The struggles Mark Kirk endured during his yearlong recovery from a major stroke were worth it Thursday as the Illinois Republican marked his long-awaited return to work by climbing the 45 steps to the Senate's front door.
"I've been dreaming about this day for months," Kirk said Tuesday in a sit-down interview with NBC Chicago in Washington.
Flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin (R-W.V.), Kirk stopped several times and waved as colleagues cheered him on. Fellow Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin walked the steps with him, and Rep. Bobby Rush and others greeted him on the top step with hugs and handshakes.
"Just finished Capitol step climb, It is the honor of my life to represent the people of #IL. Thx for all the support!" Kirk tweeted.
From the Senate Chaplain to Senate colleagues, Kirk's return was noted as inspiring.
"He's my wingman, and that's a beautiful relationship. I've said this: there's certain people you bond with immediately, and Mark was a person that I bonded with immediately, from Day One," said Manchin.
Others from the Illinois congressional delegation were also on hand to cheer him on.
"Any American who has gone through an illness or an injury, they just want to get back to work and to their lives, and that's what he's doing today. I think he's a tremendous symbol," said newly sworn-in Rep. Tammy Duckworth.
"I think he can do this. From what I understand, from a medical point of view, his cognitive skills are all there. I know the same Senator Kirk is going to be there on opening day," added Rep. Mike Quigley.
The climb was a feat he didn't think was possible a year ago.
"There was a time with my left leg when my doctors said, 'It will bear weight,' and I thought, 'You know, I'm the owner of this leg. Yeah, right. It'll never bear weight,'" Kirk said. "They were right and I was wrong."
Kirk's massive stroke limited movement on the left side of his body and affected his speech. He spent months learning to walk and climb stairs, along with speech therapy. He credits his staff at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago for pushing him when he thought he couldn't do it.
Kirk needed three brain surgeries to help him heal. At one point he was so close to death he recalled angels speaking to him.
"I felt like there were three angels in the room. And, interestingly, they had New York accents, probably because the last movie I'd seen was on Channel 11, was the original 'Ocean's 11,'" he said.
Kirk now speaks more slowly and deliberately. He also uses a cane and may need a wheelchair. When he returns to work, he is expected to have a scaled back schedule and won't keep the same busy travel schedule he once did.
He said the stroke gave him a renewed sense of purpose, deepened his faith and the experience made him vow "to never, ever give up."