Suzi Hileman's body is healing. But the memory of watching her 9-year-old friend Christina Taylor Green dying in a Tucson parking lot sticks in her like a shard.
"I took my girlfriend's daughter to the grocery store, and it was my job to bring her back," the Oceanside native told Newsday in a phone interview.
But she knows that what happened in a few minutes of madness is not her fault.
"I didn't do anything but take a neighbor's kid to meet a congresswoman," she said.
Recalling their last words
"Think about what we're doing - this is so cool," the retired social worker said to Christina as they waited their turn. Next in line, they were listing how many people make the laws of the United States, Hileman said. And then: "Pow!"
Both were hit.
"We were lying on the concrete in front of the Safeway, face-to-face, and we never lost eye contact," Hileman said. "I'm yelling at her, 'Do not die! Do not get into this! Stay here, girl!' "
She later died at University Medical Center in Tucson.
That was almost two weeks ago, but the grief is still fresh.
"She was my friend. I lost a friend." Crying now, she said of Christina: "She had the best chocolaty eyes. There was a spark in them."
Christina, born Sept. 11, 2001, became a symbol of the tragedy.
But to Hileman, she was, plain and simple, a friend.
The two met after Christina's family moved into the neighborhood three years ago. Hileman, whose children are grown, relished Christina's company and the young girl loved the attention. They went to movies and shopped for clothes together. They talked and enjoyed each other's company. "She was spunky, she was smart, she was funny. Oh my God, was she funny."
Hileman received an automated telephone call from Gifford's office the day before the shooting about the congresswoman's meet-and-greet event. She asked Christina's parents if the girl, recently elected to her student council, would want to go with her. They said yes.
When she came by to pick up Christina the next morning, her mother told her, "Suzi, any time she gets to go with you, it's like heaven on Earth."
After the shooting stopped, Hileman and Christina lay side by side on the Safeway parking lot. Then, a figure stepped between them. She doesn't remember who, man or woman. "You need to be calm," the person said. "You're bleeding every time you scream."
She remembered touching her left shoulder. "It was wet. I said, 'I think I'm bleeding.' "
" 'Yes, ma'am, you're bleeding. You're bleeding in a lot of places.' "
Hileman was shot in her chest, abdomen and hip. She went home from the hospital earlier this week. Doctors told her she could fully recover in six months.
Painful memories linger
The reward for living has been an outpouring of love and help, from her family and neighbors in Tucson to old friends from the class of 1969 at Oceanside High School, who sent her a basket with pastrami and rye bread from Zabar's in Manhattan.
This has been welcome but strange. "My husband and I are private people, self-sufficient people, and we're usually the ones doing the helping," Hileman said.
But the reward comes with penalties. She has had so many phone calls from strangers that she keeps her new number private. She doesn't open her own mail any more.
Hearing the name of Jared Loughner, the man accused of killing six and wounding 13 that day, makes her uneasy enough to interrupt an interview. "That person is not allowed in here," she said. "I have to be safe somewhere."
Days ago, sitting in a wheelchair on the backyard deck of her house with friends, she was inadvertently jostled.
"I was right back in the parking lot, scared, freaking out and yelling," she said. "I feel it like an electrical current down the center of my abdomen . . . We are dealing with PTSD [post-traumatic stress syndrome.]"
Hileman tried to describe how she felt. The Cornell graduate, an active blogger, struggled to find words.
"I'm having a hard time labeling emotions," she said. "I'm very, very sad. . . . I took a little girl out to meet a congresswoman. And then we were going to go out and get our nails done and go to lunch."
The shootings set off national debates about their cause and meaning. But for Hileman, it's simple and personal: "This is a story about a grown woman and a fifth-grader who had a special relationship, and somebody screwed it up. And that's it."