WASHINGTON >> Smiling and cheerful, fussing with her interviewer’s hair and nestled in the arms of her husband, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords displayed remarkable progress from the shocking images of her the day after she was shot in the forehead outside a Tucson supermarket.
But she still struggled to form complete sentences and said, with her husband’s help, that she wouldn’t return to Congress until she was "better."
Giffords, 41, appeared Monday on ABC in her first public interview since being shot on Jan. 8 while meeting with constituents. The interview showed a woman who appeared confident and determined, but still far from able to carry on a detailed conversation. When it came to her political future, Diane Sawyer tried to get Giffords to summarize her current mindset, asking the Arizona Democrat whether she was thinking she would return to Congress if she got better.
"And that’s where you’re at right now? Sawyer asked.
"Yes, yes, yes," Giffords replied.
She spoke in a clear voice, but in halting phrases: "Pretty good … Difficult … Strong, strong, strong," she replied to questions about how she was feeling and how she’d fared over the 10 months since the shooting.
She described her emotions as she learned that six people died in the shootings and that 12 others were wounded.
"I cried," she said. "… A lot of people died."
The Giffords interview was accompanied by video her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, shot documenting Giffords’ recovery. The initial days and weeks showed her struggling to understand what had happened and to communicate in the most basic forms. She struggled just to learn how to nod, to raise two fingers. When her therapist asked what one sits in, she replied "Spoon," before later settling on "chair."
Eventually, she learned to speak again and smile.
Kelly said he documented her recovery because he knew she would astonish her skeptics.
"Gabby Giffords is too tough to let this beat her," Kelly said.
Kelly said Tuesday morning his wife is "still improving" and that she’s interested in returning to Congress, if possible.
He also said that he would not run if she’s unable to do so, saying "it’s my job to make sure she can get better so she can go back to her career serving her constituents in southern Arizona."
Kelly said in an interview on ABC’s "Good Morning America" that his wife at this point is working on "just stringing her sentences together" and said viewers of the couple’s interview on the network Monday night "didn’t see that so much" but said that "it’s going to happen."
Kelly said his wife wants to run but hasn’t made the decision yet, adding that "she’ll know" when it’s right.
Giffords has undergone intensive therapy. At times, despair set in. One clip showed her sobbing in her therapist’s arms at Houston’s TIRR Memorial Hermann hospitals.
"Can I tell you something? It is going to get better," her therapist said at one point. "You’ve come a long way in five weeks."
Giffords is shown becoming more upbeat and smiling more frequently in the ensuing months. She now walks with a limp and can talk. She often repeats a word three or four times to get her point across.
At one point, Kelly used the work "brave" to describe the word on his mind when he thinks of her — "brave and tough," he said. Then Giffords, looking directly at Kelly, responded almost in a whisper: "Tough, tough, tough," she said, and kissed his bald head.
Sawyer asked Giffords whether she was ever angry about what happened to her. Giffords replied: "No, no, no. Life, life."
The television interview aired as fellow victims of the shooting came to Washington to testify in favor of new gun legislation. They said Giffords’ appearance represents a major milestone for them as it helps them cope with the trauma they’ve endured since the shootings.
About a dozen survivors and family members are in Washington lobbying for legislation that would extend criminal background checks to all gun sales and enhance the quality of the FBI’s criminal background checks.
Ken Dorushka, who was shot in the arm as he shielded his wife in the Safeway parking lot on Jan. 8, says the victims have become like close family members and would watch the broadcast together.
"Any time one of us has a success, it affects all of us and it helps our healing," Dorushka said.
The man arrested at the shooting, Jared Loughner, has pleaded not guilty to 49 charges stemming from the rampage. He’s being forcibly medicated with psychotropic drugs at a Missouri prison in an effort to make him mentally competent to stand trial.
In Monday’s broadcast, Kelly and Giffords expressed their concern that Loughner did not get the help he needed.
"It was obvious he had serious mental issues. If he would have received some treatment, this probably never would have happened," Kelly said.