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A close friend's wish for Gabby Giffords

By Tom Zoellner, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tom Zoeller thinks of Gabrielle Giffords as a close friend, not a politician or saint
  • Zoellner helped her win election he now wishes she had lost, so she would be unharmed
  • Gabby a symbol of violence, he says, a public sacrifice to agendas and slogans
  • To Zoellner, she is a decent, warm and kind person whom he just wants to see again

Editor's note: Tom Zoellner is the author of "The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit and Desire," an investigation into the diamond business reported from six continents. He was also the co-author of "An Ordinary Man." Zoellner has been a contributing editor for Men's Health magazine and a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Tuscon, Arizona (CNN) -- Gabrielle Giffords has opened her eyes. She has squeezed her husband's hand. At one point, she tried to pull out her ventilator tube, as if annoyed it was there and impatient to get back to work.

Arranged around her in concentric rings, mourners and satellite trucks and newscasters are still focused on every available detail of what might be happening inside the still-quiet mind at the center of this national soul-searching and a loud debate about loud debate.

For me, everything has faded to background noise. She is not a politician or a saint to me, but a close friend who skated within a micrometer of death. Another friend of mine, Gabe Zimmerman, was killed instantly as he rushed to go help her. All other questions are temporarily moot in what is now, at its core, a struggle for Gabby to beat the odds.

I have known her for a decade, and in that time, we've had an extended conversation about what the point of life is supposed to be. I remember sitting on the couch with her mother, looking at some of her early homework from Tanque Verde Elementary School. She showed me something written on pulpy paper in thick pencil, a few sentences in response to the question of what she wanted to do when she grew up. She didn't say ballerina, firefighter or lawyer, only that she wanted to be a good person and not think about death too much. That last part made me laugh then. Existential questions came to her early.

She is not a politician or a saint to me, but a close friend who skated within a micrometer of death.
--Tom Zoellner

Like me, she grew up just outside Tucson, Arizona, but our ways of thinking about the town were very different. In the aimless passion of late adolescence, I had decided that something was wrong and synthetic about the wide collector streets and instant neighborhoods with developer's names like Orangewood Estates and Shadow Hills, and wanted nothing more than to aim myself toward a less-anonymous world that would contain ... well, I wasn't sure.

She picked another way to look at the shortcomings. Her father got sick and asked her to come back home from her new Wall Street job and help him run the family tire business. She settled herself down and began to construct an intentional life in Tucson, a kind of genuinely engaged life that I didn't think was possible in our city of disconnected newcomers and private pleasures, where community often comes second to lifestyle. When she decided to commit herself to public service over the tire business, it was with the aim of making the city a better, more human place, instead of just looking for the exits.

When the local congressional seat opened up in 2006 -- a once-in-two-decades event -- she asked me to help her win it. I thought about it only briefly before committing myself to a knocking on doors in the pounding sun down near the Mexico border.

She is an utterly decent person who was trying to make the best possible use of the gifts she was given.
--Tom Zoellner

I don't think I would have done this for anyone else. Not because it was hard, because it wasn't -- I actually enjoyed the excuse to come out of my observational shell and talk to people about whatever was on their minds that day. The act instead represented a moral choice about Arizona, a sort of miniature version of the one she had made. Working to put her in federal office was a good way of coming to terms with my home state, for accepting it for its blessings and faults and trying to contribute something better to it. A deeper kind of citizenship.

I returned to do it again last year when she was in the tightest race of her career, in an atmosphere where she was attacked with a vigor that was both breathtaking and creepy. I watched as she was made out to be the face of everything people thought was wrong about the state -- the lack of jobs that weren't terrible, the broken illusion of constant real-estate inflation, the health care plan that few understood and the atavistic fear of illegal immigrants coming in to take away everything that still remained. But it never occurred to me that what she was doing might actually be risky. Nor did she ever express any doubts about her safety.

That clinical phrase "shot in the head at point-blank range" -- there is nothing that prepares you for hearing that.
--Tom Zoellner
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I now wish that we had lost that election. In fact, I would make her opponent president if it would unfire that bullet into her brain and save six other people from dying. I want her to be able to ride her motorcycle through the hills east of town that she loved, to pop in to the TTT Truck stop for some pie à la mode, to talk to the person on the stool next to her about whatever they wanted to say, to take hummingbird sips of Negra Modela and pretend she was actually drinking, and go on brightly in the E-key of her voice about the ideas that were constantly occurring to her and the ways she would carry them out.

Personal warmth is a necessary property for any politician, but her worries for the problems of strangers was unforced and, in my view, genuine.

Long before she was in the U.S. House, we were once at an outdoor table at a downtown bar when a drunk approached and, after telling us how to make a perfect mojito, told us about the software job he'd just lost. Gabby took down his information and mused about who she might have him telephone for a lead the next morning when he sobered up.

That kind of sympathy for others -- the real warmth that can often be missing in Tucson -- was her greatest motivating factor in trying to do something about our state's greatest deficiencies. Meeting strangers is what she was doing at the very moment she was shot. I can only imagine that if Jared Lee Loughner had come up to her and asked for some kind of treatment or direction in dealing with his troubles, she would have had 10 good leads for him.

But he had other ideas. That clinical and near-military phrase -- "shot in the head at point-blank range" -- there is nothing that prepares you for hearing that when it is applied to somebody you love.

I know she would absolutely hate this circus. Anytime somebody assumes a public office, of course, they die to their own selves a little bit and make themselves into a human symbol, channeling the urges of the local interests that put them there.

Gabrielle no longer inhabited Tucson; Tucson instead inhabited Gabrielle. This mission is embedded in her title "United States representative." She had to become a living-and-breathing distillation of everything this portion of the United States wanted her to say and be.

Now she is a silent representative of far more than she ever would have wanted: a symbol of how far we have drifted in the inhumane shallows of political conversation, the uneasiness about living in a polarized and suspicious America, the nihilism of a young man's alternative reality of "grammar control" and the feeling of helplessness to do anything about it that wouldn't cause even more harm and shouting.

My friend has become a public sacrifice to a thousand agendas and slogans. But she is also a wife and a daughter and an utterly decent person who was trying to make the best possible use of the gifts she was given. Gabby is sleeping now. I hope that it is a peaceful sleep. Against all of the drowning noise outside the hospital, one thing seems vitally important to me. I just want to see her again.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tom Zoellner.