It's been her goal for 17 months, and today she achieves it: Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is moving home.
The 42-year-old Tucson native and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, are to arrive in Tucson from Houston today. They recently purchased a home here.
"She's gone home before to visit, but this is different," Kelly said on Saturday. "She'll be home for good. She's very, very happy."
Giffords has been living in Houston, her husband's home, since Jan. 21, 2011. Her family made the decision to move her there so she could get specialized help recovering from an assassination attempt on Jan. 8, 2011.
Giffords was shot clear through the brain during a "Congress On Your Corner" meet-and-greet with constituents. She was one of 13 people injured in the shooting. Six people died.
Though she regained consciousness in Tucson, she has barely any memory of those first weeks after her injury, her husband said.
"Since the day she basically realized that she was not in Arizona anymore after her injury … very early on, the first stuff she talked about was getting home," Kelly said. "But it was very important for her to be in Houston, where she was able to get very specific therapy for this type of injury. She did that for a year and a half and the second we realized that was going to start winding down, it was time for us to start looking forward to how we could get to Tucson."
In Houston, Giffords did intensive rehabilitation, first as an inpatient and then as an outpatient at the Texas Institute for Rehabilitation and Research (TIRR) Memorial Hermann Hospital. She progressed from not being able to walk or talk to doing both.
Since she was shot through the left side of her brain, she has trouble with the right side of her body, and also with speech. She has had to make the switch to being left-handed and has struggled with finding the right words, but her understanding is intact and she continues to improve every day, her husband said.
During several public appearances over the past year, Giffords has shown significant improvement in her physical strength, particularly in her ability to walk unassisted. She drew a standing ovation from members of Congress on Aug. 1, 2011, when she returned to the House floor for the first time since the shooting to cast a vote in favor of raising the debt ceiling.
She recited the Pledge of Allegiance in front of a hometown crowd on the one-year anniversary of the shooting. Two weeks later, on Jan. 25, she resigned from Congress, saying she needed to focus on her recovery.
After more than a year of often-grueling daily therapy, Giffords took a break this summer when she and Kelly went on a European vacation. They spent time in Switzerland, Italy, France and Spain.
Kelly said he's in the process of transitioning his wife to some therapy in Tucson but says it's not going to be the six to eight hours per day she'd been doing in Houston.
"She's getting to the point with some things she needs less than others. You know, it's time for her to get back to as much of a normal life as possible after this type of catastrophic injury," Kelly said. "Obviously, a big thing for her is to come home."
Kelly's youngest daughter, Claire, will live with her dad and stepmom and has already started high school here as a sophomore. His eldest daughter, Claudia, will stay in Houston for her senior year of high school and will live with Kelly's ex-wife.
For now, Kelly said he'll keep his home in Houston.
"You know, it's got all this stuff in it," he said, laughing. "With my eldest daughter still there, I will hang on to it for now. … But she'll be going to college in a year."
Kelly, 48, said he is happy to be moving to Tucson and can continue with the work he's been doing since retiring from NASA - consulting, public speaking and writing. He recently wrote a children's book that will be published in the fall. But his first priority will be making sure his wife has everything she needs, and that his children do as well, he said.
"I'm excited to move, too," said Kelly, who grew up in New Jersey. "There is something special about Tucson. It's not a big city but it's not a small town either. There's an incredible amount of stuff to do outdoors and it's a great community. The people are great and the weather is better than it is in Houston."
In Tucson, Giffords has some things she'll be involved in, but Kelly said he couldn't go into any detail right now.
When asked whether Giffords will be up to making a speech or doing interviews in the future, he said he's confident that she will. But he doesn't want to put any kind of a timeline on when.
"She does continue to get better and I think she will for years and years," he said. "I have heard anecdotally from other people who have had these kind of injuries, if you remain focused and do the hard work, you will keep improving."