For 20 years, Sarah Brady has cared for her husband Jim, who was struck in the head by a bullet meant for President Reagan. She has lobbied tirelessly to educate the public and reform laws governing gun use. And now, with her husband still by her side, she is fighting her own deadly battle.
Two years ago, Sarah Brady learned she had lung cancer.
In her just-published book, A Good Fight, she writes not just about the battle to make her husband well, but her own battle to survive.
Test of Love
Though Jim survived and was able to return home eight months after he was shot by would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley Jr. in March 1981, the damage to his brain and body was lasting. His left leg was partially paralyzed, his left arm completely paralyzed, his memory and speech impaired.
"Those were the hardest years, by far. Jim had relapse after relapse," says Sarah. Still, with his wife's help, he made steady improvements, physically and mentally.
"I tell you, he's still one of the smartest people I've ever known," says Sarah. "He never — hardly ever — misses a Jeopardy! question."
Though caring for Jim was all-consuming, Sarah says it was not too much of a burden to bear.
"I guess I never knew until Jim was shot how much I loved him," she says. "And with every year that has gone on, my love and admiration for him have grown and grown and grown. My life would be joyless without him."
Jim was not able to go back to work, but Reagan kept him in his administration with the title of press secretary.
"He still misses those days," says Sarah. "The president and Mrs. Reagan were just wonderful."
Jim, though proud of his accomplishments, laments, "I'm on the only press secretary that never went on to bigger and greater things."
The Brady Bill
During the years that followed the shooting, Sarah became one of the nation's leading gun-control activists — not just because of what happened to Jim, but also because her 6-year-old son had stumbled upon a loaded gun that a friend of Sarah's had carelessly left behind.
"I was outraged," says Sarah. She called the National Rifle Association and said: "I am going to make my life ambition to put you out of business … I'm Sarah Brady, and you don't know who I am, but I'm going to do it."
Sarah joined forces with a group called Handgun Control Inc., and set her sights on forcing the government to enact strong gun-control legislation. Twelve years after Jim was shot, President Clinton signed the Brady Bill into law, requiring a mandatory waiting period and background checks on all handguns sold by gun dealers.
"It was just exhilarating," says Sarah, a lifelong Republican who voted for Clinton.
In the years since that triumph, from her offices at Handgun Control Inc., which was recently renamed the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Sarah has continued to lobby ferociously for even tougher gun control legislation. But already, Sarah says the Brady law has prevented almost 700,000 felons, fugitives and mentally ill people from purchasing guns.
Though Sarah has been at the forefront of the gun-control movement, she bought her son Scott, now 24, a hunting rifle for Christmas.
"I have never been a gun grabber," she says. "I don't believe in banning guns. I believe strongly that law-abiding, responsible citizens should be able to purchase guns."
A New Challenge
When Sarah first learned she had cancer, the outlook seemed bleak.
"My first thought was 'Oh my God, it's over,'" says Sarah, whose father died of lung cancer four months after he was diagnosed.
Doctors told her there was only a 20 percent chance she would live for two more years.
Not only has she lived, but recent tests show that the two malignant spots remaining on her lung have not grown at all.
Though she is trying hard to quit, she continues to smoke.
"Isn't that the worst thing you've heard?" she says. "It is a horrible addiction."
What worries her the most — and what she rarely talks about — is what will happen to Jim if she doesn't beat the cancer.
"We are both very optimistic people," she says. "He thinks I'm going to fight it. "
Jim, who has always called his wife "Raccoon," says, "Raccoons are known as [a] fighting animal."
Despite so much hardship, Sarah, who calls her husband "Bear," says she's been incredibly lucky.
"I didn't get exactly what I dreamed I was going to get back, but I'm not sure so I would have loved that anyway. I married the most wonderful man. There's so many things I do have. We've lived an incredible life," she says.
Asked what the couple would like their message to be, Jim answers, "Learn to duck."