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In 'Stronger,' Cindy McCain Reflects On Life, And The Last Days, With John McCain

John McCain attends a rally in the park on Jan. 31, 2000 in Keene, NH, with his family (from left to right) daughter Bridget (8), wife Cindy, sons Jack (13) and Jimmy (10), and daughter Meghan (15).
John McCain attends a rally in the park on Jan. 31, 2000 in Keene, NH, with his family (from left to right) daughter Bridget (8), wife Cindy, sons Jack (13) and Jimmy (10), and daughter Meghan (15).

In his final months, John McCain fell catastrophically ill when his intestines ruptured, and he was taken on a secret journey to an Arizona hospital by helicopter. With her husband unconscious, Cindy McCain had to decide if he should have emergency surgery that would result in a bag for his intestines — or worse, kill him.

<em>Stronger: Courage, Hope, and Humor in My Life with John McCain,</em> by Cindy McCain
/ Crown Forum
<em>Stronger: Courage, Hope, and Humor in My Life with John McCain,</em> by Cindy McCain

John McCain had already warned his wife against authorizing "any crazy stuff."

Cindy McCain recounts the emergency in her new memoir, Stronger: Courage, Hope, and Humor in My Life with John McCain.

"I made the decision to go ahead. He would have the surgery," she writes, knowing the condition was a side effect caused by the steroids he was taking. "When he came out of it, John understood what I had done and he said he agreed. He spent quite a while in the hospital, and the event was never reported."

They returned home after, and that hospital trip marked the last time they left their picturesque cabin in northern Arizona before his death on Aug. 25, 2018 — more than a year after he began his battle with glioblastoma, a virulent form of brain cancer.

Three days before he died, the 81-year-old John McCain lapsed into coma.

"I kept talking to him and bringing him outside and making sure he could be surrounded by the birds and sounds he loved — until my neighbor who is a doctor pointed out that the end was near," Cindy McCain writes. "I suppose I knew, but when the time arrives, it is still a shock."

In Stronger, Cindy McCain shares her front row seat to the life and times of the late six-term senator in an account that makes it a worthwhile read.

The couple married in 1980, just weeks after John McCain finalized his divorce from his first wife, Carol. The short time between these events made for some awkward interactions, Cindy recounts, such as a chilly reception from former first lady Nancy Reagan during a White House dinner (Nancy Reagan was friends with Carol McCain).

Reagan, Cindy McCain writes, "had no intention of accepting me."

Over their 38 years of marriage, McCain saw her transformation from heiress to a major Arizona beer distribution company and political wife to activist in her own right.

"Being with him didn't hold me back — it gave me flight, a courage I never would have felt on my own," writes McCain, who among her many roles is also board chair of the Hensley Beverage Company, which was founded by her father Jim Hensley.

McCain documents her struggles through moments of fear versus strength, and hate versus forgiveness. They came as her husband took on political life — after his five-years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam — as Arizona's new adopted son. The journey led them through Congressional election wins, a growing family, political scandal, losses during two presidential bids and his final days pushing against Donald Trump and right-wing extremism.

McCain writes that she went from an insecure college graduate to a life filled with seven children (including three from her husband's first marriage) and a newfound confidence.

"I am in my sixties now," she writes. "My husband is gone, and my attitude toward the world has changed since I was a young college graduate unsure of my place in the world. For one, I have a new understanding of women's strength. When we stop being scared, when we care more about being powerful than being nice, there is so much we can do."

It was from this found strength that Cindy McCain endorsed longtime family friend President Joe Biden — who was not of the same political party as her husband. (It is rumored McCain is a contender to become Biden's ambassador to the U.N. Food Program.) And more recently, McCain was censured by her state party, which she called a "badge of honor."

In the memoir, McCain reveals that Sarah Palin, her husband's 2008 vice presidential running mate, did not reach out to the family in his final 14 months. Palin was not invited to the Washington National Cathedral funeral.

"He had put her on the map, and she didn't even send him a note of good wishes when he was down," she writes. "That is not someone you invite to a final farewell."

As for why Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner attended, that's still somewhat of a mystery. She writes: "I am hoping that they came for the reason I would think — that they mourned the loss of my husband,"

Even so, she says she struggled not to hate Donald Trump — and found it difficult to stay restrained regarding what she calls his "inexplicable attacks" on her husband.

"His behavior was vile, mean, and childish. But it takes a lot of effort to hate — and you are much better off if you expand effort on good and hopeful things," she writes, later adding, "I don't like the things Trump said about my husband or the damage he did to America's reputation. But I forgive him. We've got to move on."

Since the senator's death, daughter Meghan has claimed much of the public mantle for the family in her highly visible role as co-host on The View.

McCain also recounts her years-ago confrontation with a minister of health in India as she aimed to bring two orphaned Bangladeshi babies to the U.S. for medical care. McCain said the official claimed the country would care for the babies instead. She says she told him: "Goddamn it, if you can do it, then do it. Fix them right now. But you know you won't." He relented and she left the country with the babies in tow. The McCains adopted one of the babies, their daughter Bridget.

In the book, McCain delves into her own health challenges, as well. She recounts having to learn to speak again after suffering a stroke at the age of 50, and managing residual short-term memory loss that still plagues her today. And she writes of her addiction to opioids, sparked after her husband was the subject of a 1990s Congressional probe into the "Keating Five" savings and loan scandal. John McCain was cleared — and Cindy McCain eventually quit the drugs cold turkey after she was confronted by her parents, she says. However, her fight for sobriety remained.

McCain recounts how she had to dive deep into the reservoir of strength to get through her husband's final year. After the 2016 election, she said the McCain family told the patriarch he wasn't himself, sleeping 12-hour nights and waking up exhausted. He batted away the concerns.

His flub as he questioned former FBI Director James Comey during a June 2017 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing was another clue something was wrong — yet still, weeks later, she was shocked by her husband's diagnosis, she writes.

She managed a tight list of final visits from her husband's closest friends, including Biden, Sen. Lindsay Graham and Sen. Mitt Romney.

But despite the turmoil, there were laughs, too. An ill John McCain defied his doctors' advice and family's concerns to fly to a conference in Italy in Sept. 2017. During takeoff, he caught his wife staring at him and asked what she was looking at. "I've never seen a brain explode," Cindy McCain said she told her husband. "Don't worry. I packed the dustbuster," he responded.

The late McCain spent much of his final year preparing his wife to live life on her own without him, she says. In the remaining months, he asked Cindy McCain to do two things: take care of his legacy and take care of their family.

"People will try to take advantage of your name and use you, but you'll be wise to them," she recounts him telling her. "You're too strong to let that happen."

She happens to agree.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter for NPR. As a former reporter for Stars and Stripes, she covered the late Sen. John McCain and his family in the final year of his life.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.