Some 'Heartache' but 'a Hell of a Lot of Fun': Cindy McCain on Life with John — and If She'd Run for Office
John McCain's widow says her new memoir "seemed the perfect time to not only be able to reflect, but also to be able to understand myself and where I'm going"
One year after Sen. John McCain's death — as he insisted — his loved ones threw a party, celebrating instead of mourning.
The soundtrack was his favorite playlist and the guest list included those who had worked with and for him going back decades.
In 2019, however, widow Cindy McCain's heart was still tender.
"The heaviest grief had started to subside, though I still found myself in tears at private, unexpected moments," she writes in a new memoir, Stronger, out next Tuesday and exclusively excerpted in this week's issue of PEOPLE.
"John had occupied such a huge space in my life that I would never stop missing him," Cindy writes. "All I could do was learn to live with the heartbreak of loss and take comfort that as I suffered through fewer impossibly bad days, I could make the rest of the time richer and more meaningful."
And so she has: Now three years since John's death in August 2018 from an aggressive form of brain cancer, Cindy tells PEOPLE she has been "coming into my own."
Writing her memoir — which traces the couple's journey from first blush of romance at a chance Hawaiian meeting in 1979 to their trials and tribulations as one of the country's leading political families — was its own reward, particularly as she worked on it during the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It seemed the perfect time to not only be able to reflect, but also to be able to understand myself and where I'm going," Cindy says.
• For more on Cindy McCain's life now and to read an exclusive excerpt of her memoir, Stronger, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.
Life with John "had its moments where it was stressful, and it had its moments where it was a hell of a lot of fun," she says. "As I look back on it, it was a lot more fun than it was heartache by any stretch."
There is joy in Stronger: Cindy writes of the richness of purpose she found in humanitarian work, which led her to adopt youngest daughter Bridget from Bangladesh; and she relishes the humor she says threaded her marriage to John even in the final months of his life.
For example, in late 2017, after John discarded doctors' warnings he could die while on a trip to Italy after emergency surgery, Cindy simply flew with him and joked on the plane — "I've never seen a brain explode. I'm wondering how much of a mess it will be."
"In any marriage, especially a political marriage, I think humor is a great equalizer," she says now. "And that's how we were. ... John was a very funny guy and then, as it turned out, I found out I was kind of funny, too."
There is also pain and loss in Stronger: Cindy writes how she spiraled into a prescription pill addiction in the early '90s, at one point stealing from the supplies of her aid group, the American Voluntary Medical Team; and she describes — openly — how she felt blinded by the glare of the campaign spotlight.
"Part of the role of a political spouse is to laugh and smile at jokes you've heard a thousand times before, and to make it clear with your loyal gaze that there is no place else you'd rather be. ... I would feel a twinge in my back and want to kickoff my high-heeled shoes and just lie down," Cindy writes. "But as a political wife, you never got to wiggle your toes."
"It's gratifying to be one-half of a partnership and have your life fully intertwined with the person you love," she writes. "But there's a yearning to be an independent person in your own right, too."
Speaking with PEOPLE for this week's issue, she does not shy away from the reports after John's last presidential run, in 2008, that the campaign was hard on their union. Though Stronger recounts some of Cindy's experiences then, she chose not to use the book to address whispers of infidelity and tension.
"We were married 40 years, and anyone that thinks a 40-year marriage is perfect hasn't been married 40 years," she says. "Our marriage was strong, it was solid, and we were great partners and we had a great life together. I have no regrets, and at the time of my husband's death, he said to me he had no regrets either."
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At home in Arizona, Cindy, now 66, is never too far from a former staffer or one of her kids checking in. The McCain Institute board chair is focused — always — on her late husband's legacy.
She also continues to spotlight the scourge of human trafficking, a longtime cause, but she demurs on reports she is being eyed as a U.N. aid ambassador under President Joe Biden, a family friend whom she endorsed in last year's election. ("I'm deeply grateful to be considered for anything," she says, though she notes, "I haven't given up on the [Republican] party.")
Would she run for office herself, one day?
She laughs. No, no.
"I've been there, I got through that," she says. "I'll sit back and watch others do it and give my blessing."
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