Saturday, April 15, 2006

Senators, who spend much of their time engaged in partisan bickering, put that aside for a few somber moments recently in honor of two colleagues who both lost their spouses this spring.

Margaret Inouye, the wife of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, died last month after battling colon cancer. Two weeks later, Erma Byrd, the wife of Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, died after fighting a long illness.

During breaks from debating immigration and ethics measures, senators from both parties took to the floor to honor the memories of “Maggie” and Mrs. Byrd, the Democratic senator’s childhood sweetheart.

“Sadly, a cornerstone of the Senate has lost the keystone of his life,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said after learning of Mrs. Byrd’s death.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, said the two women were members of a larger congressional family.

“To watch two of our colleagues about whom we care so deeply go through the tremendous suffering they are going through as a result of the loss of their life mates is something all of us, regardless of where we sit in this chamber, to what party we belong, in what direction our ideological compass may lead us, we all have a deep sense of loss for these wonderful people,” Mr. Dodd said.

Mrs. Inouye died March 13 at the age of 81. She and the senator had been married for 56 years.

“As she has done throughout her life, Maggie handled her difficult situation without complaint, and with dignity and grace,” said Mr. Inouye, a Democrat. “She was my inspiration, and all that I have accomplished could not have been done without her at my side. We were a team.”

Mr. Inouye said he fell in love with Maggie Awamura’s poise and gentle spirit in 1947, and he was impressed she was educated in a time when few women went to college.

“I don’t think the possibility of marriage had ever occurred to me before that moment, but afterward, it never left my mind,” he said. “Everything I had and wanted to have suddenly became absolutely meaningless unless Margaret Awamura would share it with me.” He proposed on the second date.

Mrs. Byrd died March 25 at the age of 88. She and the senator first met in grade school.

“Erma and I are complete and whole, a total that is more than the sum of its parts. In my life, Erma Ora Byrd is the diamond,” Mr. Byrd said in 2002 when the couple celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary.

Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, reminded his colleagues that Mrs. Byrd was a “pillar of strength to our friend.”

“As he has often told us, it was Erma who made sure he was polished and well pressed before he left for the Capitol every morning. She took great pride in the work he did for their state and for our nation,” he said.

And Mrs. Inouye “was truly Dan’s partner in life,” Mr. Stevens said.

“Maggie was a constant source of support and friendship for Dan. Many have praised Dan’s speeches on the Senate floor, but few know Maggie had a hand in our good friend’s eloquence,” he said.

Sen. Barack Obama called the Byrds’ experience a love story “both moving and inspiring to all.”

“While this makes the loss that much more profound, I would imagine it makes the memories that much sweeter and the love all the more enduring,” the Illinois Democrat said.

Despite the moving speeches, politics was not pushed entirely aside — Mr. Inouye came to the Senate floor the day after his wife died to cast a critical vote for the Democrats on budget rules, and senators quickly got back to business arguing over immigration reform after the memorial services.

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