Gabrielle Giffords opened her eyes for the first time yesterday and saw her husband — and a room full of women who were her friends and mentors. "We saw a little girl power too," said Nancy Pelosi, who was there.
It was no idle reference. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz spoke movingly to reporters afterwards about what they had witnessed, as well as how the three younger women had become friends while serving in the House together.
There in the hospital room, Giffords was able to rub and grip their hands to let them know she understood what they were saying. The women began joking about how she had to wake up because they were going to do so many things together, when Giffords' eyes began flickering for the first time, to the wild excitement of her husband Mark. "Gabby, open your eyes, open your eyes," he urged.
Gillibrand told reporters, "And then she finally opens her eyes and you could she was like desperately trying to focus and it took enormous strength from her. And Mark could just –- can't believe it. I mean, he's so happy. And we're crying because we're witnessing something that we never imagined would happen in front of us."
Wasserman Schultz said, "The only way I could describe the feeling that we had, that I had, was other than the birth of my kids, this was the most incredible feeling, to see literally your — one of your closest friends just struggle to come back to you, to come back to her family, to come back to her friends. I mean, we know how strong Gabby is and you could see all the strength pouring out of her to touch her husband."
The doctor told them, she said, that he had "discounted emotion... as meaningless out loud. He said, 'I just witnessed the impact of friendship and what you guys—' he said, 'You did this here today.'"
How did they all become close? From the transcript:
REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: I think I told you the other day, I mean, there's very few of us –
SENATOR GILLIBRAND: Young women.
REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: — young women who — so we naturally gravitate to each other. And Kirsten and I were — I was assigned as Kirsten's mentor when she –-
SENATOR GILLIBRAND: Before I ran for office in 2006, I called Debbie and she gave me advice about what was it like to have young children and serve in Congress. So Debbie was instrumental in making me feel comfortable before I even ran for office to be able to know that I could be a good mom and a good legislator at the same time.
REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: So literally right from when I was elected, these were my two girlfriends. I mean, I met Gabby before I was elected, Kirsten before she was elected — or Gabby before she — both of them before they were elected.
GILLIBRAND: I always complimented Speaker Pelosi because one way she transformed Congress was she put five women on the Armed Services Committee all at one year. And our nature of our questions were always different.... I'd often bring up [Giffords'] stories as evidence that women in Congress matter because we have a different perspective.
After Gillibrand was appointed to be the Senator from New York, they had a ladies lunch in the Senate dining room, along with Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. "I missed them so much," Gillibrand said.
Among all the strands of mourning and inspiration and memory yesterday was that moment to reflect on women's hard-fought, full participation in society, however unfinished. In the Obama speech and the memorial alone, you had Daniel Hernandez — a gay man, a Latino man — who helped save Giffords' life, and Patricia Maisch, who "wrestled away the killer's ammunition." You had couples of fifty years where the husband tried to shield the wife, in one case giving his life for hers, in another losing her.
Then there was Christina Taylor Green, the nine-year-old girl who, he pointed out, wanted to be the first woman to play in the major leagues — "and as the only girl on her Little League team, no one put it past her." Had her life not been brutally cut short by the gunman, she could have grown up in a world where her aspirations were encouraged by mentorship and pathbreakers — and where she herself could have been one.
"In Christina we see all of our children," the president said. "So curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic.... She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model."
He continued, "I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us — we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations."
Image via Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington Flickr