Tucson shooting still seems unreal for parents of Christina-Taylor Green, who never got to grow up

Karina Bland
The Republic |
John and Roxanna Green hold a photograph of their daughter, Christina-Taylor Green, at the Christina-Taylor Green Memorial River Park in 2015.

TUCSON — Christina-Taylor Green would have been 14 years old.

Her parents imagine that she would have been a star athlete and on student council.

She’d have talked her big brother into driving her and her friends to the mall. She would have volunteered for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, no matter that her dad’s a Republican.

She would have shopped with her mom for a dress for her eighth-grade graduation in May.

Her parents imagine because they can do no more.

Five years ago, on Jan. 8, 2011, Christina-Taylor died in front of a grocery store outside Tucson, the only child among the six people killed by a gunman trying to assassinate then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Thirteen other people, including Giffords and Christina-Taylor's neighbor and companion that morning, were wounded when the gunman fired into the scattering crowd, a gathering of constituents who lined up on a Saturday morning to talk to their congresswoman.

Christina-Taylor Green

The gunman, Jared Loughner, was tackled at the scene and arrested. He pleaded guilty in the attack and, in November 2012, was sentenced to seven life sentences — one each for killing Christina-Taylor and five others and one for trying to kill Giffords — and more than 140 years in prison for shooting the 13 others.

In the five years since the horrific scene unfolded, some of the survivors have become activists. Giffords and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, founded Americans for Responsible Solutions and have lobbied tirelessly for gun-safety and gun-control measures. Some of the survivors wrote books, testified before Congress, protested. Some have quietly resumed their lives, weary and wary of an unblinking spotlight.

Gabrielle Giffords shooting: A fatal chain of events unfolds

The Greens have done both. They have not always joined other survivors at public events, but they traveled to Washington, D.C., this week to stand with President Barack Obama as he outlined a series of executive actions addressing gun safety. But Friday morning, as other survivors and their friends assemble to ring bells to mark the time of the shooting, the Greens, John, Roxanna and 16-year-old son Dallas, will remember Christina-Taylor privately, as a family.

From their house, they should be able to hear the thousands of bells that will ring at once across the city at 10:11 a.m., the exact time that the shooting happened, an annual shared symphony of mourning and loss, of joy and hope.

Then, on Saturday, the Greens will announce plans to create a memorial desert garden for the community in honor of their daughter.

John and Roxanna Green hold a photograph of their daughter, Christina-Taylor Green, at the Can–ada del Oro Christina Taylor Green Memorial River Park in Tucson on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2015. The park is named after their daughter, who was 9 when she was killed during the mass shooting in Tucson in 2011 that also wounded U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Five years and forever

For the Greens, five years feels like forever — or an instant, depending on the day.

John and Roxanna Green sat close together on a low wall at a park near their home, where their daughter used to play. It was the day after meeting the president at the White House. There, it had been cold and harried. The next morning at the park, the temperature was in the high 50s, the sun coming out from behind the clouds after a morning rainstorm.

“Sometimes, it feels like forever, and then sometimes, you just can’t even believe it, like, ‘Did that really happen?’” Roxanna said.

“Of course we know that it did, but it’s just sometimes, I can’t believe it," she said. "She’s on a trip, or she’s going to come home from Pennsylvania from visiting her grandparents, or some kind of thing like that.”

Because how Christina-Taylor was killed was so unbelievably mad, it still almost seems impossible.

After five years, they still can’t understand why anyone would shoot a little girl.

On that sunny Saturday, Christina-Taylor stood hand-in-hand in the Safeway parking lot with her friend and neighbor Suzi Hileman as they waited to meet Giffords.

They had plans to get their nails done afterward.

When the shooting started, they ran together, still holding hands.

Suzi Hileman looks at a photo of Christina-Taylor Green  in Tucson on Jan. 20, 2011.  Hileman took Christina-Taylor to see U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords when they were both shot. Christina-Taylor died.

Hileman was hit three times, one bullet narrowly missing her heart, but survived. Christina-Taylor was shot once, in the back, the bullet passing through her chest, and died at the scene.

“I think that part’s the hardest because she was taken. She was robbed of her life. She was taken away from us,” Roxanna said.

“It’s not like a car accident or a cancer, and those two things obviously are equally as horrific, but it’s just not the same," she said. "As a parent, you just have guilt, a ‘why?’ You’re just supposed to protect your children, even though I know there was nothing I could have done.”

In that moment, everything changed.

"One day we were a beautiful family of four, and the next day, we woke up, and we had three — with no real preparation, no warning, no nothing," John said. "It jars every part of your life.”

“Really, we were a balanced family” — a father and mother, a son and daughter — "and then when that happened, we were unbalanced," he said. "We are still unbalanced, but we are learning how to deal with that unbalance. That’s always going to be there.”

Roxanna Green, mother of Christina-Taylor Green, sits on a swing at Mesa Verde Elementary School playground in Tucson in 2011.

The sheer shock of the first year or so has lessened. Some days, John said, are fine. On others, one, or two, or all of them can struggle.

“I’ll find myself looking through photographs and just not be able to compose myself," John said.

Or, he'll come home to find Roxanna in tears because she had seen a young girl with her mother at a park or shopping at a store. Dallas often wonders aloud what his sister would have thought of a place they visit or a movie on TV.

“The pain is always going to be there. I think we can tell that now,” John said.

Roxanna leaned against him. “They say that time heals all wounds, but I know for a fact, especially because I have a lot of survivor friends and the work I do, that this is one wound that will never completely heal,” she said. Roxanna, a nurse, has traveled the country to meet with people affected by gun violence.

“You always have a hole in your heart and you miss that person, especially a child because parents aren’t supposed to bury their children," she said.

A quiet house

Even after five years, there's no getting used to Christina-Taylor being gone. John Green, a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers, still half expects her to run out to meet him when he comes home from his travels.

“I still get that when I pull in late at night, and Roxanna or Dallas will peek their head out the garage door and see that I’m there,” he said. “But that’s when she would definitely be jumping up and down that her dad was home. It think of that a lot.”

The house still feels too quiet. It used to echo with the quick rhythm of Christina-Taylor's feet running across the tile — she hardly ever walked if she could run — her voice singing along with Beyonce's "Single Ladies" in her bedroom or her chatter on the phone with girlfriends.

Dallas was the quieter of the two. Without Christina-Taylor calling out to him, he's not calling back.

It's not just the house that has changed. John said they are more grateful for the time they have together as a family, on vacation or just sitting together for dinner. They check often with friends and family to make sure all is well.

“I’ve learned to appreciate every single moment. I don’t complain as much as I used to. I’m just so grateful for everything,” Roxanna said.

“When something as terrible as losing a child happens to you, especially in the way it happened to us, you really appreciate each other," she said. "You pick your battles. You forgive quicker, and you love more.”

Because they know everything can change in an instant.

What might have been

It is not difficult for the Greens to imagine what might have been. Over the five years, they have watched Christina-Taylor’s friends grow up, attended their games and dance productions.

“It’s wonderful to see her contemporaries, her friends, doing well, but it tugs at your heart,” John admitted.

Soon, Christina-Taylor’s friends will start high school, learn to drive, graduate and start college.

“We’re going to miss all that, and that’s really tough. That’s the hard part for her mom and myself,” John said.

So they turn to their memories of their daughter, confident and sassy. Christina-Taylor wanted to be the first woman in the major leagues and a politician, a doctor and a dancer. She told her mom she would be a star.

"What kind of star?" Roxanna had asked. "A singer? Dancer?"

"I don't know yet, but I'll be a star," she had replied.

There was no reason to doubt her. At 7, she had announced she wanted to play baseball. Her mom had said, "You mean softball." No, Christina-Taylor had said, baseball. Her mom said she might be the only girl, but Christina-Taylor didn't care: "I just want to play baseball."

Maybe Christina-Taylor would have continued to play baseball and dance. She had also loved gymnastics and volunteering.

“We know she would have been very engaged in the community, whatever she did,” her father said. “Because whatever she did, she did full bore."

Like the time in third grade when she decided to run for student council at Mesa Verde Elementary School, even though the campaign had been underway for a month, the election only a week away.

“She jumped right on board,” John said.

For the little girl who had campaigned with her grandmother for Obama and sat with her mom for hours watching the funeral of Sen. Ted Kennedy, her campaign had to be substantive. Her mom warned that it likely would be more of a popularity contest. But Christina-Taylor promised her schoolmates, "I will work hard to make Mesa Verde a better place for all of us" — and she won.

Commemorative Christina-Taylor Green pins on sale at a Arizona Diamondbacks spring training game in Tucson in 2011, benefiting the Christina-Taylor Green Memorial Fund.

Her father thinks she would have followed this year’s presidential race closely. He laughed, “She would have found the varying viewpoints very interesting.”

Because Christina-Taylor always wanted everyone to get along. She mediated squabbles on the playground and rounded up kids with no one to play with for a soccer game.

When other kids picked on a new boy on the school bus, Christina-Taylor sat next to him, for two weeks, until it stopped.

She had never told her parents about the boy; John and Roxanna learned of what she had done from the boy’s mother just before Christina-Taylor’s funeral.

It was her nature, Roxanna said. From the time she was in kindergarten, maybe even earlier, Christina-Taylor went with her brother, mom and grandmother to soup kitchens, not just at the holidays but throughout the year, and helped collect food and clothes.

“I think she would be really interested in continuing to help those who are less fortunate like she did in the nine exceptional years she was here,” Roxanna said. “I think it would have just get bigger and better because she would be older.”

The coat off her back

Christina-Taylor was the kind of kid who would have taken off her coat and given it to someone who was cold. Her mother was reminded of that about a year after her daughter died when a friend who was a teacher told her about a student who didn't have a coat.

Dallas, Roxanna and John Green look at the sculpture "Freedom's Steadfast Angel of Love" at a 2011 event honoring Christina-Taylor Green, who played Little League baseball on the field where the ceremony was held.

At the time, Roxanna avoided going into Christina-Taylor’s bedroom, which was still very much as she had left it. A pink polka-dotted comforter. A dollhouse in the corner.

But Roxanna could almost feel Christina-Taylor pushing her to go in there to get her purple coat with matching gloves and hat that she had worn just a few times. Roxanna gathered her warm coats and some other clothing, three large shopping bags full, and helped her teacher friend pack it into her car.

Since then, Roxanna and John have given away many of Christina-Taylor's things, certain items to her friends, others to charity.

"I just know she is really proud of that," Roxanna said.

But there are some things her parents will keep always. Ballet tutus. Christmas dresses. The white dress she wore for her First Communion. The one she wore to be flower girl in her uncle's wedding. Her Supergirl Halloween costume. Her baseball jersey, hat and glove.

They are reminders of times they don't have to imagine.

A safe, beautiful place

Just weeks after Christina-Taylor's death, on Feb. 28, 2011, a portion of the Cañada del Oro River Park, a 1-mile stretch from Thornydale to Magee roads, was renamed after the little girl.

A sign at the entrance says so: the "Christina-Taylor Green Memorial River Park."

It already had been a favorite place for the Greens to play.

Christina-Taylor and Dallas would ride their bikes here. Her father said she and her brother would play in the wash, even when the rain turned its bottom to mud. Roxanna said Christina-Taylor would jump in the puddles here after it rained, and the memory of it makes her laugh.

Now Pima County has offered the Greens a 2-acre portion of the park at Shannon and Magee roads to create a desert garden in their daughter's honor. On Saturday, they will launch a campaign to raise $85,000 to pay for renovations that will include picnic tables, seating and a nature trails with signage about the plants and flowers along the way.

The Ca–nada del Oro Christina-Taylor Green Memorial River Park in Tucson on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2015. The park is named after Christina-Taylor Green, who was 9 when she was killed during the mass shooting in Tucson in 2011 that also wounded U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Much of the infrastructure is already in place, such as restrooms and lighting. The county will cover costs of construction management and landscaping materials and will maintain the park.

There's an existing monument there, one side of it engraved with a scene of birds rising into the air that will be painted by schoolchildren, and the other covered by mosaic tiles in honor of those who donate. At the top will be a butterfly.

Christina-Taylor loved butterflies. She loved to draw and drew mostly butterflies, filling in their wings with bright colors. Even as a toddler, she chased after butterflies, not trying to catch them, just catch up.

The garden at the park will include plants — whitebrush, Wright's desert honeysuckle — that attract butterflies.

A photo of Christina-Taylor Green.

"She loved it here. She loved to be outside," Roxanna said as she walks through the area now spotted with desert trees and cactus, the sun warm on her shoulders. John said he can imagine families picnicking here and then wandering the trails and gardens, learning about the vegetation. Roxanna smiled at the thought.

"I think it's a positive, safe, beautiful place where people can come, and if they recognize the name, they can remember this beautiful little girl who wanted nothing but goodness," she said.

They imagine Christina-Taylor would approve of the changes.

"I think she’s just really proud this is in her community and in her neighborhood and all her friends and neighbors can enjoy it," Roxanna said.

They can imagine her here, meeting up with her friends on their bikes, bemoaning the fact that it would be two years before they could drive themselves.

They can imagine her here, caught in that time between being a girl and a woman, going for a run along the trail with an eye out for butterflies and even jumping in puddles left from a morning rain.

They imagine she misses them every day, as they miss her everyday.

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Reach Bland at or 602-444-8614.

Mourners line the road to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, the site of Christina Taylor Green's funeral in Tucson in January 2011.