Mark Kelly and Gabrielle Giffords: Amid Fear and Pain, Lessons in Love
As former astronaut Mark Kelly tells it, he had never been a patient man. He was achievement-oriented, “always aware of the urgency of now.” By contrast, his wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, knew well the value of patience. Gabby interacted easily with everyone, letting her constituents in Arizona have all the time they needed to talk about whatever was on their minds.
After Gabby was injured and had to learn to talk again, friends and family would often interrupt her, saying the words they thought she meant to say. They were trying to help, but Mark saw this only added to Gabby’s sense of powerlessness. He found his own way as a caregiver by thinking back to a day in 2006, when he and Gabby had lunch with Stephen Hawking, the legendary British astrophysicist who is paralyzed with a form of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Because of this, it takes him an excruciatingly long time to express himself.
MOMENT OF SOLITUDE. In April, Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords visited a favorite beach in Cape Canaveral, Fla., where for the first time since the shooting, Mark thought Gabby looked absolutely joyous.
That day, Mark quickly gave up trying to converse with him. “But Gabby was just incredible,” he says. “She intuitively knew what to do.” She kneeled down in front of his wheelchair and said, “Dr. Hawking, how are you today?” Then she stared into his eyes and waited silently and patiently. He took 10 minutes to reply, “I’m fine. How are you?”
“She could have kneeled there for an hour, waiting for him to answer,” Mark says.
His memory of that encounter helped him understand how he’d need to interact with Gabby during her recovery. “It’s almost like something out of ‘The Twilight Zone.’ It was as if Gabby was giving me a message back in 2006: ‘Watch me. I will be your teacher. Someday, you’ll have to be patient with me and this is how you’ll need to do it.’ “
In the first weeks after Gabby was injured, she couldn’t say anything at all, which left her terribly scared. She felt trapped inside herself. By mid-February, Gabby had begun formulating words, but they were often delivered haltingly or incorrectly. Her speech therapist handed her a photo of a chair and asked her what she was looking at.
“Spoon,” Gabby said. “Spoon.”
When shown a lamp, Gabby said, “Cheeseburger.”
She also got stuck on random words. No matter what she meant to say, the same word, “chicken,” often came out in a burst: “Chicken, chicken, chicken.”