Gabrielle Giffords is one year and two months older than I am. She graduated from high school in 1988. I graduated in 1989. Social and psychological research says high school “leaves its stripes” on all of us. Who we were in high school frequently has an influence on who we become, or at least how we perceive ourselves in adulthood. Gabby Giffords comes from an upper middle class family. She rode horses. I come from an eccentric immigrant family. I worked in my dad’s restaurant, until it went under. A little brief digging on the internet suggests she was an excellent student and probably one of the popular girls. (Gabrielle has a ring of “popular girl” as names from the ‘70s go). I graduated at the top of my class, and by high school had succeeded in having multiple friends at one time.
Gabby Giffords went from Tucson Arizona to Scripps, a west coast women’s college. I went from Ann Arbor Michigan to Bryn Mawr, an east coast women’s college.
We both graduated from college in 1993. She went to graduate school, a brief Wall Street stint and then home to Arizona and her family’s successful business. I went home to Michigan, a brief stint as a social worker and law school. She began her meteoric rise in politics not long after I started law practice. My career wasn’t meteoric, but modestly successful for a few years. She became a “centrist Democrat” around when she entered politics. I cast my first presidential vote for Clinton and have voted Democrat ever since only because I can’t vote any farther left and have it count for anything.
When Gabby Giffords was shot in the head in Tucson, in January 2011, I was home on parental leave with my third child. I’d never heard of her before. I learned about her quickly in the burst of media coverage that followed: a young energetic rising star in the Democratic party. She was attractive, articulate, just 40 years old. She was relatively recently married to Mark Kelly, an astronaut with two young daughters from a prior marriage. I thought, “I wonder if she was going to have kids.” I followed the story of her slow recovery. I read in People magazine or some similar place a comment, perhaps third hand, that she and Kelly had been talking about adding to their family before she was shot. I felt terrible. I was appalled at the loss of the people Jared Loughner killed: a child, a federal judge, a member of Giffords’ staff and others. But when I thought “Oh no. I bet she won’t have any babies now,” it felt viscerally miserable. The picture of her and Kelly’s 2007 wedding in Arizona was in a lot of news stories. She had long hair, a simple, fairly traditional wedding dress and a veil. He’s wearing his dress whites. They had demanding, high profile careers and rarely spent much time together, but she had hoped to have a baby.
I saw Gabby Giffords last week. She was on a multi-city trip with her Americans for Responsible Solutions organization to raise awareness of gun violence against women. A number of local organizations were invited to attend a round table, including the local chapter of the National Organization for Women. I’m on the Board and happened to be available, so I went. Giffords came in after everyone else had assembled, mingled and taken their seats. She walks with a cane. Her right hand is curled in and has little muscle tone. She opened the meeting reading briefly from prepared remarks, then sat silently for the next hour. Her voice is clear and sweet. Her pronunciation is careful and her words just a bit blurred. Her eyes don’t quite track. She turned her head to watch the conversation and acknowledge the people who spoke directly to her. Quite a few people had Tucson connections. She stayed briefly afterwards to greet a few people and pose for pictures.
If a mentally ill man had not tried to assassinate her, it would have been a few more years before I heard about Gabby Giffords. I don’t know that many members of the House of Representatives by name. But I’m confident I would have heard of her eventually. She was going places. She would probably have been in the conversation when thoughts turned to Presidential and VP candidates by 2020, if not sooner. I would have looked at her and thought, “Wow, she’s my age. Must be nice to be that successful and come from Good Family. I bet she has lots of help taking care of her kids.” I would have been pleased to see the rise of a powerful, articulate woman of my generation, but probably would have wished she was more progressive. I would have been jealous of her good looks and charm.
When I got home, I posted a picture on Facebook saying “Omigod! Gabby Giffords!!” and one of my sisters said, “that’s awesome, I’m so jealous.” And I did feel that geeky glee of meeting a personal hero. I admire Gabby Giffords immensely. She was wounded in the service of her country, a target because of who she was. And I respect the hell out of ferocity. She has to be fierce to come out ahead of a gunshot wound to the head. Without knowing her at all, really, I’m profoundly glad she appears to be doing well. By all accounts she has a loving relationship with her husband and her step daughters. She has an active public life working for causes she cares about. Presumably she has had excellent medical and rehabilitative services and she and Kelly have more than enough resources to meet their needs. While I wish we could say the same for everyone who has been disabled serving their country, I don’t begrudge her a thing.
Seeing Gabby Giffords doing well makes me happy. But after meeting her, more than anything, I wish I could resent her. I wish her path had gone the way it was pointing before January 2011 and today I would be thinking, “the popular girls always make it good. Must be nice.” I would rather have that edge of jealousy, than have her be one of my heroes. But she is.