Carolyn McCarthy's long journey returns to Long Island

New York Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy poses for a New York Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy poses for a portrait in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., in 2011. (July 21, 2011) Photo Credit: Eli Meir Kaplan

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

Carolyn McCarthy's doctors cleared her to drink any spirit she wished on Christmas, as the congresswoman celebrated the holiday with her family.

But McCarthy, who recently completed chemo and radiation therapy for lung cancer, couldn't get her choice, wine, down her throat.

So she improvised, adding a hit of Kahlua to the vanilla-flavored Ensure nutrition drink she took through a feeding tube snaked through her abdomen.

The feeding tube came out recently, when McCarthy, after six months of cancer treatments, gained enough weight to satisfy her doctors.

McCarthy remained calm when the tube was pulled out. "You are one tough lady," the physician told her.

Twenty years ago, gunman Colin Ferguson killed McCarthy's husband, Dennis, and badly wounded their son, Kevin, in the Long Island Rail Road shootings.

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McCarthy, a nurse from Mineola, incredibly and in quick succession, mourned, tended to Kevin and decided to run for Congress.

Over 20 years of public life, McCarthy, would go on, time and time again, to deal straight-on with whatever stood in front of her.

She stayed on in Washington after realizing that it would take more than two years to get meaningful gun control legislation through Congress, while at the same time remaining firmly rooted on Long Island.

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To this day, McCarthy, who Wednesday announced her intent to step down at the end of this term, marvels that some constituents are surprised that a congresswoman would mow her own lawn and do her own grocery shopping.

That, however, was before McCarthy began an aggressive course of treatment for lung cancer that would largely leave her -- because of a suppressed immune system -- confined for five months to her home, under the watchful eye of her sister and other family members.

During that time, she watched, of all things, congressional coverage on C-SPAN. "It was interesting, because down there you never get to see what committees other than the ones you are on are doing," she said.

She read a series of mysteries by Canadian author Louise Penny.

"You don't get a lot of time for reading novels when what you mostly read is legislation and such," she said.

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And she spent time watching "my fish" -- foot-long koi in a pond now coated with ice.

McCarthy, 70, also filed an asbestos-related lawsuit against a variety of firms -- a move for which she, a decades-long smoker, has been criticized.

"It's an education thing for me," she said, adding that lawyers came to her on the issue rather than she going to them.

"A lot of people have died because the threat of asbestos was covered up for so long," McCarthy said, noting that one of her biopsies indicated exposure to asbestos.

What will McCarthy do in retirement?

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She plans on volunteering, perhaps in a hospice or food pantry.

And she intends to keep talking about gun control and asbestos.

She had hoped to be back in Washington in two weeks, but -- as she explained to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi during a telephone call Wednesday -- first she's slated for rotator cuff repair surgery.

And how did McCarthy, over months of cancer treatment that weakened her body, injure herself?

"Washing a window," McCarthy said, with a laugh.

"I was going nuts sitting around here," she said. "I had to do something."

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