Idol Chatter

In the beginniMarkKGabbyGng of the book, “Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope,” Mark Kelly wrote that he and his wife, Gabby Giffords hoped that 2011 would be “the best year of their lives.” Kelly would command the last flight of the orbiter Endeavor, Giffords would begin her third term in Congress, and the two would hopefully conceive a child together.

Instead, 2011 was punctuated, first with terror and grief – then with a daily routine of hard work, occasional setbacks and personal triumphs. Together, Giffords and Kelly, a couple bonded deeply by love, learned what survival really meant after suffering a severe brain injury.

From the moment Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly found love and a new life with each other, the pretty Arizona congresswoman and the brave astronaut captured each other’s hearts.

The couple met in 2003 when both were selected to attend a young leaders’ forum by the National Committee in U.S.-China relations. The next year, they met again when the group reconvened in Arizona. At the time, Kelly was 40, newly divorced and living in Houston with two daughters. Giffords was 34, living in Tucson, 18 months into her first term as the youngest woman ever elected to the Arizona Senate.

“I thought she was out of my league,” Kelly said. “She had a compelling urge to learn everything she needed to know to represent the people of Arizona. If she was working on legislation that had to do with the death penalty, then she needed to visit death row.”

It wasn’t hard for those closest to Giffords to see how her feelings were really beginning to grow for Kelly.

“I remember Gabby telling me she met this fellow and then she giggled,” said Robert Reich, former labor secretary and close family friend. “I said, ‘He must be tall, dark and very handsome,’ and she laughed and said, ‘No. He’s short and bald, and I love him.’”

Kelly was just the man Giffords was looking for. He was smart, supportive and sincere, all characteristics she had been searching for in someone. They were both incredibly smitten.

The two wed in 2007 on a beautiful organic produce farm outside of Tucson. After the wedding, Kelly returned to her job in Houston and Giffords to her work in Arizona and Washington, D.C. as a U.S. representative. The couple’s commuter marriage continued until Giffords was shot on Jan. 8. 2011 by Jared Lee Loughner in a shooting spree.  

Since the shooting, their lives have dramatically changed, now filled with work, movies, friends and ongoing speech, yoga and physical therapy for Giffords. While the couple has to deal with their share of adjustments and challenges, the six years since the shooting have brought the two closer together; they’ve learned a lot about life and love along the way.

“Now we live in the same place and see each other more often than we ever did,” Giffords said. “It’s taught me how important it is for a relationship to have a strong foundation of loyalty and respect.”

There are a number of lessons they’ve learned on their journey that have really helped keep the couple happy, healthy and moving forward. One of them is acceptance. Giffords has physical limitations and walks slower than she used to. She has nonfluent aphasia, which means she understands conversation clearly but struggles to speak in complete sentences. This experience has taught Kelly how to be a more patient person and the benefits that come with that.

“To communicate basic ideas might take 20 minutes as long as it used to,” Kelly said. “It requires a lot of patience. I never thought of myself as a very patient person, but I’m a lot more now.”

Another major lesson they’ve learned is the power of positive thinking.

“The injury Gabby suffered was horrific,” Kelly said. “It will affect her for the rest of her life. If the roles were reversed, I’d be a little bitter, but she isn’t. She pops up everyday looking ahead and trying to figure out how to be a positive force in the world. She doesn’t get down; she realizes we can’t go back in time and there’s no undoing this. There’s no point in feeling sorry for yourself; all you can do is try to do the best you can do with what you’ve got.”

Finally, one of the greatest lessons they’ve learned through all of this is the value of loyalty and teamwork.

“People come up to me all the time and commend me for hanging in there,” Kelly said. “I always find that odd because what’s the other option? In situations like this, you don’t bolt and leave – the idea never occurred to me.”

While Giffords continues to rely on Kelly’s assistance, this doesn’t stop her from being a supportive partner who gives as much as she receives.

“Before the shooting, we balanced each other because he loved to talk and I was more reserved,” Giffords said. “While I was in Congress, I often looked to him for his expertise in the military and science. He looked to me for my experience in politics, business and life. Now, Mark does most of the talking but we still lean on each other for expertise. Our relationship has always been based on mutual respect and adoration.”

Every day Giffords tackles new challenges, encouraged by the fact that Kelly will always be by her side. We can all learn a great deal from their love and the incredible lessons they’ve learned along the way.  

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