Soon after the Gabby Giffords shooting in Tucson, Ariz., I went to the crime scene. I had to go. Something called me there. The shooting happened on my birthday — January 8, 2011 — and I already was in Phoenix to cover college football’s national championship game, and more than anything, there was a little girl who had been killed. Her name was Christina-Taylor Green. She was 9 years old. She was the daughter of John Green, a baseball scout, and the granddaughter of Dallas Green, a longtime baseball man. Christina was born on 9/11 — 12 days after our oldest daughter, Elizabeth, was born. I, like many Americans, spent much of that day reading about Christina. And crying. Soon after, I drove to Tucson and the Safeway supermarket where the shooting took place.
I cannot tell you what I expected to find. No part of the trip was that comprehensible. I just had to go.
The talk at the time was heated and divisive. On the drive to Tucson — a pencil-straight road surrounded by desert — I did what I almost never do: I listened to talk radio for a while. There was passionate talk (both sides) about guns and their role in American society. The words sounded like white noise. I hate guns. I have always hated guns. But I also know nothing about guns and what they mean to people. The talk on the radio was too political and too certain. I turned it off. All around was rock and dirt and dust. I thought about what I knew of Christina Green.
I had read that she was the only girl on her Little League baseball team.
I knew that, because she was born on 9/11, she was part of the book called Faces of Hope, and the quote near her name was “I hope you jump in rain puddles.”
I had read that a neighbor had taken her to see Gabby Giffords because Christina liked politics — she wanted to run for office at her school.
I had heard her father, John, in his big voice say: “We had nine beautiful years with Christina.”
And I began to feel that catch in my throat again. I tried to find a radio station with music that fit my mood, but there is no such music, and so I gave up again and listened to the tires whine as they rolled over the dry pavement. When I told my wife that I was going to Tucson, she had asked me why. I told her I did not know. It was just something I had to do.
(Interruption: My 7-year-old daughter just walked into my office to read me her latest composition, “If I Could See or Be a Princess,” which is about Ariel from “Little Mermaid” and ends with, “If I could be a princess, I would not leave my family to be with a boy.”)
When I got to Tucson, I drove along ordinary-looking streets with ordinary-looking stores and restaurants and homes. The GPS pointed me in the direction of the heartbreakingly named “Safeway” market, and I kept turning off onto different roads. I guess I really did not want to get there. I stopped at a gas station and picked up a couple of newspapers. I sat in the car in the parking lot and read for a bit. I started again toward the Safeway, then turned off into a residential area with houses and front lawns and basketball goals in the driveways. All the while, the bewildered GPS begged me to make a flurry of lefts and rights, and I did not; it recalculated continuously.
Finally, I headed for the shopping center. I drove around it two or three times, not so much out of reluctance but out of an inability to understand the baffling traffic patterns. Finally I was in. Most of the parking lot was cordoned off by yellow police tape. There was a parking space not too far from the Safeway. I parked there and walked toward the pharmacy on the corner. I saw a family having their photo taken behind the yellow tape. I looked at them with something that I guess resembled wonder — there was a father, a daughter and a son. He told them to smile. I wondered again what I could possibly have hoped to find there.
(Another interruption: Elizabeth, my 11-year-old, just walked in to ask me to open her coin purse — she still does not know how to do it — and to tell me to sniff her arm because she had put some sort of lotion on there. Michael Kors lotion, she says. I smell nothing. We are going to a Christmas party, me and her. Christina would have been 11 too.)
I stared out at the parking lot for a long time. I tried to imagine the moment, the excitement of Gabby Giffords and others speaking, the buzz of a regular parking lot in suburban Tucson turning into something more, and then the shattering break from reality, the moment when the killer shot Giffords in the head, the spraying of bullets, the fear, the screaming, the terror. I could not imagine it. There were a couple of police officers wandering behind the yellow tape, but they did not seem to be be doing very much. Most of the work had been done. The cleanup. The investigation. There was no one left here. No one to comfort. No one with answers. There was a restaurant, though, and it was open, and I got a sandwich there and read some more of the papers. People in the restaurant were talking about the shooting. They had heard that Gabby Giffords might miraculously recover. They had heard many wild rumors about the shooter. The owner or manager personally thanked me for coming in. He worried that no one ever would after this.
(One more interruption: It is time to go to the Christmas party. We do not stay long. Elizabeth wanders around our friends’ house, and people marvel at what a big girl she has become. She talks about Harry Potter with two of the guests. She eats the chocolate fudge and talks about how good it is and also shows some guests her collection of plastic mustaches. Before we go, the host has her stand against the door frame and marks her height, like they did last year. Elizabeth is a good inch, maybe two inches, taller.)
None of the scene at the Safeway was what I wanted, what I needed. I got back in the car and drove to Mesa Verde Elementary. Christina’s school. It looked to me so much like the elementary school where my own daughter was going then, though in retrospect the two schools were different colors, different shapes — they shared almost nothing at all. But they looked the same to me anyway. Out front was a memorial for Christina, with teddy bears and ballet slippers and colorful signs. I walked over and read every one of them. I read them all again. I was crying again, just as hard as I had cried in the hotel room, no louder, no softer.
This was not what I had come to Tucson for.
I talked to this group — two women and a little boy — who were also looking at the memorial. One of the women was crying too. They were from a different part of town. They did not know Christina, they said. But they wanted to pay their respects. They had made a sign — I guess the boy made it. The sign simply said, “Christina. Love. Peace.” I think they left it behind, but I did not stay to see it. I got back in the car and drove off. This time I followed the GPS directions precisely. It took me past similar-looking shopping centers and streets and, in time, to a highway heading back to Phoenix.
Of course I did not get what I had come for in Tucson. I suppose, deep down, I knew I wouldn’t. Friday and Saturday and Sunday, like Americans from one end to the other, I sat in front of the television and watched the unimaginable scene in Newtown, Conn. I spent the weekend on the brink of tears. I spent the weekend looking for that same thing I needed to find in Tucson. And when a woman who had lived in the town and worked at the school for years talked about Victoria Soto, the teacher who it is being reported tried to hide her students and literally died trying to shield them, I finally broke down. But it was not what I needed.
A last interruption: “Daddy,” the 7-year-old, Katie, says as she barges into the room. “My stomach hurts.”
“Mine too, sweetheart,” I say, and I kiss her on the forehead and hug her too tight. And I can’t think of anything else to say.