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Gabby Giffords and the new meaning of recovery

We can't get enough of her story. U.S. congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head last January in a Tucson rampage, is everywhere this week.

Her incandescent smile graces the cover of People magazine, along with the word "amazing." A new book, Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope, has just been released, recounting her arduous recovery so far, mostly from her astronaut husband Mark Kelly's point of view. And the couple appeared with Diane Sawyer on ABC's 20/20, in an interview that was both inspiring and discomfiting.

It was inspiring because Ms. Giffords, 41, is so clearly vibrant and alive after a deranged assassin's bullet ripped through her brain. (At first, some media had declared her dead.) A fraction lower, as Mr. Kelly pointed out, and she really would have died.

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But it was discomfiting too, because much as we yearn to fit this narrative into a "she thrived happily ever after" tale, she clearly has so much further to go, with no real indication she will get there.

Ms. Giffords came across in the 20/20 interview as both charmingly direct and alarmingly childlike.

Able at best to put only simple sentences together, she spoke in brief declarative bursts. How would she describe her husband? "Brave, brave, brave." Her recovery? "Tough, tough, tough." And was she angry at the gunman who shattered the lives of so many? No, what happened was just, in her one word answer, "Life."

So why is anyone even asking, as her interviewer felt necessary to, "Are you going to return to Congress?"

This seems like a disservice to her, compressing all that Gabrielle Giffords is as a human being into that one thing that she did. It also seems like American can-doism, run wild.

It doesn't take into account, that, as a close friend of mine coping with her second brain tumour puts it, "Gabby Giffords is not going to turn around and return to where she was, how she was. She is a new Gabby."

My friend, who hasn't been able to return to work since her brain surgery more than two years ago, is also an accomplished, hard-driving achiever who finds it incredibly frustrating not to be able to do the job that was once her "scaffolding" for daily life, identity and self-worth. But she's found "different ways of validation."

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The preshooting Gabby Giffords was one of nature's aristocrats – beautiful, fit, a gifted painter, a former Fulbright scholar, and of course a dedicated Democratic congresswoman who decided on a fateful weekend last January to hold a meet-and-greet at a local supermarket, sending out a robo-call invitation that found its way to a young man who came armed with a gun, leaving six dead and 13 wounded.

Described by many as one of the most "upbeat" people they'd ever met, Ms. Giffords, emerged from a coma in a locked-in state that allowed her only limited access to random words. "Chicken" was her favourite for a while, used for just about everything, including, amusingly, as a greeting to former President George H.W. Bush, who visited her in a Houston rehab facility.

Since then, through daily rehab, music therapy – she belts out Tomorrow, a favourite from the musical Annie – she has made the kind of progress that puts her, writes her husband, in the top 1 per cent of survivors of traumatic brain injury. She walks, dragging her right leg along, and she even showed up in Washington last summer to vote on the debt ceiling bill.

The book may be determinedly upbeat but it doesn't gloss over the grim reality of what she is facing. Her husband, who recently commanded his last space shuttle, tells captivating, touching and even funny stories about her recovery, including the time that he countered her frustration with having to temporarily wear adult diapers with the fact that he did too on his space training, so she should just stop complaining. Everything in their marriage has changed, he writes, including the fact that before the shooting his wife did 60 to 70 per cent of the talking and now he does "95 per cent." A huge triumph was the time she summoned up her first question, asking him at dinner: "Your day?"

It's difficult to imagine Gabby Giffords being well enough by next May to file her re-election papers, let alone withstand the rigours of political campaigning and engaging in full-throated debates.

In the meantime, there's nothing wrong with dreaming big, or respecting, not the Rocky-style bromides of newscasters who want to caramelize her painful story, or insist that the only good outcome is a return to normalcy, but her own dignified words at the end of the book: "Proud of me." And: "I will return."

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Yet I felt a real sadness watching her on television, wondering just what her life would be like, say five years from now, when the spotlight had moved on. Would she continue to make astounding strides or be, as she might put it, "Stuck, stuck, stuck."

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