations?
I had to relearn how to do everyday things that once came easily for me, things that I had taken for granted. I’ll never take walking and talking for granted again. I’m proud of myself — and grateful for the incredibly talented nurses, doctors, and therapists who helped me, and who continue to help me — for all of the progress I’ve made. I’m especially proud of relearning the French horn and celebrating my bat mitzvah, where I played “Amazing Grace”! Aphasia presents new challenges each and every day, but I take them one day at a time and move ahead.
A few days before the anniversary last year, your husband was at work in the U.S. Capitol when it was stormed by a violent mob. How did you experience that event? Are you concerned about the tenor of the political conversation in this country today? What do you think can be done to change it?
I was terrified for his safety, just like he was terrified for mine when I was shot ten years earlier. Violent, hate-filled rhetoric has no place in this country. It’s clear that when people think violence can be part of the discourse in a democracy, tragedy follows. We all can play a part in stopping this by condemning violent rhetoric when we hear it, whether it’s an uncle on social media or the person who holds the highest office in the land.
How has your perspective on gun violence prevention changed over the last eleven years? What feels achievable to you in America?
I’m incredibly proud of the progress we’ve made as a gun violence prevention movement. Since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, states across the country have passed more than 465 gun safety laws. That’s incredible—and yet, we need federal action on this issue to truly make our country safer. I know that we can build a safer country, one that’s free from gun violence. Funding proven community violence intervention programs is one way to do that. Another is passing universal background checks. I believe in the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to tackling gun violence, and I’m grateful to be working with them in this fight.
You celebrated your bat mitzvah this past year. Can you tell me about that experience, and why it was important to you to pursue?
My faith is very important to me. It’s been a comfort to me in difficult times and an anchoring principle throughout my adulthood. I didn’t grow up religious, but my father was Jewish, and I loved learning about his family history. My rabbi, Rabbi Aaron, and I have connected over our similar faith journeys: both of us chose our faith as adults, after much reflection and deliberation. It meant so much to me to celebrate my bat mitzvah with Rabbi Aaron, and to share the day with my husband, our daughters, and close friends.
What has it been like learning a new instrument and what, if any, difference has practicing made in other parts of your life?
I actually played French horn as a young girl—I started taking lessons when I was 13. It’s been wonderful to pick this instrument up again as part of my recovery. Playing “America” as part of the 2020 Democratic National Convention was a high point of my recovery journey. Both the song itself and the speech that accompanied it took so much practice! I truly believe in the power of music to inspire and heal. Sometimes it’s easier for me to sing words than it is to speak them, and there’s nothing I love more than getting everyone around me to start singing too! “Don’t Stop Believing” is one of my favorites.