When John McCain’s flag-draped casket was carried into the US Capitol Friday, among those honoring the senator was a woman who lived through the turbulence of his iconic career and life: his 106-year-old mother.
Half a century after she was told her son had been shot down over Vietnam — where he was held prisoner for five years — Roberta McCain cut a stoic figure at the memorial for the statesman, who died last weekend following a battle with brain cancer.
The silver-haired family matriarch kept her composure as she was wheeled into the Capitol Rotunda where she comforted her weeping granddaughter Meghan McCain, holding her hand and whispering in her ear.
It was the first time Roberta McCain joined the ceremonies, which began earlier this week in McCain’s adopted home state of Arizona, to honor her son.
Dressed in a translucent polka dot outer blouse, she remained composed throughout the hour-long Capitol tribute as Vice President Mike Pence lauded her “American patriot” son and congressional colleagues praised him as a national treasure.
When she finally approached the casket, she crossed herself somberly and quietly exited the Rotunda.
McCain was a brash US Navy fighter pilot who cheated death on multiple occasions. But in 1967, Roberta McCain was convinced she had lost her son forever.
She and her husband were in London, dressing for a party at the Iranian ambassador’s residence, when they got a call saying her “Johnny,” as she continues to call him, was shot down over Hanoi, and there was no evidence of an ejection.
The following day, a steward broke the news to them that McCain had been captured as a prisoner of war.
“Can you believe that’s the best news I ever had in my life?” she said in a 2008 interview when her son was running for president.
– ‘Strong, determined’ –
McCain’s mother often travelled with him on the campaign trail, a loving but unvarnished supporter who called things as she saw them.
“I’m worried that whatever I would tell you would be true,” she told Time magazine in 2000.
McCain, in one of his books, wrote that his mother was “raised to be a strong, determined woman who thoroughly enjoyed life, and always tried to make the most of her opportunities.”
“She was encouraged to accept, graciously and with good humor, the responsibilities and sacrifices her choices have required of her.”
But Mrs. McCain, who lives in an elegant Washington apartment, never suppressed her adventurous spirit.
Her father, a successful wildcat oilman, took Roberta and her twin sister Rowena on lengthy trips.
She eloped in Tijuana, Mexico at age 19, marrying her sweetheart Jack who rose to the rank of admiral.
Roberta kept her desire for travel, often renting a car with her sister and driving through Europe, or to India, for months on end.
She traveled to Hungary, Turkey, Australia, Thailand, Japan and beyond. She crossed the Jordanian desert in a bus in the dead of night.
And she has also displayed a stubborn streak. When she was in her nineties, she sought to rent a car in France, but was denied because of her age.
Undeterred, she bought a car and tooled around Europe, then shipped it to the US east coast and drove it to California, she told the New York Times.
Roberta McCain has often been asked how she coped with her son’s lengthy detention in Vietnam.
“My husband chose his profession, and so did Johnny,” she told Time of the ordeal.
“People work on high bridges. When an accident happens, you can’t bellyache. You chose the profession.”