"It really makes you realize how much you love someone when you go through something like this," says Sarah Brady, wife of James Brady, the wounded White House press secretary."It was an ordeal, but I'm so thankful to have it turn out the way it did. Jim's a fighter . . . a scrappy big fighter."

For Sarah Brady, 39, the past 2 1/2 weeks have been an incredible turn in an eight-year marriage filled with wit, politics and love.

On March 30, her husband lay bleeding outside the Washington Hilton, shot through the head by a would-be presidential assassin. She saw it on television, just after a friend called. "But by that time," she remembers as she talks in a small room at the George Washington University Hospital, "I was so spacey. Shock had taken over. I remember it in black and white, which is strange, because we have a color TV."

Hours later, the networks incorrectly reported Jim Brady's death. She didn't see the reports, and says she isn't sure she ever can. Now, day by 12-hour day, she has been at her husband's side as he makes a recovery that his doctors are calling "extraordinary." Barring complications, they expect he will walk with a cane and perhaps even return to his job of White House press secretary.

But his wife, boosted by the quips and progress of her 40-year-old husband nicknamed "The Bear," downplays her role.

"I don't want to be a heroine," she says. "Oh, Lord no. Absolutely not. I'm just doing what any other wife or person would do." Not long after her husband had come out of brain surgery, she squeezed his hand. Then she asked him: "Do you know who this is?"

"Coon," he responded softly. It was short for her nickname, "Raccoon."

"It's melodramatic," she continues, "to think he's lying around going 'Raccoon! Raccoon!' It was just the first question I asked -- and he answered it."

Sarah Brady measures her hours by his now, but takes time out to talk in a little office the hospital has given her around the corner from his room. It is 10:30 a.m., Thursday, April 16. Jim Brady is napping. She wears a blue suit and pink blouse with a bow, smokes several cigarettes, sips black coffee. There is a strain in her eyes, but her voice is clear.

Melissa, Brady's 18-year-old daughter by a previous marriage, spent six days at the hospital right after the shooting. She tapped on his chest repeatedly and called "Wake up, Dad!" to make him more alert.

"He was kind of out of it," says Melissa, a freshman at Colorado State University who had heard a radio broadcast that her father was dead."When I first saw him," she continues, "I knew he was going to be okay. He just looked a lot better than I had imagined. I had been thinking the worst."

Sarah Brady is also relieved, but says: "It's a very unreal world right now. The hospital becomes like your world, like a great womb or protector. The second week, I didn't want to leave because you'd go out and there'd be cameras. It was sort of like watching another person's life, and you were there. It's a strange feeling, and I wanted to hide out. At that point, I was too close to it. It wasn't reality.

"The strangest thing, I guess, is that I stayed awake and worried about it last night -- the flashes of the big shot. I just can't believe he was shot. I wanted Jim to watch his weight so he didn't have high blood pressure, but you just never dream somebody's going to go off to work and get shot. It just gives you chills . . . when I saw the pictures in Time and Newsweek, you know how in books people say 'A chill went through me?' Well, I know that feeling now. I've never felt it before.

"Once you get past that feeling," she continues, "it was interesting for me to go down to look at the emergency room where he came in. I just wanted to see for myself how it took place. Otherwise, it seems more like a nightmare, because you just remember bits and pieces."

Sarah Brady was at home with their 2-year-old son, Scott, when she first heard that the president was shot, but didn't know her husband had been wounded in the cross fire. Jan Wolf, a friend, called her and asked, "Do you want me to get Scott?" and she said "Why?" Then Wolf started to cry.

A White House car came to the Brady residence in Arlington and rushed Sarah to the hospital. She waited through the five-hour surgery. "You kind of go back and forth," she says, "between 'Oh, I know he's going to be fine,' to then realizing that maybe he won't. You think of little things -- like, 'Gee, Jim always left so early in the morning that he never got to see Scott.' But that morning he had. So you think, 'Oh, my God, I hope that doesn't mean anything'."

Nancy Reagan came to see her during the surgery. They went to the hospital's chapel. Three clergymen came. And then the doctor. "The minute he walked into that room," she says, "I could tell it was a success because his eyes were lit up."

At 11 p.m., 8 1/2 hours after her husband was shot, Sarah Brady saw him. "His head was bandaged and his eyes were swollen black and blue," she says. "But" - and she laughs -- "he looked great to me."

Sarah Kemp met Jim Brady during a Republican National Committee cocktail party at the Twin Bridges Marriott in 1970. She lived in Washington, the assistant to the director of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. He lived in Chicago, the executive vice president of James and Thomas Advertising and Public Relations.

They had dinner that night with a group of friends at the old downtown restaurant, Paul Young's. "That was it," she says. "I really fell for him pretty quickly." They had a long-distance romance for two years, seeing each other on weekends in Chicago, Washington or wherever business and whim took them. "I know my mother thought I was crazy," she says, "but it seemed right at the time."

The two went to a football game in Texas on two hours' notice, went skiing in Aspen after deciding to do it that day, and threw a Christmas tree over the balcony of Jim's Chicago high-rise. That was one May.

"Everything," she laughs, "was spur of the moment."

He proposed in Kansas City in 1972 -- and at a hotel that just happened to be the site of a National Malamute Convention. "In every room there were dogs," she giggles. "One would bark, and then 100 would." In July 1973, they married and settled in Arlington. Brady worked as a press aide to three Cabinet departments, two senators, two candidates -- and traveled from home a lot. This January, just after her husband was appointed press secretary, Sarah Brady relaxed on her couch as Jim made "Bear's Goat Gap Texas Chili" in the kitchen.

"If something like Jim's job is going to come at a certain time in life," she said the, "I suppose the perfect time is now. We waited until late to have a child, and now he's 2, I like being at home with him.Although I may, just six months from now, say, 'God, I was really naive'."

It's now 3 1/2 months since she said that. Would she want him to go back to be press secretary at the White House?

"If he wants to," she says. "He certainly loved the job." As for the dangers: "I don't think you can worry about that."

She says she doesn't feel much emotion about John Hinckley, the man charged in the shooting of her husband. "I don't know how I feel," she says. "I don't know much about him, I haven't read much about him, and I just don't even want to think about him. But I guess I'm getting more angry now. I know that Jim has a fight ahead of him, and I'm angry that he has to go through that fight."

Brady, she says, has been quieter this past week -- a week in which she says he fully realized the extent of his injuries and the effect that will have on his life.

"I think he gets awful tired of some of the questions," she adds. "We all ask a lot of dumb questions, like 'Now Jim' -- and there's a tendency to talk too loudly to somebody in bed, as it they're deaf -- 'Now Jim, how do you feel?' And then we wait for him to say 'Fine.' Well of course he's going to say 'Fine.' I think he gets a little sick of that."

He wakes up about 6 or 7 a.m., talks to her at home by telephone, has breakfast, watches the news, then has physical therapy. He naps, then has lunch, more therapy, another nap and dinner. He's his most awake and lively in the evenings, she says. He stays up to midnight or 1 a.m., watching the news and talking to her. She arrives at the hospital about 9:30 a.m., then stays until almost 11. The first week, she slept there. Now she hopes he'll be out of the hospital within two months.

She spends some of her time there reading to him from the hundreds of letters they've received. "He gets very emotional -- and very embarrassed -- when I read him things," she says. "He doesn't really understand why there'd be such a great outpouring, because he was just learning to deal with that kind of thing, that people knew his name and face.

"But still," she continues, "it's a thrill for him to know how people are caring."