Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
September 30, 2013 12:00 PM

A month after a Jan. 21, 2012, stroke in the right side of his brain, Mark Kirk, a Republican senator from Illinois, then 52, could do little more than lie in his hospital bed at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. “He couldn’t swallow, he couldn’t sit up, he couldn’t move,” recalls his stepmother, Bev Kirk. She passed time at the senator’s bedside by sorting his get-well cards. Among those from VIPs was one from an Illinois boy who, in the third grade and the prime of his Little League career, had suffered an identical stroke one year earlier. Jackson Cunningham was one of 100 pediatric stroke victims RIC sees each year, and doctors told his parents they don’t know what caused the blood clot in his brain. But Jackson had made it through the hundreds of hours of rehab at RIC that awaited Kirk and thought he would let the senator, who is divorced and childless, know it was going to be okay.

FEB. 15, 2012

Dear Senator Kirk,

My name is Jackson Cunningham. I live in Oakwood, Ill. and I am nine years old. Last year on Feb. 19, 2011, I had a stroke. Before the stroke, I was a healthy kid. [Then] I couldn’t move a muscle on my left side. After a month in the hospital, I went to RIC. After the first two days they took away my crutches and I have been walking since then. A lot of therapy helped…. This past fall, I started school again. I go for half a day. I am still doing therapy to help my left side. I can talk fine (my little sister can too – she never shuts up!).

I wanted to wish you good luck. Here’s some advice. Do not give up on yourself. All the hard work is worth it. They make you work hard [at RIC] and you get lots of things back fast.

Sincerely, Jackson Cunningham

P.S. Kids Rights! I think kids should get paid to go to school.

Bev read the letter aloud to her stepson – “Mark had to relearn how to read,” she says – and took dictation on his reply. “I didn’t know then that kids could have a stroke,” Kirk says with obvious effort, during a recent PEOPLE interview in his office. Adds Jackson, visiting from Illinois: “My mom didn’t think he’d write back, but I did.”

Jackson’s letter writing had been the idea of speech therapist Ann Osterling, who used the exercise to help him relearn cognitive skills. It would also prove useful to Kirk, who left RIC after 77 days as an inpatient in April 2012.

MAY 19, 2012

Dear Jackson,

We appear to have a lot in common. Like you, I was born in Champaign (about 45 years before you!) … I look forward to receiving your next letter and hearing about your trip to Chicago and the legos [sic] you purchased with your birthday money!! I would like to close with words of encouragement that my mother used to always say: “Socks up! Little Cabbage!” which is another way of saying “Keep your spirits up!”

Your pen pal, Mark

MAY 29, 2012

Dear Senator Kirk,

I felt excited that you sent me another letter. I am going to be in Chicago for three weeks working with the therapists. They are going to put a cast on my right arm. That will make me use my left arm. I hope Lefty will get better and be able to open his fingers after this therapy … I hope you get better every day. I’ve been watching you on the news.

Your penpal, Jackson Cunningham

The pair met in person on June 18, 2012, in the RIC cafeteria the day before Jackson began therapy to work on the condition he and Kirk, who was then still in a wheelchair, shared: an immobile left hand stubbornly curled into a fist. “I saw a boy who reminded me of who I would have been at his age, all shy and wondering,” Kirk recalls.

JUNE 19, 2012

Dear Pen pal,

Yesterday was an amazing day! It was very cool that I got to meet you. Thank you for the gifts. I am going to put my keychain on my book bag. The other kids will be jealous. After seeing you, I had to go have my cast made. My arm and hand are in a thumbs-up position so I am calling the cast “Thumbs Up.” This is a new kind of therapy I have to do (unfortunately). Even more than a year later I am still having to work … It would be cool to see the Senate floor, like you offered. Keep working hard so you can show me the Senate floor!

Your pen pal, Jackson Cunningham

JULY 6, 2012

Dear Little Cabbage,

I can’t wait to see you in Washington. I want to show you my Senate desk … It is a historic desk as it was once the desk of Senator Robert Kennedy and also President Barack Obama but maybe the most interesting part is that it is ‘The Candy Desk.’ … I have a big supply of Butterfingers, Tootsie Rolls and other candy … I am thinking of you and cheering you on.

Love from Your Pen Pal, Mark Kirk.

As the weather warmed, memories of more carefree summers outside playing baseball hit Jackson hard. The senator tried to buck him up.

JULY 30, 2012

Jackson, I expect you’ll do absolutely everything your doctors and PT folks say. And if you don’t you’ll have to testify before the United States Senate …

Your friend, Mark.

The pals got together when Jackson was back at RIC for more therapy – treatments that Jackson’s dad, Craig Cunningham, a factory worker, whose wife, Erin, works at a manufacturing plant, says have “wiped out every bit of savings we had.” While Kirk remains opposed to the President’s Affordable Care Act, he says his stroke made him rethink, “What about the least fortunate constituents I have who have no money and no health insurance?” and to look into how Medicaid can provide better rehab therapy. On one visit the pair discovered a shared love of video games: “Call of Duty” for Kirk, anything that kills zombies for Jackson.

AUG. 9, 2012

Hi Senator Kirk,

Camp was cool. I can raise my left arm better. My therapist, Ann, thinks I should testify on the Senate floor on how important long-term rehab is! (She is writing what I dictate, so I can’t control her). How are you? Are you wasting zombies on the XBox?

Your penpal, Jackson

SEPT. 16, 2012

Dear Jackson,

My sister and I play a cool game on my iPad called Zombie Gunship. I first played it at RIC. I say, Don’t blame them Zombies for being evil. They aren’t so bad … just because they are hungry for human flesh. Don’t tell your mother I said this.

Your pen pal, Mark

Kirk, who sometimes doubted he would ever recover enough to return to the Senate, which the Navy veteran calls “the greatest ambition of my life,” was back at the Capitol on Jan. 3. With a cane he haltingly climbed the 45 steps outside the Senate chamber.

JAN. 7, 2013

Dear Mark, Happy New Year!

Congratulations! I felt very happy and emotional when I saw you on TV. I hope I get to climb those steps some day, too. When I watched you, it reminded me of when I walked to the Lego store when I was a patient at RIC. Since then, I have made giant progress. I am able to play my Xbox with my left arm and shoot a Nerf bow and arrow.

Of the 30 letters – and counting – that Kirk and Jackson have exchanged, perhaps the most inspiring bit from Jackson, now 11, was one with no words at all: a five-second video of him running, on June 28, for the first time since his stroke. “When Jackson started running,” says Kirk, “my great dream became to run alongside him.”

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