I was late going to my birthday brunch on Jan. 8 last year because my youngest daughter wanted to play me some songs on her guitar. Because of that, I hopped in my car about 30 minutes late to meet friends at the just-opened Beyond Bread at the corner of Ina and Oracle roads. I picked up one of my friends along the way, explaining my tardiness and telling her about my two resolutions for 2011: Make more time for girlfriends and accept that my life as a newspaper reporter was over. The birthday brunch was a celebration of new beginnings.
Driving toward the sandwich shop, we discussed how only cool people are born on Jan. 8 (The King, for instance), and the great weather. I was explaining my new teaching assignment when my phone rang. It was about 10:45 a.m. and the other friend we were meeting explained that she was detoured away from Beyond Bread by police surrounding the intersection.
“They’re saying someone was shot,” she said. To which I replied, “A few weeks ago they said there was a bomb threat or something and it turned out to be nothing.” We moved the birthday celebration to another restaurant.
Fewer than 5 minutes later, sitting at the stoplight across the street from the newly chosen venue, my phone buzzed. I flipped it open to see a message from a local priest: “There are reports that Gabrielle Giffords has been shot up where you live. Do you know anything?” I handed the phone to my friend, a volunteer with the local Democratic Party. “Oh my God,” she said, “this can’t be right.”
We pulled into a parking lot and started calling people who might confirm what we were hearing – I dialed old colleagues from the former Tucson Citizen newspaper and she called Democratic Party contacts. It wasn’t long before the information was confirmed. Yet, when news organizations began reporting that Giffords had died, my friend and I said the same thing simultaneously: “They don’t know Gabby.”
Let me be clear: I am not friends with Congresswoman Giffords, although as anyone who has met her will attest, she’s one of those people who makes everyone feel like a friend. I interviewed her a few times about educational issues in my job as a higher education reporter for the former afternoon daily. I reported on her wedding. I occasionally sat at the same table with her at The Shanty when she met up with friends of hers there who were my Citizen colleagues, people with whom I sometimes shared a Friday night beer. During one of those times, Giffords and I had a conversation about teenage girls since I had survived raising a couple of them and she was a new step-mom to daughters, but if I’d walked into a room, I doubt she would have remembered my name. I was not – I am not – all that remarkable.
Giffords, on the other hand, is and always has been remarkable, which is why my friend and I responded to the erroneous pronouncement with an I-don’t-think-so attitude. We had met Gabby and meeting her even once was all it took to realize this was a woman who could survive just about anything with a positive attitude, class, a work-horse work ethic, stellar intelligence and that great smile of hers. It seemed to us that there was no way she would be stopped just by a bullet. Luckily, she wasn’t.
I spent most of my birthday weekend in 2011 helping report on the shooting for the New York Times, pulling together local sources for the reporters flying into town and talking with Giffords’ staff members who had been at the shooting. (I also fielded a few frantic phone calls from Dallas family members who had Google mapped the shooting site and knew it was only about five miles from my house.) Late on Jan. 9, as I was writing a lesson for my Monday class, my Times contact called me, beginning the conversation with, “Monday we’d like you to try to find out more about the shooter ….”
I stopped her mid-sentence and told her on Monday I had to go back to my real job at the high school where, ironically, gunman Jared L. Loughner once went to school. I’d be a teacher again, not a reporter, and my job was to help my ninth graders understand not only the use of semicolons but, I imagined, that the world was still a safe place.
As it turned out, we never got to semicolons that day. The students had questions about mental illness and guns and what Congress does. Mostly, they wanted to talk about Giffords and if she was going to live.
“Do you know her?” one student asked.
“Yes,” I said, explaining that I’d met Giffords and interviewed her.
They wanted to know what she was like. Strong, I said. Intelligent – and street-smart, too. Kind. Polite with reporters. Well-spoken. Ridiculous amount of energy. Extremely well read. Determined.
“Well then,” piped up one of the class troublemakers, “if she’s got all that goin’ on, she’s gonna be OK.”
And indeed, Giffords has proven that she is going to be OK. The fact that she’s coming to town to mark the anniversary of the shooting this weekend demonstrates her strength, tenacity and graciousness more than ever – not to mention her faith and ability to forgive. She’s an example for all of us, and Arizona is lucky to claim her as a native daughter. Welcome home, Gabby.