The Stranger Who Changed My Life: The Boy Who Saved the Senator

Just when his condition threatened to devastate him completely, he received a letter from an unlikely source.

boy walking up steps
Miko Maciaszek for Reader’s Digest

I was once a pessimist. I’m not that man anymore. And that change started with a bout of misfortune and the sudden appearance of a little boy.

On a Saturday morning, January 21, 2012, my left arm went numb, and I started to feel dizzy. After I called my doctor, an ambulance arrived in front of my home, in Highland Park, Illinois. An MRI quickly revealed that the lining of my carotid artery had peeled off, preventing blood from flowing to my brain. The doctor said I had a stroke on the way and that we would just have to let it come. There was no stopping it. I stayed at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago for a few days, waiting for the stroke to hit as waves of paralysis came over me. As I slowly lost control of my body, I thought about how unbelievable it was. I was 52. I didn’t even know anyone who’d had this happen to him.

After the stroke (and the two operations that relieved the swelling in my brain), I was transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) on February 10. Though I had lost the use of my left arm and leg and couldn’t see out of my left eye, the only thought on my mind was that I needed to leave the hospital and return to my job serving the citizens of Illinois. But the reality was that I needed to relearn how to stand and see first. So there I was, with blood clots forming in my legs, held upright by a track and a harness, trying with all my strength to take one tiny step forward. I had always been a glass-half-empty kind of guy, and this just made me feel like recovery was impossible, like I would never again return to the Senate.

A few days after my first discouraging physical therapy session, my stepmother, Bev, came into my room with a letter. She had the job of poring over countless cards and notes from fellow politicians and strangers alike and was struck by one. It was a neatly typed letter, and the author was a nine-year-old boy named Jackson Cunningham from the central Illinois town of Champaign, my hometown. In the note, Jackson told me about the stroke he’d had only a year earlier. He, too, had been paralyzed on his left side and had made great strides at RIC. But, beyond telling me what he had lost, Jackson shared what I would gain. “Here’s some advice,” Jackson wrote. “Do not give up on yourself. All the hard work is worth it.”

And the advice kept on coming. He told me to attend therapy on the hospital’s “grown-up” floor, where “they make you work hard and you get lots of things back fast.” He even had recommendations for his favorite local pizza places, just in case I had a craving. Here I was, a grown man and a senator of Illinois, getting advice from a young boy I had never met. But his words were exactly what I needed. He gave me such strength. I used my dwindling energy to write him back by pen.

After a few weeks of correspondence, I arranged for us to meet in the RIC cafeteria. He seemed nervous at first as he sat across from me with his parents, Craig and Judy, but all the awkwardness quickly melted away. Jackson showed me how he could run, and I immediately felt inspired. It made me believe that one day, I would run again too. I felt so emotional seeing him face-to-face, this kindred spirit of mine. I thought back to when I was his age, and I could see a lot of myself in him. One thing I immediately admired was the energy and dignity radiating from him. Looking at Jackson for the first time, I saw a young boy who could have been my son.

As for my recovery, it came just as Jackson said it would. After a year of intense physical therapy, I climbed to the top of the Capitol and returned to work on January 3, 2013. With every step I took, I thought of Jackson and his strength. He helped me climb those steps that day.

Back in Washington, DC, I could feel Jackson affecting my every day. Whenever I was tired or discouraged, I thought of him, the world’s strongest boy. I had always been proud to represent the state of Illinois, but I felt even more passionate knowing that I was representing him. When Jackson visited the Capitol a few months after my return, we climbed those big steps together. It felt so special to see DC through his eyes. Here he was, my battle buddy, and we had fought our strokes together. As I showed him around, we made a pact that there would be a footrace between us in the tunnel that connects my office to the Capitol. The next thing I’ll really have to think about is how I’m going to beat him.

It might sound strange, but I’m almost grateful for my stroke because it gave me the opportunity to meet Jackson and to count him as a friend. He is my hero, and I am so excited to see what becomes of him. When we talk today, Jackson, now 11, tells me about his highest video game scores—he is obsessed with “slaying zombies”—and how he has been moving his left arm (I’m quite jealous). The one topic we can’t discuss: girls, though I think that might change someday. I tell him that I can read and walk again, that I’m coming back to life. I also tell him that if he doesn’t listen to his physical therapist, he’ll have to testify before Congress.

When I think of his future, which I do often, I hope that he has a life of advocacy on behalf of disabled individuals. And I hope that he finds strength in knowing that there’s a guy in Washington who will always be in his corner. After visiting me in DC, he expressed some interest in politics. I asked him if he’d like to be the president of the United States someday. He just shrugged and said, “Eh. More like a senator.”

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