When we remember Jim Brady, most of us recall this horrible 1981 semiotic from history. Jim had been shot in the head — with a Röhm RG-14 .22 caliber blue steel revolver — and left for dead by John Hinckley, Jr. who was actually trying to assassinate president Ronald Reagan. Hinckley squeezed off six shots in under three seconds before the Secret Service were able to subdue him.
Nobody thought Reagan’s Press Secretary Jim Brady would survive his shooting, but he did.
The Victory Awards were intended to honor achievements of the human spirit. The show was hosted by Frank Langella and Marvin Hamlisch was the musical director.
Frank did not speak to any of the workers on the show while Marvin Hamlisch struck up a conversation with me backstage — I was a new transplant from Nebraska to D.C. — and he told me we’d one day “write a musical together” because “that’s just how things happen.”
Some of the award recipients that night were Jose Feliciano — for overcoming his blindness to find success in the music business; Ann-Margret — who overcame a terrible 22-foot face-first fall on stage; Joe Theismann — who overcame a severe leg break during a nationally televised professional football game; and, finally, Jim Brady — who survived a gunshot to the head.
My job that night was to push Jim Brady on stage in his wheelchair to accept his award. When Jim and his beautiful wife Sarah arrived, they were escorted by two Secret Service men. Jim was in a rancorous mood that night and he was hitting everyone within reach with his cane — and then pretending he didn’t mean to — Jim was a big man so his cane was thick and massive in order to support him and it it hurt when he thwacked you.
When Jim landed a blow on my thigh, Sarah smiled at me and said, “That means he likes you.” We both laughed. Jim looked good. It had been six years since he’d been shot. You could see the thick surgical scars crisscrossing his head.
Then Sarah said to me, “Do you think you can steady Jim?” I looked at her and then at Jim buckled into his wheelchair with a seatbelt.
Sarah clarified her question, “If Jim is able to stand up and walk tonight without his cane, are you strong enough to steady him?”
I told her I would be able to do that and Sarah smiled. She told me Jim wanted to try to walk tonight to accept his Victory Award. He’d been practicing and he was tired and worn out, but he still wanted to give it a try.
Jim wore heavy metal leg braces, she said, that locked in place to make his legs rigid to support the rest of his body. The Secret Service guys exchanged a look — they did not like the idea of Jim leaving his wheelchair and cane behind.
Sarah said, “This will be the first time Jim has walked in public since he was shot.”
Jim was the last award of the night and the D.C. crowd were anxious to celebrate him.
Jim was wheeled backstage by the Secret Service to make his entrance. Sarah was there and confirmed with Jim that he wanted to stand and walk.
Jim’s name was announced and the full crowd erupted with applause.
It took three tries to get Jim up and out of his wheelchair. One Secret Service guy pulled away the wheelchair while the other agent and Sarah locked Jim’s leg braces. Jim was a massive man. He was well over six feet tall and weighed over 250 pounds. His arms were like tree trunks. His hands were the size of a catcher’s mitt.
Jim looked down at me and said, “Let’s do this.”
He put all of his weight on my forearm and shoulder.
He swung one leg and took a step forward.
He swung the other leg and hit me in the back of the leg.
“You have to give him room to swing his leg,” Sarah shouted behind me over the rising public applause. I arched my lower body away from Jim so he could swing his leg forward while still holding onto his arm so he wouldn’t fall over.
Swinging, step by swinging step, Jim Brady emerged from the shadows of the Kennedy Center to accept his award in the spotlight of center stage.
The applause and cheering were shaking the building. Jim walked tall and proud and looked like he was making eye contact with everyone in the room.
I was crying. Jim was crying. Everyone in the house was crying.
It was a tremendous moment of a lifetime to see a man given up for dead, and then rise up from the concrete sidewalk of his grave, and stand up again to walk in the light of day.
After ten steps, we made it to the podium.
The room instantly quieted.
I was still holding Jim as he pulled his speech from his pocket.
Jim began to read slowly. He stumbled a few times, but always went back to correct his mistake. He made a joke about his doctors being “terrorists” — there was no 9/11 back in 1987, so it was actually funny and he got a huge laugh — and he thanked everyone for not giving up on him and for standing with him.
Jim turned away from the podium and we carefully maneuvered our way back to his wheelchair and, once again, the entire room stood as one and applauded the spirit and strength of a man who stood down an evil that most of us believe we could defeat but never have to face — and in that moment I knew what it meant to be alive and to want to choose the hard way over the easy way because it meant more to you and because your bravery helped others know how to defeat demons you did not create or want.
We were all crying again.
As Jim collapsed into his wheelchair, I saw Sarah Brady wiping away tears. She was smiling.
I knew part of Jim’s bravery and strength and his refusal to give up came from her and we all knew that Hinckley’s gunshot had not only shattered Jim’s head, it had broken Sarah’s heart — but instead of giving in and giving up — that bullet ignited Sarah and Jim to create a foundation against the use of handguns and there’s nobody in any room in the world who can argue against the Brady’s cause to end their sort of suffering from a .22 caliber bullet.