Nov. 14, 2011 -- When Gabrielle Gifford married astronaut Mark Kelly in 2007, she felt "a huge relief" that she had finally found "the one," according to her new book, "Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope." But Kelly, it turned out, was far more than just the one—with his daughters from his first marriage, he was three.
Giffords became a stepmom to two teen girls, Claudia and Claire, after years of yearning to be a mother herself. The new family unit, however, was often not what she imagined it would be.
"Gabby hard tried her best to connect with my kids," writes Kelly. "They wouldn't be rude. They just weren't receptive."
Giffords asked about school, about friends and activities. But the girls just shrugged, Kelly said. Giffords tried to help Claudia, then in eighth grade, run for student council president, but Claudia became overwhelmed by Giffords' enthusiasm and suggestions on how to run the best campaign. She ended up not running at all.
When Giffords would try gently to parent the children—asking them not to stand in front of the refrigerator with the door open or to take their shoes off the couch, for instance—they would roll their eyes and walk away. Giffords tried to connect, buying little gifts for the girls or congratulating them on completing tough hikes or volunteer service, but the girls found little common ground with their new stepmom.
"I understand," Giffords told her husband. "They're kids and I love them. I'm patient. I'll wait for them to come around."
Then came Jan. 8, the day she was shot. While Kelly and his daughters were in Houston, where they lived full-time, Giffords was in Arizona, holding a meet-and-greet at a Tucson supermarket. The next thing they knew, Kelly, Claudia, and Claire were on a plane to Tucson, rushing to a hospital to be by Giffords' bedside. The girls had never before seen their father cry.
Claudia, then 16, who had butted heads with Giffords in the past, took out a piece of paper and began to write.
"You are the strongest, most incredible woman I have ever met. I love you so much. I am thankful to have you in my life," she wrote. "I know we have not been extremely close in the past couple years and I am really sorry. That is going to change immediately."
The girls' behavior did indeed change. They tried to show their stepmother that they cared about her more than they let on before. They visited Giffords in the hospital, sat by her bed, held her hand, and told her they loved her. The relationship between them began to grow.
"I took Gabby for granted for so long, and I'm lucky I got a second chance to build a relationship with her," Claudia said. She encouraged her friends to repair relationships with their own parents and stepparents.
In May, four months after she was shot, Giffords was able to leave her rehab center for a Mother's Day dinner with Kelly, his daughters, and Giffords' mother. Before the shooting, Giffords had hoped that one Mother's Day soon, she would be pregnant with her own child, but the shooting had delayed – and possibly ended -- those plans.
When Giffords showed up at the restaurant that day, with gifts for her own mother from her and Kelly, she was welcomed by a surprise: Claudia and Claire joined them for dinner, showering Giffords with cards and gifts. It was a first for the girls and for Giffords, a turning point.
Though it took a terrible close-call for the girls and Giffords to come together, they realized how lucky they'd been to receive a second chance, Kelly writes.
"We didn't fully know it, but we'd all been very lucky, and lucky to have each other," he said. "We see that clearly now."