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posted: 1/29/2012 7:30 AM

Kirk, Giffords' stories intertwine again, after stroke

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  • U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who inherited Mark Kirk's office when he moved to the Senate last fall, resigned from Congress last week to focus on her recovery.

      U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who inherited Mark Kirk's office when he moved to the Senate last fall, resigned from Congress last week to focus on her recovery.
    AP File Photo

  • Mark Kirk greets a crowd in Wheeling as he accepts the Republican nomination to run for U.S. Senate in April 2010. Kirk, who suffered a stroke last weekend and is recovering, was elected to President Barack Obama's old Senate seat over Democrat Alexi Giannoulias.

      Mark Kirk greets a crowd in Wheeling as he accepts the Republican nomination to run for U.S. Senate in April 2010. Kirk, who suffered a stroke last weekend and is recovering, was elected to President Barack Obama's old Senate seat over Democrat Alexi Giannoulias.
    Daily Herald File Photo

 
By Kerry Lester
Politics and Projects Writer
klester@dailyherald.com

Last Sunday evening, at about the same time surgeons were removing a 4-inch by 8-inch section of Sen. Mark Kirk's skull to relieve pressure caused by an ischemic stroke, his former House colleague, Arizona State Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was announcing that she'd step down from office so she could focus fully on recovering from the gunshot wounds that had nearly taken her life almost a year before.

The timing of those two unrelated events was coincidental, yet profound.

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Like the senseless shooting of 41-year-old Giffords -- Kirk's fellow Cornell University alumnus and a close colleague who'd actually inherited his old House office -- the stroke suffered by the fit and energetic 52-year-old Kirk is evidence of how fragile and unfair life can be.

Like Giffords, Kirk's injuries will force time removed from the political career he's worked his life to build.

On the afternoon of Jan. 8, 2011, Kirk spoke to the Daily Herald after seeing news of Giffords' shooting while he was relaxing over a sandwich at Max and Benny's deli in Northbrook.

He was still processing the news later that day, his voice racing over the phone. "I was shocked," Kirk said.

In his trademarked short, clipped sentences, Kirk explained that he and Giffords traveled some of the same paths to the nation's capital. He said they bonded in the House as they both pushed moderate viewpoints and tried to reach across the aisle, albeit from different sides of it.

Kirk was optimistic about Gifford's recovery, as he said he knew she was a mentally tough and physically disciplined individual who kept in shape.

Giffords, like Kirk, graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. She inherited Kirk's Longworth Building House office after his election to the Senate.

He described Giffords is a "thoughtful, effective legislator" who, no matter the circumstance, remained "very upbeat, always smiling."

They also worked together on U.S.-China relations. On the day of the shooting, Kirk recalled speaking to Giffords a day or two after he had been sworn in to fill the remainder of President Barack Obama's expiring senatorial term.

"She was joking with me, asking who was going to work on China now that (I had left the House)," Kirk said then.

Kirk said he planned to reach out to Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, and that the pair would be "overwhelmed by supporters."

Kirk's family expressed that same optimism Monday, calling their son and brother "a fighter."

Kirk's injury is very different from Giffords', and there's no reason to believe he'll do anything but finish out the remaining five years of his term.

Giffords stepped down Wednesday, the three-term Democrat's last day in Congress marked by a slow but steady walk down the center aisle of the lower chamber, clasping, at times, the outstretched hands of colleagues.

Fellow Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer, of Maryland, who called Giffords "an extraordinary daughter of this House," said to her, "We have missed you."

Giffords, by then seated, turned backward in the chair and replied: "And I miss you."

In Chicago, meanwhile, Kirk's doctors were telling reporters that Kirk was doing better than expected following surgery, yet was experiencing slight facial paralysis and was able to move his left side very little. They expect him to regain full mental capabilities.

Like Giffords, Kirk seems longing to return to his political life, asking, as early as Tuesday, for his Blackberry mobile device back from doctors.

Like Giffords, he too has been overwhelmed by supporters from both sides of the aisle.

In an age of instant communication, it's still uncertain whether Giffords will reach out to Kirk, and how she may plan to do so.

Her return to life as a private citizen means her every move will no longer be tracked by a team of staffers.

"I wouldn't expect anything from the former congresswoman or her husband in the near future. We don't work for her anymore, so all I can do is pass along your request," Giffords former chief of staff, Mark Kimble, told the Daily Herald earlier this week.

Nevertheless, as they both continue to recover, it seems possible the lives of Giffords and Kirk may be intertwined again, in ways they never imagined.

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