First of two parts
WASHINGTON -- Early one recent evening, as the U.S. Senate was voting on judicial recommendations, Mark Kirk was working the floor, starting with a long conversation with fellow Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin.
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Standing near the leader's podium at the front of the room, his four-pronged cane beside him, Kirk motioned often with his right hand. His left, balled in a fist, hung by his side.
Moments later, Kirk moved to ascend the five long steps of the Senate floor to talk to fellow Republican colleagues seated in the last row of desks.
First placing his weight on his cane and his good right leg, then swinging his left leg forward, Kirk swayed at times before steadying himself. A young staffer was within arm's length all the while, should Kirk need assistance.
He did not.
Back on the job for five months after suffering a stroke Jan. 21, 2012, the junior senator from Illinois leads an existence on Capitol Hill far from the fast-paced first year after his November 2010 election.
In turn, his image has changed from a politician with a carefully polished exterior to one publicly embracing the debilitating stroke that colored his actions and changed many basic aspects of everyday life.
"I look at broken people and think, 'Those are my people,'" Kirk, a Highland Park Republican, said in an interview with the Daily Herald in Washington, D.C. "When they're having a tough time crossing the street. When I see them in a wheelchair, I wonder what it was. Whether it was an accident or stroke. You think about rehab and the emotional ups and downs, especially if it's a permanent thing."
For Kirk, some effects of the stroke are likely to be permanent, including the partial paralysis in his left arm and leg that sometimes leads him to use a wheelchair.
But Kirk -- who has not announced his political plans after his term ends in 2016 -- remains determined to prove he is as actively engaged as ever.
That process is proving to be transformative not only for him but also for the caustic and often-divided 100-member Senate, where Kirk's presence seems to be fostering bipartisan friendship, if not spurring action.
What began as help from members of both sides of the aisle in advancing Kirk's priorities while he recovered at home has turned into alliances with Democrats on Iran sanctions and gun control.
Kirk -- long a reach-across-the-aisle moderate Republican who represented the independent-voting 10th Congressional District of Illinois for a decade -- has, since his return, taken bold stances on controversial social issues, at times connecting them with his own experience from the stroke.
While being wheeled from his Hart Senate office to a late-afternoon vote, Kirk held up his right wrist, revealing a green band given to him by the mother of a Newtown, Conn., school shooting victim.
"I asked her where she was when life ceased to be normal," Kirk said of the exchange. The young mother told him she had been in a kickboxing class when she heard the news that changed her forever.
For Kirk, life ceased to be normal while he was traveling to an event in Chicago on a January morning. As Kirk's symptoms progressed from a headache to numbness and vision problems, his driver rerouted to Lake Forest Hospital. Later, Kirk experienced what he has described since as "something profound happening inside my skull."
Regaining consciousness days later at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, where he had been transferred, Kirk found himself unable to use much of his left side and learned a piece of his skull had been removed to allow his brain to swell and heal. It later was replaced in another operation.
On April 2, when Kirk became the second Republican senator to publicly support same-sex marriage, he attributed his change of heart to lessons he learned following his stroke.
"When I climbed the Capitol steps in January, I promised myself that I would return to the Senate with an open mind and greater respect for others," Kirk said in a statement. "Same-sex couples should have the right to civil marriage. Our time on this Earth is limited, I know that better than most. Life comes down to who you love and who loves you back -- government has no place in the middle."
"It gives all of us the courage to do the right thing," said Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kirk's closest friend in the Senate, who described Kirk as a figure "basically of courage. Of challenge, but courage."
Manchin flew to Chicago shortly after Kirk's stroke to be by his friend's side. He also was standing a year later with his arm wrapped protectively around Kirk's back as the Illinois senator made a dramatic re-entrance to the Senate by climbing the 45 steps to the upper chamber's entrance.
"He and I talked about this," Manchin said. "He said, 'I'm going to come back. I'm going to walk up those steps.' He said, 'I want to walk with you. I want you with me. My wing man.'"
Manchin acknowledges he "probably knew more than anybody else" in the Senate that "there were still some challenges" for Kirk.
"But I knew his will and his determination and his desire to do that and be back into the mix," Manchin said. "I sure as hell wasn't going to let him fall. He'd come too far."
In January, doctors said they expected Kirk's fatigue to continue to diminish over time.
Kirk, who said he'd be "walking to D.C. by now" if he was still stuck at home recovering, smiled as he recalled a recent compliment from Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, who called him the "Energizer bunny."
"I took it as I had a stroke and kept going and going and going," Kirk said, walking two right fingers along his desk.
Gone are Kirk's rapid-fire speech, the exhausting travel schedule and the trademark bounce on the balls of his feet as he was trying to bring home a point.
"Mark's a little bit more methodical now," Manchin said. "He doesn't give you an answer real quick because he's going to think about it and digest it more. He doesn't shoot off the cuff as much, but he still has his sense of humor."
Kirk, one of two physically disabled members of the Illinois delegation -- the other is Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates, who lost both legs while serving in Iraq -- has become somewhat of an advocate for others with disabilities by both his presence and his newly trained eye on the Americans with Disabilities Act.
While the Senate is in session, Kirk attends therapy three mornings a week at National Rehabilitation Hospital. Manchin, with whom Kirk early on established a Thursday lunch tradition, has been teasingly suggesting Kirk schedule his Thursday therapy for earlier in the morning so their lunches can resume.
"Actually, I would say the Manchin-Kirk process has been far more successful than I ever thought it would be," Kirk said. "Building bipartisan alliances with social interaction."
In recent weeks, Kirk and Durbin have resumed their weekly coffees for visitors to the Capitol from Illinois.
"I know that the things we take for granted are a challenge for him," Durbin said. "Like moving across the Senate floor. I watch him, he does it, he's trained for it. Colleagues respect the effort he's put into that."
In terms of Kirk's workload, Durbin said, "he is slowly bringing himself to the same position he was."
Durbin also has watched Kirk bond with members from both sides of the aisle following his stroke.
The Senate, with its lengthy terms and a majority of its members above age 50, is forgiving as members take time off for health issues. In April, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, the 89-year-old New Jersey Democrat, was welcomed back to the Senate floor with hugs and handshakes during a series of votes on gun control.
Many have been equally supportive of Kirk.
"We all admire Mark's courage and his determination. Mentally, he's the same old Mark Kirk we always knew. Physically, he's got some issues to work through, but he seems to be doing very well," Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn said as he was walking out of a Republican caucus meeting late one evening.
North Carolina Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan recalled the support her mother received from friends and neighbors after she was paralyzed by a serious stroke at 52.
"I knew how important it was that people, that somebody like Mark, have that support. I'd give him an update on what was going on, tell him I couldn't wait to see him walk up those steps," Hagan said.
At the Jan. 3 stair climb, Kirk spotted Hagan and called out, "Kay Hagan, you come over here."
"She wrote me more notes than anybody," he told his colleagues.
Kirk, who holds President Barack Obama's former Senate seat, has long referred to himself as a "fiscal conservative, social moderate and a foreign-policy hawk."
In recent months, social issues have dominated his agenda, along with a continued push for tough sanctions against Iran. Aside from same-sex marriage, Kirk also broke with his party to take an aggressive stance on gun control.
He timed his announcement in support of same-sex marriage to coincide with his first trip back home to Illinois. "You're going to have to answer this question," he said, "so you might as well answer it up front."
He called it a "decision to take control of my own destiny. And the feeling you have to live in your state."
Kirk clearly is working to illustrate to the people of Illinois that he is back.
Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, who returned to Congress a year after suffering a 2006 stroke, said he made it a point to not miss a vote, a tactic Kirk also has adopted.
Kirk has not yet missed a vote, including during the 14-hour "vote-a-rama" all-night voting session where he joked that a Senate hallway filled with lawmakers napping on couches "was like some twisted version of a Carnival cruise line … distinguished senators wrapped up in blankets not in the most distinguished positions."
Much of Kirk's return has been carefully crafted. His staff has been cautious about his re-emergence into the public eye, often using Twitter or Facebook to release information about the senator's meetings after they have occurred. Interviews with reporters initially were strictly in one-on-one settings.
In early April, as the pressure for a series of gun control amendments were coming to a head, Kirk held his first press gaggle in a Senate hallway.
After a few questions, his spokesman, twirling his right index finger in the air, signaled for Kirk to wrap it up. But the senator took his time, seemingly relishing the situation as he answered a few more questions.
Kirk has since gone on to hold more brief news conferences, including one after he visited with a group of students at Learn 6 Charter School in North Chicago.
"The reason why I limp around is because I suffered a stroke, which rendered my arm and leg not operational," Kirk told the students. "One problem is, especially in public speaking, that I'm not as quick as I used to be."
On Capitol Hill, Kirk is pushed to meetings and votes by his "body guy" and often accompanied by a number of other staffers. In the days leading up to a series of April gun control votes, he was followed by a pack of Capitol reporters as he disembarked from the Senate subway and wheeled into the Capitol complex.
Johnson, by contrast, generally travels alone in his motorized scooter.
Headed to a Tuesday Democratic Caucus lunch, Johnson stopped to speak about his stroke and his relationship with Kirk.
Johnson, who serves with Kirk on the Appropriations Subcommittee for Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, said he and Kirk in recent months have "served as an inspiration for each other" and have had many chats.
Kirk said Johnson's wife has provided advice and support to his longtime girlfriend.
"His wife was very helpful. How is it to live with this person who is more encumbered and sometimes may have ups or downs," Kirk said.
For Kirk, increasing his physical stamina and relearning to walk were the biggest challenges. For Johnson, speech proved most difficult.
The contrast was evident at a subcommittee meeting where Johnson strictly read from prepared statements and had trouble pronouncing several words, including "testimony" and "2013."
Kirk took notes throughout the hearing. His speech is slowed and softer, but his pronunciation difficulties are much less noticeable.
"I feel luckier than Tim. That his stroke was on the other side. And mine was not heavily located in the speech centers of the brain," Kirk said. "I noticed early in the process at the (Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago) that I was a better speaker than Tim. And I was constantly comparing myself to Tim, asking, 'What would Tim do?' I thought about it, and I would watch him on CSPAN."
Johnson said this spring that he will not seek re-election in 2014. Kirk, whose term ends in 2016, says only that he remains focused on serving the people of Illinois, though his perspective has changed.
"I had a funny interaction with (Iowa Democratic) Sen. Harkin, author of the Americans with Disabilities Act," Kirk said. "I said, 'Tom, quiz question, what major building in D.C. is not ADA compliant?' I said, 'The Senate chamber, that I have now learned from experience negotiating all those steps.' When you are in my condition you notice a lot."