by Jim Nintzel
Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords called her husband, NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, at his home outside of Houston as she was getting ready to start her Congress on Your Corner event on Saturday, Jan. 8.
“I was a little bit surprised,” Kelly says. “She’d just been sworn in, and it didn’t take her long before she was going to be out there, letting everybody say what they think.”
About a half hour later, he got a phone call from Pia Carusone, Giffords’ chief of staff. Gabby had been shot. Carusone had no other details.
Kelly was in disbelief. He had to check his phone to see if he’d really just received the call.
Once the initial shock wore off, Kelly sprang into action. In less than two hours, he in a friend’s private plane and on his way to Tucson.
Soon enough, he’d learn the other grim details. Six people killed. Thirteen others wounded. And his wife was fighting for her life after being shot once in the head at close range.
Kelly has spent every day since at University Medical Center. For the first five days, he slept there. In recent days, he’s been getting to the hospital around 6:30 a.m. and leaving sometime around 9 or 10 at night.
In the early morning hours or late at night, he finds some solace by visiting the shrine in front of University Medical Center and feeling the outpouring of love from the Tucson community.
Gabby is communicating to him in simple ways: Taking his ring from his finger and putting it on her own, or touching his face, or rubbing his neck.
“She knows it’s me,” he says. “There are things she does when only I’m sitting there that she used to do all the time.”
It’s been called a storybook romance: The congresswoman and the astronaut. The two met while both were part of a tour group in China. Their first date came almost a year later, when Kelly, now 46, joined her for a tour of the Arizona prison system’s death-row facility in Florence, because Giffords, who was then a state lawmaker, needed to visit the prison to better understand pending legislation.
“She couldn’t find anybody to go with her,” Kelly remembers. “I’m like, ‘Wow. I wouldn’t mind doing that. I’ll go with you.’”
The two were married in November 2007, at the Agua Linda farm in Amado.
Since the wedding, the couple has much of their time apart. Giffords, 40, splits her time between Tucson and Washington, while Kelly lives in Houston, near the Johnson Space Center, where he has been training for the final space shuttle mission, which is schedule to launch in April.
He says he doesn’t know if he’ll still command the Endeavour mission in the wake of Giffords’ shooting, although he hopes he’ll be able to.
“I’ve been training for this flight for a year and a half,” he says. “I know it better than anybody else.”
Nonetheless, he says the day after the shooting, he “called my boss and said we have to come up with a plan, because I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this.”
Kelly says that in the last couple of years, Gabby had worried that all of the heated talk on the campaign trail could lead to violence.
“She would say, ‘I’m a little bit concerned that at some point, someone will shoot me,’” Kelly says. “We talked about it at least a dozen times. We talked about it two weeks ago.”
But Gabby wouldn’t consider the idea of limiting public events.
“She really feels it’s important to let people say to her, face to face, what their concerns are, what they think about the job she’s doing,” Kelly says. “I go to a lot of those events. People would yell at her, and we’d get in the car, and I’d complain about it, and she’d say, ‘Hey, people have the right to tell me what they think.’ And that person is her constituent as much as the person who volunteers on her campaign. That’s part of democracy. She knew it was part of her job.”
Kelly views the recent calls for more civility in politics as “a good idea. People should be able to disagree without getting nasty about it. And in her last campaign, there was a lot of heated discussion that certainly, in my opinion, may have crossed the line.”
And there’s one thing he wants you to know: We haven’t seen the last of Gabrielle Giffords.
“Let me tell you this: She will make a full recovery,” Kelly says. “I know her really well, and she is going to come back stronger and more committed than ever. I can almost guarantee you what her first event will be, and I hate saying this, but I’d be shocked if the first thing she does is not Congress on Your Corner at that same Safeway. That’s the kind of person she is.”