When I learned of John McCain’s death, I was surprised to also learn that his mother is still living. After all, Roberta McCain is 106 years old. Few Americans have the chance to be nearly 82 years old, as Sen. McCain was, and still have the blessing of a living, breathing parent on earth. For most of us, our American genes haven’t yet evolved to the point where being a centenarian is the rule rather than the exception.
I heard of Mrs. McCain’s fiery, strong-willed spirit, a tenacity that was atypical for women of her generation. In one example, after being told by a rental car agency that she was too old to rent a car for her trek across Europe, she asked the rental agent how much the car cost. Then, she bought it. (Washington Post, 2018)
That kind of tenacity is likely the hallmark of her character, which got her through what had to be some of a mother’s most unimaginable trials.
One doesn’t have to be of a particular political persuasion to feel empathy for the pain Mrs. McCain must have endured to see her child go through so much suffering and peril. Long before the illness that took his life, he had cheated death.
Mrs. McCain shouldered the responsibility of raising children, sometimes when her husband was much more than a telephone call away. He was underwater with the Navy. She had to be strong, decisive and stoic.
She saw her son volunteer for combat duty in Vietnam. Knowing that she married into a decorated Navy family, she understood patriotic duty came first.
She would later learn that his plane was shot down. And that he was shot down again. And that he was taken as a prisoner of war. And that he refused repatriation.
When he returned from Vietnam as a tortured man, she watched him say goodbye to his aviation career and his marriage. It must’ve taken Herculean resolve to watch her son adjust to being forced into a new purpose in life when he was robbed of the path he intended to take.
When his service to the nation transitioned from the military to politics, Mrs. McCain saw her son live his life under a microscope, where some opponents would seek out opportunities to smear his name. No matter how old you are as a parent, it can never be easy to hear bad things being said about your child.
Roberta McCain watched her son battle skin cancer.
And lose two presidential elections.
When he was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, she watched him wage a war in the fight for his life.
I’m not sure how you prepare yourself for your child’s death. After Sen. McCain had survived so many close brushes with death, could she conceive that this might be the battle he couldn’t win? Neither a miraculous peace treaty nor a mix of medical cocktails could bring him safely back to her.
I can’t imagine the strength one would have to summon to see a child march off to war, either.
How her maternal mind must have envisioned the inevitable torture and confinement her son endured in enemy hands.
While many of us will likely not have to live through the agony of our child suffering in solitary confinement as a prisoner of war or from the heartbreak of losing two presidential elections, we will be agonizing over our children’s broken hearts, failed exams, sicknesses, failure to get called back for the second interview, unrewarding search for a mate, fender benders, mean bosses, job losses and so many other disappointments.
All of this, atop wondering what the world will be like for them in 30, 40 or 50 years, and worrying about how they’ll fare when we aren’t living under the same roof to remind them to wear clean underwear and put gas in the car.
As parents, we can’t prevent these things from happening to our children. We can only model for them how we handle disappointments, and hopefully do it in a way that shows resilience, strength and perseverance. We can model how we learn from our mistakes and don’t let setbacks set us back. Our children might not get a do-over, but what they learn from the experience can create a better experience for them in the future.
The highs in life are better appreciated after the lows.
Pamela Henderson is the director of development and communications at Dunebrook. To learn more about parenting and support programs at Dune-brook, call 800-897-0007. Email Pam with parenting questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.