"It had its moments where it was stressful, and it had its moments where it was a hell of a lot of fun," says Cindy, who just released a new memoir about life with her late husband
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cindy and john mccain
From left: Cindy and John McCain in 1980, the year they got married
| Credit: Courtesy of the author

There was the life that a young Cindy Hensley imagined for herself with John McCain in those swooning first months after they met in Hawaii in 1979 — and then there is the life they went on to lead together: a life of adventure and victory, of setbacks, of loss.

"I thought I was going to be a Naval officer's wife," Cindy says now. "And as life, does, it hands you a different path."

Within years of their 1980 wedding, John, then a liaison to the Senate, was a politician himself.

He and Cindy were married for 38 years and, at the time of his death, John was one of the leading Republicans in the country and one of the most prominent senators.

The McCains had shared in winning and losing campaigns, coming close to the White House in 2008. They shared four children. And they shared a beloved ranch in Arizona where, in August 2018, John died of brain cancer, lying in the sun in his hospital bed as a hawk watched nearby.

"He died with no regrets and a great deal of admiration for what he had done," Cindy says now.

Their life together and the lessons Cindy says she learned — which even now she leans on as a widow and steward of John's legacy — are the spine of her new memoir, Stronger, which is exclusively excerpted in this week's issue of PEOPLE.

"It 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."

A certain shared humor, as husband and wife, was a needed bit of brightness in the heaviest times.

"In any marriage, especially a political marriage, I think humor is a great equalizer," Cindy tells PEOPLE. "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."

• For more on Cindy McCain's life and to read an exclusive excerpt of her memoir, Strongersubscribe to PEOPLE or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands now.

Stronger, by Cindy McCain
| Credit: Crown Forum
John McCain, United Senator from Arizona and his wife Cindy
John and Cindy McCain in 2017
| Credit: Pier Marco Tacca/Getty

Stronger recounts some of the McCain family's hardships — her prescription pill addiction in the 1990s, a serious stroke from which she recovered in the 2000s, John's failed campaigns — and their joys, including adopting youngest daughter Bridget from Bangladesh.

In her book, Cindy also reflects on her evolving self-image: times when she craved John's support and times when she longed to be away from the glare of his 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."

And while Cindy was adamant that they keep their family based in Phoenix while John spent work weeks in Washington, D.C., "Sometimes when John was traveling and constantly in the news, I wished he could concentrate more on us."

Speaking with PEOPLE, Cindy does not shy away from the reports after John's last presidential run, in 2008, that the campaign was hard on their union. Though her memoir recounts some of her experiences then, she chose not to use the book to address rumors 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," Cindy says. "Our marriage was strong, it was solid and we were great partners and we had a great life together."

"I have no regrets," she continues, "and at the time of my husband's death, he said to me he had no regrets either."