I used to be able to tell just what my wife, Gabby, was thinking.
I could sense it in her body language—the way she leaned forward when she was intrigued by someone and wanted to soak up every word being said; the way she nodded politely when listening to some know-it-all who had the floor; the way she’d look at me, eyes sparkling, with that full-on smile of hers, when she wanted me to know she loved me. She was a woman who lived in the moment—every moment.
Gabby was a talker, too. She was so animated, using her hands as punctuation marks, and she’d speak with passion, clarity, and good humor, which made her someone you wanted to listen to. Usually, I didn’t have to ask or wonder what she was thinking. She’d articulate every detail. Words mattered to her, whether she was speaking about immigration on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, or whether she was alone with me, talking about her yearning to have a child.
Gabby doesn’t have all those words at her command anymore, at least not yet. A brain injury like hers is a kind of hurricane, blowing away some words and phrases, and leaving others almost within reach, but buried deep, under debris or in a different place. “It’s awful,” Gabby will say, and I have to agree with her.
But here’s the thing: While Gabby struggles for words, coping with a constant frustration that the rest of us can’t fathom, I still know what she’s thinking much of the time. Yes, her words come haltingly or imperfectly or not at all, but I can still read her body language. I still know the nuances of that special smile of hers. She’s still contagiously animated and usually upbeat, using her one good hand for emphasis.
And she still knows what I’m thinking, too.
There’s a moment that Gabby and I are going to hold on to, a moment that speaks to our new life together and the way we remain connected. It was in late April 2011, not quite four months after Gabby was shot in the head by a would-be assassin. As an astronaut, I had just
spent five days in quarantine, awaiting the last launch of space shuttle Endeavour, which I’d be commanding. It was around noon on the day before the scheduled liftoff, and my five crew members and I had been given permission to see our spouses for a couple of hours, one
We’d be meeting with our wives on the back deck of this old, rundown two-story Florida beach house that NASA has maintained for decades. It is on the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center, and there’s even a sign at the dirt road leading to it that simply says “The Beach House.” The house used to have a bed that astronauts and their significant others would use for unofficial “romantic reunions.” Now it’s just a meeting place for NASA managers, and by tradition, a gathering spot where spouses say their farewells to departing astronauts, hoping they’ll see them again. Twice in the space shuttle’s thirty-year history, crews did not make it home from their missions. And so after a meal and some socializing as a group, couples usually break away and take private walks down the desolate beach, hand in hand.
The 2,000-square-foot house is the only structure on the oceanfront for more than twenty-five miles, since NASA controls a huge chunk of Florida’s “space coast.” Look in any direction and there’s nothing but sand, seagulls, an occasional sea turtle, and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s Florida pretty much the way it was centuries ago.
On our previous visit to this spot, the day before my shuttle mission in May 2008, Gabby and I were newlyweds, sitting in the sand, chatting about the mission, her upcoming election, and our future together. Gabby reminded me of how very “blessed” we both were; she often said that. She felt we needed to be very thankful for everything that we had. And we were.
The biggest problem on our minds was finding time to see each other, given our demanding careers in separate cities. It seemed complicated then, the jigsaw puzzle that was our lives, but in retrospect, it was so simple and easy. We couldn’t have imagined that we’d return for a launch three years later and everything would be so different.
This time, Gabby entered the beach house being pushed in a wheelchair, wearing a helmet to protect the side of her head where part of her skull was missing. It had been removed during the surgery that saved her life after she was shot.
While the others at the house had come in pairs (each astronaut with a spouse), Gabby and I showed up with this whole crazy entourage—her mother, her chief of staff, a nurse, three U.S. Capitol Police officers, three Kennedy Space Center security officers, and a NASA colleague assigned to look after Gabby for the duration of my mission. The support Gabby now needed was considerable, and certainly not what my fellow crew members expected in their final moments with their wives. Instead of an intimate goodbye on a secluded beach, this became quite the circus. It was a bit embarrassing, but the men on my crew and their spouses were 100 percent supportive.
They understood. Gabby had just logged sixteen arduous and painful weeks sequestered in a Tucson hospital and then a Houston rehab center. She had worked incredibly hard, struggling to retrain her brain and fight off depression over her circumstances. For her doctors and security detail to give their blessings and allow her to travel, this was how her coming-out needed to be handled.
My crewmates and their wives greeted Gabby warmly, and she smiled at all of them, and said hello, though it was clear she was unable to make real small-talk. Some words and most sentences were still beyond her. Everyone was positive, but everyone noticed.
As I watched Gabby try to navigate the social niceties, I was very proud of her. She had learned since her injury that it could sap her energy and her spirits to be self-conscious about her deficiencies or her appearance. So she had found ways to communicate by employing upbeat hand motions and that terrific smile of hers—the same smile that had helped her connect with constituents, woo political opponents, and get my attention. She didn’t need to rattle off sentences to charm a bunch of astronauts and their wives. She just had to tap into the person she’s always been.
* * *
After we settled in at the beach house, I said to Gabby: “Want to go down to the ocean?”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, swim in the ocean.”
Though Gabby grew up in Arizona, a daughter of the desert, she loves the ocean more than anyone I’ve ever known. She first saw the Pacific as a kid, traveling with her parents and sister through Mexico and Central America. They’d spend weeks at a time driving up and down the Pacific coast in a station wagon or camper. She loved to swim, to look for shells, to people-watch. Later, the Atlantic became equally alluring for her, including this stretch of beach, where we walked and swam together before my previous space flights. On those visits, Gabby had enjoyed swimming well offshore. And I admired how she engaged the other spouses so they all could shake off their nervousness over the risky missions ahead. She had just the right touch, embracing the duties that came with being the commander’s wife, while also being completely down-to-earth and making everyone feel welcome.
But this time, of course, she was dependent on the kindness of others.
Her nurse took her into the bathroom and got her into her swimsuit. Though it was a warm day, she needed sweatpants and a jacket, since her injury leaves her cold so much of the time. Gabby helped dress herself the best she could, using her left hand, but she was limited. (Because she was shot in the left side of her brain, which partially controls the right side of the body, her right hand remained mostly useless and still, an appendage on her lap.)
When Gabby got out of the bathroom, those assisting her helped her into a special chair that emergency medical crews use when they have to carry people down stairs or out of the wilderness. It took three of them to lug her in that chair through the sand, step by step, a hundred yards toward the ocean. It was low tide, which made for a longer walk. I knew exactly what Gabby was thinking on this awkward journey down from the beach house. She was thinking what I was thinking; how desperately we both longed for the life we used to have together.
When the chair reached the water’s edge, I thanked the men who carried Gabby for their efforts, and they lowered her to the ground. We unstrapped her, and after we helped her to her feet, she was able to navigate the hard, wet sand, taking a few steps, leading slowly with her left leg. That’s when our support team moved back on the beach, trying to keep a respectful distance so Gabby and I could be alone.
In the days immediately after Gabby was injured, I had considered stepping down as commander of this shuttle flight. I was unsure of whether I’d be able to focus completely on the mission, and didn’t know when Gabby would be leaving intensive care. But once she began improving and I returned to training, I found myself fantasizing about the possibility that Gabby would recover enough to join me on this beach on this day—the day before liftoff. That became a goal of ours. Now here we were.
It turned out to be a pretty amazing moment, a gift of serenity at a time when both of us were caught in the brightest of spotlights. The day before, millions of TV viewers had watched grainy, unauthorized footage of Gabby walking slowly and deliberately up a tarmac staircase and onto a plane in Houston to fly here for the launch. It had been taken by a cameraman in a distant, hovering news helicopter. Meanwhile, within twenty-four hours, 700,000 people were expected to descend on central Florida’s east coast to see me and my crew blast off in the space shuttle. And yet, here at the water’s edge, all of that attention felt very far away.
Gabby and I were focused only on each other, an intimacy heightened by all we’d been through, and by this isolated spot on the planet. Except for my crewmates and their wives walking a ways down the beach, stick figures in the distance, there was no sign of humanity to the south, the north, or off into the horizon. If we ignored our support team on the sand behind us, it felt like it was just the two of us. So neither of us turned around to look.
Inch by inch, I helped Gabby walk a dozen steps into the water, which splashed midway up our thighs. Given that hole in her skull, a fall could be deadly, so I remained alongside her, holding her arm and her waist, balancing her. I was being vigilant, but it was also nice to be so close to her.
Though the water was warm, an almost perfect 75 degrees, it was at first too cold for Gabby. Still, with the splash of each wave, she moved forward, determined to regain some small part of her former life.
What happened next was almost magical. As Gabby gazed out across the Atlantic with wide eyes and this huge, happy grin, I felt almost mesmerized just looking at her face. And that’s when it hit me: For the first time since the shooting, Gabby looked absolutely joyous.
“Awesome!” she said. “Awesome.”
The water started feeling warmer to her. The sky was clear and very blue. “You really love this, don’t you, Gabby?” I said to her.
“Yes, yes,” she answered. It almost brought a tear to my eye, seeing her so happy.
Gabby sat in her chair with her feet in the water. I sat in a chair next to her.
“You know what would be great?” I said. “In the future, we ought to buy a small house near the ocean, so you can swim.”
“Yes,” she said. “Great!”
“Maybe we’ll get a little fishing boat. Or a sailboat. Maybe on a lagoon, somewhere where the water is warm.”
It felt good to tell her this, to talk about a plan that had nothing to do with a medical treatment or physical rehab or speech therapy.
“Waves,” Gabby said. “Ocean!”
She then became quiet, preferring the soft sound of the waves to her halting voice.
I studied her face, which was luminous. In a lot of ways, she still looked like the beautiful, vivacious woman I’d fallen in love with. But there were differences. Her head was misshapen because of the missing piece of skull and the collection of excess cerebral-spinal fluid. She no longer had that full blond mane familiar to so many people from photos taken before she was shot. Her hair, which had been shaved for surgery, was very short, and had grown back in her natural dark-brown color. And she now had a full set of scars: one on her neck from her tracheotomy, one on the left side of her forehead, marking the spot where the bullet entered her brain, one over her right eye, which was also damaged in the attack, and a set of scars toward the top of her head that allowed her neurosurgeons the access they needed to save her life. Though she used to wear contact lenses, she now had to wear glasses. Because of her injuries, she’d lost about 50 percent of her vision in both eyes.
I took it all in. “You look great, Gabby,” I said. And she did. Despite everything.
Gabby smiled at me. She knows I’m a sucker for that smile of hers. Then she looked back out toward the horizon and her smile widened as the waves lapped against her feet.
I knew what she was thinking: That in this brief moment, it felt as if everything was almost back to normal. That maybe, someday, she’d be whole again.