This is something I’d never heard Sen. Claire McCaskill say:
“I’m a little sleepy.”
Sleepy? Never in 28 years of covering her have I heard the Missouri Democrat confess to such a trifling.
Not when there were races to run and bills to pass and causes to champion. Not when there were kids to raise and issues to defend.
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But there she was this week, on the other end of the phone from her office in Washington admitting that she didn’t have her usual zip. Instead of a 100-mph pace, McCaskill said it felt like she was crawling along at 10 mph.
Cancer changes people — even adrenaline junkies like McCaskill, who’s been a perpetual-motion machine for virtually all of her 62 years.
But not now. Diagnosed with breast cancer, McCaskill spent three weeks in treatment, endured a lumpectomy and rounds of radiation. The cancer was found during a routine mammogram. A tricky diagnosis followed. The original biopsy was negative, and then, suddenly, there were more tests. Doctors ended up finding several infected sites and two types of cancer to boot.
As cancer diagnoses tend to be, it was a roller coaster ride.
Then something extraordinary happened, something McCaskill had never experienced during the course of her adulthood. She slowed down. She had to. Radiation drains you.
So McCaskill did what lots of other cancer patients do. She thought a lot. She assessed. She reordered things and developed what she called a “new sense of commitment to priorities” that, obviously, include her nine grandchildren with more expected.
“My family is incredibly close and large,” she said.
She did something else: She read. A lot.
There was office work, of course. Transcripts and memos. There were also the books. Fourteen in all. Jonathan Franzen and J.K. Rowling. “Between the World and Me,” the important book on race. David McCullough’s “The Wright Brothers” and Robert Galbraith novels.
This week was her first back in Washington, and she was glad to be there.
The job remains paramount, she said. “But chasing that last amendment or picking a fight with that last Republican may not be as important as I used to think it would be,” she said.
She intends to seek a third term in 2018. But in another breath, she’s acknowledging that “this is really a bad time to make a decision about running for office. You’d have to be in a cave somewhere not to realize that things are really in flux.”
She’s referring to the anger and the frustration and all the pitchforks that are out in America these days. She’s referring to Donald Trump.
“If it’s President Trump, it would be weird,” she said. “I’ve got to be honest: That would be a difficult thing to process. How do you work with a guy who thinks it’s OK to call women ‘pigs’ and have a religious test for being able to come to America?”
As much as she wanted to tune it all out, she couldn’t help but think about Trump, as we all do these days. She’s amazed by his ability to dominate the media by being so outrageous. People watch him for the same reasons they go to the demolition derby, McCaskill said. “They want to see a car wreck.”
More: “It’s really hard for me because I understand the job of president has a lot to do with demeanor and temperament and ability to sublimate yourself for the good of the country. It’s fascinating to me that more people aren’t seeing that this is a guy who’s in the hall of fame for narcissism.”
She wants to get a message out because she received questions about it: Her health coverage isn’t gold-plated because she’s a U.S. senator. McCaskill said she shops on the exchange like anyone else. She gets no reimbursement from the federal government for her policy. Looking ahead, she’s glad that insurers can’t turn her down because she has a pre-existing condition.
Throughout her ordeal, McCaskill was lifted by the outpouring of emails and letters and phone calls she received from her fellow senators, sure, but also from everyday Missourians and people across the country.
There was all those flowers (“I felt like I was in a funeral parlor”) and those prayer shawls from churches around Missouri. And she received an embroidered blanket from African-American breast cancer survivors in Louisiana.
“The thing about cancer,” she said, “is it’s a big club. There are so many survivors out there.”
Then there was the response from the group she calls “the haters,” the folks who can’t stand McCaskill. They disagree with her votes and what she stands for and what she says — and are always letting her know about it.
They, too, encouraged her.
Cancer, you see, changes people.