For a few years I have had the happy job of moderating the Sacramento Speakers Series which is a monthly lecture series that runs from September to April, featuring international superstars of politics, science, entertainment and sports. It is a nice gig. I escort the speakers to several small events prior to their speech and then sit on stage with them at the end of their presentation to ask them questions written by audience members on cards. There is also a healthy amount of time backstage with them in the green room as they rest between duties and prepare for their speeches.
During this particular season I met food journalist Michael Pollan, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and author Malcolm Gladwell. When former astronaut Mark Kelly and Congresswoman Gabby Giffords arrived, I admit I wasn’t as excited as I had been for other presenters.
I knew Giffords as the congresswoman who survived an assassination attempt and Kelly as her astronaut husband who commanded the final space shuttle mission. I had enjoyed the non-political nature of past speakers and knew Gabby was very publicly supporting Hillary Clinton for president. I was hoping this night wouldn’t be political.
Mark was friendly from the start but also casually intense. You also got the feeling that he was constantly taking in data on everything going on around him and analyzing that information. As he strolled into the green room surrounded by handlers, he took a last bite of an apple and tossed it easily into a trash can. He gave me a firm handshake, flashed me a smile and introduced himself with eyes that said, “You are the 1001st person I’ve done this with today”. When anyone new entered the green room, his eyes shot to them. He would smile and say, “What’s your name?” He arrived without Gabby who I was told was resting after the trip. She would join us later.
We chatted a bit about his life in Arizona, his brother’s recent return from a year on the International Space Station and he at one point pulled me into a corner to show me the question cards. He went from friendly mode to commander mode as he held them out before me, each numbered precisely.
“These are Gabby’s questions. They need to be asked in this exact order”. He looked at me as if trying to determine if I were comprehending him. I repeated the instructions back to him before telling him not to worry, I wouldn’t screw it up. He explained that his wife still had significant Aphasia (a word I had to look up later) and that her processing was weak. She had practiced answers to these specific questions…in this specific order.
I left to make a phone call and when I returned to the green room, Gabby was sitting at the table with her two female assistants. She looked beautiful in a dark suit and pearls. Her makeup was flawless and her eyes were shiny and happy. She saw me and gave me a very friendly, “Oh hellllllllooooo!” as she held out her hand. It wasn’t until she opened her mouth to speak again that I understood the Aphasia. I introduced myself, told her I was a journalist at a TV station in Sacramento and she looked away from me, seemingly confused. She looked to one of her assistants as if I were speaking a language she didn’t understand.
Aphasia is a processing communications disorder often caused by traumatic injury. It limits a person’s ability to quickly process what someone is saying to them. It can also lead to choppy speech and substituting the wrong word or a made up word in place of what they mean to say.
Mark Kelly left with his entourage to go to the stage and begin his remarks. Gabby would be brought out with him at the end. That meant we were to stay in the green room for another 45 minutes. She talked in two and three word sentences to her assistants but we were able to connect on several subjects. I heard her say “Walking Dead” and immediately asked her if she saw the last episode of the season. She sucked in her breath and said, “Yes!” We laughed about how the show made us so anxious and how much we loved the story line. We talked about our dogs. She pulled up a picture on her phone of her mixed breed golden sprawled on a dog bed and I pulled up a shot of my Irish Setter laying in poppies. The sentences were short but her warmth and happiness shined like a light through the fog of her injury.
She motioned to her assistants and said, “practice” and the woman said, “You want to practice your answers?” She said, “yes” and I volunteered to work with her since I had the cards sitting in my hand. I pulled my chair close to her and saw her face get serious. The light was no longer dancing in her eyes…they were focused and she was sending all energy to whatever set of synapses would be taking her thoughts to her mouth.
My heart melted for her. Here was this woman who was serving the country in Congress, now searching for the right words. Giffords was holding a “congress on your corner” meeting with constituents in front of a Safeway when she was attacked. She was shot in the head and survived, but she lived with the pain of knowing six people did not. She struggled daily with tasks that used to come easy to her. She had the support of man who loved her and had the skill and temperament to help her but more than that, she had an optimism that continues to inspire thousands. I didn’t think much about Gabby Giffords until I saw this woman, just two years younger than me, face the struggle to be heard, to be understood like she once was. It would be so much easier to not subject herself to this.
As I asked each question, I could see her concentration sharpen. She had rehearsed these answers many times before tonight. They came out in one or two sentence bursts always ending with a flourish of her steady hand, the left one. When I had asked the final question, she held out her hand to fist bump me. I returned the bump and our eyes met. She leaned forward and said, “lipstick”. It was my turn to look confused for a moment, then I understood. “You’re saying I need lipstick, right?” She nodded and said, “yes” and we both cracked up. It was my favorite moment of the night.
Gabby did join Mark on stage where she made a brief :15 speech, a speech I heard her practice several times back stage. She nailed it and then sat with Mark as I sat with them on stage to ask her the questions we had rehearsed. At one point she started to ad lib something in response to Mark and the aphasia came through…the few words weren’t making sense in context to the conversation. Mark lovingly said, “we’ll talk about that later” and I jumped in to pull the conversation back on track with another question.
So many families struggle with severe injury but these two do it in public view. They left Sacramento with my respect and I will think warmly of that evening when I see them on TV or on social media at one of their many appearances to come.