Tucson mass shooting survivors try to move forward
Published: Sunday, January 1, 2012 at 6:03 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 1, 2012 at 6:03 p.m.
TUCSON, Ariz. - Ron Barber's nightmares wake him in the dead of night and he can still see it: The flash of a gun muzzle aimed at Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' head.
"Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop," went the gunman's weapon, recalls Barber, who fell to the ground, shot in the cheek and thigh.
He saw the pool of blood around his body and Giffords breathing shallowly as she lay facing away from him. Then he looked into the eyes of colleague Gabe Zimmerman and knew the 30-year-old was dead.
The shooter had moved methodically down a line of people, killing six people and wounding 13 before two men tackled him. The cold, bloody morning was one year ago on Jan. 8, a day that shattered many lives, shook the nation and changed the city of Tucson forever.
But to the bewilderment of those were weren't personally affected by the tragedy, Barber and some of the others who were there that day either don't feel any anger about the shooting or choose not to dwell on it. Instead, they're trying their best to move forward. They've bonded with each other in a way that only they fully understand, lobbied for legislation in hopes of preventing similar shootings and many of them have started nonprofits to bring some good from the tragedy.
Barber started the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding, which targets bullying in schools and spreads awareness about mental illness in hopes of preventing a similar crime. Accused shooter Jared Lee Loughner, 23, has bipolar disorder and showed signs of being disturbed for at least two years before the shooting.
Barber was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and has spent much of the past year trying to move forward from the shooting with his nonprofit and by undergoing extensive physical and emotional therapy. He also returned to work but only for half-days because of fatigue.
He still walks with a cane and has been experiencing more flashbacks and nightmares. In some of them, he imagines different scenarios that could have played out, including if he had been able to trip the gunman or grab the weapon.
"But I've learned from counseling that you can manage how you respond to these dreams, flashbacks," Barber said. "I don't think you ever completely forget, but you can manage it."
Pam Simon, another Giffords' staffer who survived two gunshot wounds to her chest and wrist, said the emotional journey is taking longer than she imagined. She has a fuzzier memory from that morning; some parts are dream-like, others crystal clear.
What stands out to her is the kindness of a stranger named Bob Pagano, who ran from inside the grocery store toward the gunshots that day and saw Simon face-down holding her chest.
Pagano put his sweater under Simon's head and told her, "I'm not a medical person but I will stay with you. You won't be alone."
And Pagano did just that, trying to comfort her by telling her that Giffords was still alive and that the gunman had been disarmed. He rode in the ambulance to the hospital with her and explained to her husband what had happened.
"I look back on it and if I had no one giving me input, how much more terrifying that situation would be," Simon said. "I think it actually says a beautiful thing about society, that even in that horrifying moment, regular citizens scrambled to help."
Simon also is back at work, though part-time, and struggles most with Zimmerman's death. One moment, Simon will be OK and then stumble across a reminder of Zimmerman and become overwhelmed with emotion, she said.
"The thing that I learned about grief is that it's a slow and very jagged process," she said. "You have to stop and pause and reflect, and what I've learned is that it's OK, that's part of the process, accepting and being open to those emotions."
She said she knows there's no quick fix but she's found something positive to focus on. Simon visits high schools and talks to students about how she has forgiven Loughner.
"It was kind of surprising to me that kids found it just strange that you could forgive someone who shot you, and I wanted to talk to them about how powerful that experience is, to not carry anger and that baggage around with you," she said.
Simon said she was still in the hospital when she decided to forgive. All she now feels for Loughner is "profound sadness" that he didn't get treatment for bipolar disorder before it was too late.
"It's absolutely pointless to weigh myself down with anger or hatred toward this young man," she said.
Suzi Hileman has chosen to move past the anger.
She took her young friend and neighbor, 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, to meet Giffords that day so the bright young girl, who was interested in politics, could meet a real-life female politician.
Hileman said that Christina planned to ask Giffords about pollution and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf, and what the country could do about them. The girl, wearing sparkly tennis shoes, blue sapphire earrings, and skinny jeans, began "jumping up and down" when she spotted a photographer at Giffords' event that day, overcome with excitement about getting their picture taken with the congresswoman, Hileman said.
"And then boom. The next thing I remember is looking down at my leg and seeing blood pouring out of a hole in my jeans," Hileman said. "And then I remember lying on the ground holding hands with Christina telling her not to die and leave me there.
"'We came together, we're going to leave together, Sweetie,'" Hileman told a dying Christina. "'I love you. Don't leave me on the cold ground by myself.'"
Hileman had tried to shield Christina when the bullets began flying, but the girl was fatally hit once in the chest. Hileman was shot three times.
When Hileman was taken off a ventilator in the hospital for the first time, the first words out of her mouth were, "What about Christina?" Even after learning the truth about the girl's death, a heavily medicated Hileman would cry out for the little girl.
"Someone took a gun, aimed it at a 9-year-old and killed her, and I was responsible for bringing her home and I couldn't do that," Hileman said. "That pisses me off. It's infuriating, but being angry doesn't get me anywhere. The shooter does not get to win.
"I couldn't protect Christina, I couldn't save myself, but there are things that I do have control over and I can find joy in really simple things and tremendous things."
Hileman has found a way to move forward with the help of family and friends, and by starting a nonprofit called GRandparentsINresidence, or GRIN, in which she pairs up volunteers with projects at schools.
She came up with the idea as she learned to accept generosity from people who wanted to help her following the shooting — people who brought her and her husband food for three months straight, delivered her books and music, and cheered her on when they saw her around town using a walker.
"I saw first-hand that it is better to give than to receive," Hileman said. "It helps me heal and it takes me out of myself, and sometimes myself is not a happy place. It's easy to go down the dark path."
Mavy Stoddard knows about the dark path. She was ninth in line to see Giffords that day with her husband and "soul mate," Dory.
The two were grade-school sweethearts who married when they were 60 years old after each of their spouses died; they spent the next 15 years traveling the world and building a home together in Tucson.
Once the shots broke out, Dory pushed Mavy to the ground and shielded her body with his own.
"From there it was a volley of bullets and I had no idea what was going on, but I felt him when he was shot and I knew it was a head wound," she said. "What I remember telling him was, 'Breathe deeply, Honey. They're coming,' and I said, 'I love you' and he died right there in my arms."
In her dark moments, Stoddard thinks of how much easier it would have been if she had died with Dory that day.
She gets through them by talking to Dory's photos on the wall and to his beloved dog, Tux. She also stays busy by volunteering at a church and with a group that gives new clothes to low-income children, teaching Bible class and lobbying Congress with other shooting survivors to pass legislation that would toughen background checks on those looking to buy guns in hopes of weeding out felons, people with mental illness and drug users.
She also has decided not to be angry.
"I miss my best friend. It's a terrific loss but I can't bring him back," Stoddard said. "I can't hate anybody and I can't blame anybody and I can't be angry with anybody. Who am I going to be angry at? God? No. The shooter? Why?"
She found the holidays to be particularly difficult but got through them by doing what Dory would have wanted her to do: putting up holiday decorations and going to the same Christmas and New Year's parties that she and Dory went to every year with the same group of eight longtime friends.
"You don't have much of a choice. You either sit down and do nothing, which is usually miserable, or you get up and build a life," she said. "And that's what I'm doing, that's what Dory would expect of me."
Roxanna Green found therapy in writing a book about her daughter Christina, "As Good as She Remembered," in which she talks about the girl's spirited life, the shock of her death and her family's struggle without her.
She and her husband John also started the Christina-Taylor Green Memorial Foundation, which gives financial help to low-income students and schools, to honor their daughter's legacy.
One thing that all the survivors have found comfort in is each other.
On a Thursday afternoon in Tucson just before Christmas, three of them gathered in Stoddard's cozy home filled with memories from her life with Dory.
Hileman brought brownies for Stoddard and Pat Maisch, who grabbed a gun magazine from Loughner after two men tackled him to the ground during the shooting.
The three women seem more like family than people who were complete strangers just one year ago. They hug long and tightly, they tell each other "I love you," and they get each other through some of the toughest moments in their lives.
Hileman was still in a wheelchair from her wounds when she went to one of Loughner's court hearings, the first time she would see him since she was shot.
At first, she wasn't sure she could do it. She sat outside the courtroom, racked with sobs when Stoddard saw her.
"I told her, 'We're not going to let him win,'" Stoddard said. "Then she sat up straight, stopped crying, and we went in."
Once inside, Hileman remembers shaking and Stoddard grabbing her hand.
"She told me Jesus and Dory and Christina were watching me and we would get through it together," she said. "And we have gotten through it together."