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Tucson shooting survivor tormented by loss

She called out in her sleep.

“Christina, Christina!”

Bill Hileman could feel the torment in his wife’s dreams.

“Hold my hand,” his wife shouted in her uneasy slumber. “Keep your eyes on me, baby.”

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Suzi Hileman, 58, lay in the hospital bed with serious wounds.

In her dreams, Suzi kept reliving the last moments before she lost consciousness: lying on her side in a parking lot, face-to-face with her 9-year-old neighbor, Christina-Taylor Green, whom she had taken that day to meet their congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords.

They held hands, like grandmother and granddaughter, as they waited to meet Giffords.

“The sadness of it is bottomless,” Bill Hileman said as he took a break from his bedside vigil at Tucson’s University Medical Center. “She took a friend’s kid away and didn’t bring her back.”

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Bill is at the hospital constantly, often replaying the events of the last week or so, mixed in with a swirl of older memories.

Bill and Suzi have two children of their own. But they are grown now, with their own lives in places far from Tucson.

Bill, 61, had worked as an investment banker in the financial centers of the country; Suzi had been a social worker. When they retired, they wanted to go someplace warm and peaceful, and ended up in Tucson in 2006.

They had no grandchildren, so when a young family moved into their neighborhood, Bill and Suzi found themselves drawn to their children, Christina and her older brother, Dallas.

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“We’re aspiring grandparents with kids who aren’t married yet, so we tend to enjoy little kids when we get the chance,” Bill said.

Roxanna and John Green were many years younger than the Hilemans. They moved to Tucson so Roxanna could care for her aging mother.

Despite their differences in age, they became fast friends. Bill would watch baseball games with John, a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers. They would have each other over for dinner.

The Green children were always welcome at the Hilemans’ house, and Christina and Suzi forged a special bond. When Christina decided she wanted to start a business watering people’s plants when they were out of town, Suzi helped her make business cards and prepare a short presentation to give to neighbors.

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Pick-up sticks was Christina’s favorite game, and she and Suzi would play sprawled across the living room floor. “She loved to cause distractions and kind of cheat when you weren’t looking,” Bill said. “That’s what I’ll always remember, the two of them on the floor like little kids.”

When Christina was elected to the student council of Mesa Verde Elementary School, Suzi wanted to nurture the little girl’s budding interest in public service.

They made a date to attend one of Giffords’ Congress on Your Corner events, where the congresswoman would meet one on one with constituents in the parking lot of a Safeway supermarket.

“Gabby’s event made all kinds of sense, both from my wife’s political preferences as well as it was a magnificent chance to provide a positive public female role model for little Christina,” Bill said.

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It was to be a girls-only outing, complete with manicures and lunch. While Bill worked out at the gym, Suzi drove a block to the Greens’ house and picked up Christina.

They arrived at the Safeway and held hands under a cloudless sky as they waited in line to speak with Giffords. When the first shot rang out, Suzi thought a car had backfired. But when she saw Giffords sink to the ground, she grabbed Christina and turned to run.

Dorwan Stoddard threw his body over his wife, Mavy, and was fatally wounded by rounds that would otherwise have struck her. George Morris, his lungs pierced by a bullet, ran to his wife’s side to try to put his body between her and the gunman. It was too late.

Both Suzi and Christina had been shot and fell to the pavement.

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Bill received a phone call saying there had been an accident. He figured they had been involved in a fender-bender, and drove to University Medical Center.

When he arrived, the waiting room was crowded with people. They huddled around televisions showing live reports of the carnage outside the Safeway.

Bill paced the waiting room. He didn’t know his wife’s condition or Christina’s, and he couldn’t get any answers. He became frantic when he saw Roxanna Green rush into the hospital. Later, relatives of the shooting victims were taken to a private room, and Bill saw John.

“John came in and I saw his face,” Bill said, his voice breaking. “He tells me she didn’t make it.”

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A social worker pulled Bill aside and told him that dealing with Christina’s death would be the most difficult part of his wife’s recovery.

When doctors removed Suzi’s breathing tube hours later, she was hazy from the drugs. She grabbed Bill’s hands and whispered, “Christina?”

Bill told her the truth, and Suzi fell silent. In the days that followed, she couldn’t stop reliving the event, her husband said.

“She keeps talking about them holding hands, and then the realization she was on the ground and the bleeding was profuse,” Bill said.

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Bill and everyone around Suzi have told her she is not to blame for Christina’s death. “In her clearest-headed state, she is quite understanding that this was the act of a madman, that blame does no good for anybody,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’re all human and we all have dark moments.”

Christina’s parents have been clamoring to see Suzi, who hasn’t been able to see them because of her injuries. Roxanna sent Bill an e-mail the day after her daughter was killed, asking about Suzi’s recovery, expressing the family’s love for her and saying they were grateful for the special relationship Suzi forged with Christina.

Bill and John have spoken on the phone several times, but they haven’t been able to talk much about the incident. They cry too much.

“The four of us need to have some private moments,” he said. “I think that’s going to be an important step in releasing a lot of what we’re feeling.”

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Suzi was a social worker who dealt with countless tragedies. In New York, she helped ease the grief of families who lost loved ones to cancer. In Chicago, she counseled people with spinal cord injuries, including young quadriplegics. She knows the process of survival and recovery.

Still, Bill knew it was only a matter of time until his wife’s composure cracked. There are dreams and there are nightmares. Sometimes, neither fades easily.

The hospital has listed Suzi’s condition as good. But on Friday, she saw her scarred body and extensive wounds for the first time. Her grief over the tragedy and Christina’s death overwhelmed her, and she broke down and sobbed uncontrollably.

“I hugged her. All I can do is hug her and cry with her and mourn the loss,” he said. “There need be no guilt. There is a tremendous sense of loss that keeps feeling bigger.... This is going to be with us forever.”

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seema.mehta@latimes.com


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