(EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
By Scott Helman, Globe Staff
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Senator Barack Obama's maternal grandmother, who helped raise and ground him during an itinerant childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, died today at 86, according to his campaign.
The death of Madelyn Dunham, coming a day before her grandson may be elected the next president, introduced a somber note in the closing hours of Obama's historic presidential bid. Dunham, Obama's closest remaining relative, died peacefully at her home from cancer, his campaign said.
"She was the cornerstone of our family, and a woman of extraordinary accomplishment, strength, and humility," Obama and his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, said in a statement. "She was the person who encouraged and allowed us to take chances. She was proud of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and left this world with the knowledge that her impact on all of us was meaningful and enduring. Our debt to her is beyond measure."
Knowing that her condition was worsening, Obama halted campaigning briefly 10 days ago to visit her in Honolulu. Obama said he was determined not to repeat a mistake he made when his mother Stanley Ann Dunham died of cancer in 1995, when he did not make it to her bedside in time.
Madelyn Dunham, whom Obama affectionally called "Toot," was a central figure in his life, helping, along with her husband, Stanley and Obama's mother to rear him after Obama's father, Barack Obama Sr., left the family. Obama regularly made trips to Hawaii around Christmas to see her. He has paid tribute to his grandparents in several high-profile addresses, including his speech in St. Paul in June after clinching the Democratic nomination.
"Our family wants to thank all of those who sent flowers, cards, well-wishes, and prayers during this difficult time," Obama and Soetoro-Ng said in the statement. "It brought our grandmother and us great comfort."
They said a small private ceremony will be held at a later date, and asked that well-wishers make a donation to an organization searching for a cure for cancer.
John and Cindy McCain issued a statement of condolence, saying, "We offer our deepest condolences to Barack Obama and his family as they grieve the loss of their beloved grandmother. Our thoughts and prayers go out to them as they remember and celebrate the life of someone who had such a profound impact in their lives."
UPDATE: "Look, she has gone home," Obama, his voice thick with emotion, told a crowd of 25,000 at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte tonight. "She died peacefully in her sleep with my sister at her side. And so there's great joy, as well as tears. I'm not going to talk about it too long, because it's hard to talk about."
With that, he paused, and began to haltingly tell Dunham's story, connecting it seamlessly to his campaign message.
"She's one of those quiet heroes we have all across America," he said. "They're not famous. Their names aren't in the newspapers. But each and every day they work hard."
"That's what America is about," Obama said. "That's what we're fighting for."
Obama thanked the McCains for their message, and he toned down his attacks on his rival noticeably.
In Roswell, N.M. this evening, McCain said, "Our thoughts and our prayers are with" Obama.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.