April 01, 2002 12:00 PM

“I hope this book shows that every family has its ups and downs and life is incredible,” Sarah Brady says of her new memoir, A Good Fight, excerpted below. Few American families, however, have experienced setbacks and triumphs as dramatic as those that the Bradys have known. Twenty-one years ago Sarah’s husband, James, was White House press secretary under newly elected President Ronald Reagan; she was a devoted political wife. Married since 1973, the couple shared a comfortable, three-story house in Arlington, Va., with their 2-year-old son, Scott. The dreams they had long shared were coming to fruition.

Then on March 30, 1981, as Reagan and his entourage were leaving a Washington, D.C., Hilton hotel after an address to members of the AFL-CIO, John W. Hinckley Jr.—a delusional 25-year-old obsessed with actress Jodie Foster—pulled out a revolver and began firing. Among the wounded were the President, a Secret Service agent, a police officer and Jim Brady, who was left permanently brain damaged by a bullet in the head.

The shooting transformed ex-schoolteacher Sarah Kemp Brady. While helping Jim convalesce, she became one of the nation’s leading crusaders for gun control. In 1993, after years of lobbying and speechmaking, she helped win passage in Congress of the Brady bill, which required a five-day waiting period between the purchase and possession of firearms. Throughout, she was inspired by her husband, whom she affectionately calls Bear, now 61 and living with her in Rehoboth Beach, Del. “He is just amazing,” she says. “He doesn’t complain about his plight. He’ll laugh about it.”

There was no laughter in March 2000, when Sarah, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Chemotherapy and radiation have arrested the disease, but her prognosis is uncertain. “It is not the first time I have realized how impossible it is to know how things will turn out,” she writes. That was driven home with horrifying force one drizzly morning by a young man with a gun.

After lunch, Scott and I settled down in the recreation room, and I turned on my favorite soap opera, As the World Turns. Suddenly there was a bulletin from CBS News: Shots had been fired at President Reagan outside the Hilton. Apparently, CBS reported, the President had not been injured. So I wasn’t at all panicky.

The phone rang almost immediately. It was my good friend Jan Wolff, who said in a shaky voice, “Sarah, do you want me to come get Scott?” What for, I asked. Then she told me: ABC News had reported Jim had been shot. I said, “I’ll call the White House.” I explained to the operator that I’d just heard my husband had been shot. “Is that correct?” I asked—not believing it—and they told me they’d call back. Within 30 seconds they did. Yes, he had been shot, but he was alive.

A White House military driver sped Sarah to George Washington University Hospital, where she met Jim’s surgeon Dr. Arthur Kobrine.

As long as I live, I will never forget his words. He said, “The bullet entered above [Jim’s] left eye and has trans-versed to the right side. If the operation is successful, he may well walk out of here. However, we do know that he will lose total use of his left arm and partial use of his left leg.” He wanted me to know that Jim could easily succumb to the surgery. He asked if I had any questions. I just asked him to please save Jim’s life—our little son needed him.

We hadn’t been there very long when Michael Deaver, the President’s Deputy Chief of Staff, brought [in] Mrs. Reagan. Jerk that I was, I thought she had come to see me because of Jim. But as we hugged each other, I realized she was shaking like a leaf. Then I said, “Oh, I am so scared,” and she replied, “I am too.” And I knew instantaneously that the President, too, had been shot. “They’re going to be fine,” I told her. “They’re both strong men.”

Jim’s surgery lasted more than five hours, during which family members and friends joined Sarah in the waiting room. At last Dr. Kobrine emerged, beaming. It had gone beautifully.

After what seemed like ages, they said we could see [Jim]. I was not at all prepared for what I saw. His head had been shaved, and it was almost entirely bandaged. His face was black and blue, swollen. He recognized me immediately. “Coon,” he said [using my nickname]. I didn’t realize how miraculous this was, but the doctors were overwhelmed. They could not believe that this man, whose brain had been damaged, was actually trying to speak.

In the following days Jim veered between clarity and confusion, and his behavior was sometimes startling.

Because of the damage to Jim’s frontal lobe, which affects your emotions and your ability to mask them, strong feelings of any kind could bring on what we called a “wail”—a very unnerving noise somewhere between crying and laughing. As his brain healed, he was increasingly able to control it, and in later years he would wail only during extremely emotional moments—sad or happy—such as the singing of the national anthem. But in those early days it happened all the time. For Scott, the first time he heard it was terrifying. I brought him in to see Jim the second Sunday after the assassination attempt. As I put Scott up on the bed, Jim started wailing helplessly. He couldn’t stop. Scott was scared to death and burst into tears.

After weathering pneumonia, seizures and blood clots in his lungs, Jim walked out of the hospital on Nov. 23, aided by a crutch, and went home. Drugs controlled his seizures, but because of fractures in four vertebrae, he had to wear a full-body brace for a year. Still, Sarah writes, “he was steadily on the mend.” Then in August 1985 Sarah’s life was once again changed by a gun. It happened during a visit to a friend, Dorothy Mann, who owned a Centralia, III., construction company.

Dorothy and the manager of the company stopped by in their pickup truck with the idea that [we] would go swimming. Scott got in first, and I climbed in behind him. He picked up off the seat what looked like a toy gun and started waving it around. I took [it] from him, intending to say he must never point even a toy gun at anyone. As soon as I got it into my hand, I realized it was no toy. It was a fully loaded little Saturday night special, very much like the one that had shot Jim.

I cannot even begin to describe the rage that went through me. To think that my precious little boy, 6 years old, had actually held a loaded .22 pushed me right over the edge. I handed the gun to Dorothy. I didn’t want to see it again, I said—get rid of it. The manager made some lame excuse about how he had to have it for self-protection against union members. I didn’t reply.

Days later Sarah heard a report that the National Rifle Association was pushing a bill known as McClure-Volkmer, which called for the repeal of a Federal gun-control law passed in 1968.

Instantly, all the fury that had hit me in the pickup truck came rushing back. I knew the 1968 law well. It was a sensible measure that essentially set age limits for gun buyers, imposed some I inspection and bookkeeping requirements on gun dealers and banned the import of Saturday night specials. I picked up the phone and called the National Rifle Association’s Washington headquarters. I said, “My name is Sarah Brady, and you’ve never heard of me, but I am going to make it my life’s ambition to try to put you out of business.”

Sarah joined a group called Handgun Control Inc., which unsuccessfully fought the McClure-Volkmer bill. HCI also set out to develop its own landmark piece of legislation—what became known as the Brady bill.

It is impossible, of course, to say for certain that a background check would have saved Jim Brady from the nightmare of March 30, 1981. But I do know this: John Hinckley bought the gun he used in a Dallas pawnshop for $29, and he lied by giving an address that was no longer his and showing an old Texas driver’s license as “proof” that he lived there. A background check would have caught that lie.

Sarah began to travel the country, speaking out for gun control. But Congress rejected the Brady bill in 1988. Another letdown came the next year, when new President George Bush—who, Sarah recalls, had once told her, “I admire what you’re doing”—failed to support the bill’s revival. Still, she continued her crusade, eventually joined by Jim, and in 1991 the Brady bill returned to Congress.

In the days leading up to that vote, the tension was enormous. The newspapers and airwaves were filled with ads on both sides of the issue, and lobbyists of all stripes crowded Capitol Hill. Then on May 8, 1991, the House of Representatives passed the Brady bill by a vote of 239 to 186. That was probably the single most exhilarating moment of my life. On June 28 the Senate adopted a slightly different version, 67 to 32. We ere thrilled. We had won.

Their euphoria was premature. For a year the bill languished as senators and the Administration bickered over details of the crime legislation to which it had been attached. Maine Sen. George Mitchell introduced a freestanding Brady bill, but Bush threatened to veto it.

Had it not been for President Bush, the Brady bill would have become law that year. It would have started to save lives. In October 1992, a Presidential election year, I realized we were going to have to take a stand. And it was not going to be in favor of George Herbert Walker Bush. When Bill Clinton beat [him], I was ecstatic. Clinton had campaigned on the Brady bill. On Nov. 23 [1993] the bill passed the House by 238 to 187. The next day the Senate passed it. On Nov. 30 the President signed the Brady bill—or, as it was now officially named, Public Law 103-159.

Over the next seven years the Bradys campaigned for other gun-control measures. But in March 2000 the family received another blow. As part of a routine physical, Sarah went in for a lung scan. Her physician, Dr. Charles Stanislav, phoned with the frightening results.

[Stanislav] said, in a matter-of-fact tone, “I hate to have to tell you, but the scan did show what looks to be a carcinoma—very small—in the upper lobe of your right lung.” Since my father had died of lung cancer, I immediately asked, “This is it, then? My life is over?” But Charlie was reassuring. Medicine had made great breakthroughs in recent years. Much could be done. He wanted to set me up with Dr. Michael Salvatore, the leading lung specialist in our area.

The next day I went in for my appointment. Dr. Salvatore described the nature of the disease. There are two types of lung cancer. Small cell is the extremely virulent form—so aggressive that sometimes it has spread to other organs by the time it is detected in the lungs. Non-small-cell cancer moves more slowly, and he could tell by the shape of my tumor that it was of [that] variety.

At first I was absolutely thrilled. But there is one problem with non-small-cell cancer: It doesn’t respond as well to chemotherapy. Dr. Salvatore said the best thing would be to take out the entire upper lobe of my right lung, because in 99 percent of all cases, if the cancer hasn’t spread beyond the original site, the surgery puts an end to it once and for all. I was incredibly heartened by that idea.

On March 17, 2000, Sarah went in for lung surgery. But it was halted after a biopsy revealed the cancer had spread to lymph nodes in her chest. Over the next five months she underwent a course of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

When my father died of lung cancer in 1975, only 60 years old, I might have reacted by vowing to stop smoking. I didn’t. I kept right on—even after I was diagnosed with lung cancer. It is almost impossible to explain to someone who has never experienced the addiction. Even when all my friends had quit, I kept right on doing it. I knew I should stop. But I always found some rationalization for not kicking the habit. After I had cancer, quitting seemed like closing the barn door after the horse was gone. Although I am terribly ashamed of it, I can only tell the truth: I love to smoke.

So when I was diagnosed, it never occurred to me to think of myself as a victim or to spend any time wondering “why me?” I knew perfectly well that I had brought it on myself.

There are moments when I have what Jim has always called “lurkies”—when I’m suddenly hit hard by fears that ordinarily lurk somewhere below the surface. My main worries are for my family. The bonds between Scott and me are very strong. [He is now 23 and building his own log cabin in Charlottesville, Va.] If I cannot beat this cancer, he will be devastated. And of course I worry tremendously about Jim. Financially, he will be fine. It’s his emotional and intellectual needs that could be a problem.

But the anxious moments are fleeting. For now, in spite of bullets and cancer, the family is intact, and that’s enough for Sarah Brady.

Since I was diagnosed, I notice certain changes in my outlook. Little things don’t get me down the way they once did. I am living in the present and rejoicing in all the beauty around us. I find myself loving every season, enjoying the changes as I never have before. I don’t know what the future will bring, but I know the experts have some more rabbits in their hats. When I finish with these radiation treatments, I will [go on to] a new regimen of some kind to attack the cancer. In the meantime, I’m feeling well. When Scott is under our roof, along with Jim, our dog and cats, I feel completely peaceful. Everyone is safe. My family is together. It is a beautiful world.

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