Dublin-born Cornelius Ryan served as a Daily Telegraph correspondent on the battlefields of Europe during the Second World War. That war became the theme of his life’s work in such
best-selling books as The Longest Day, The Last Battle and A Bridge Too Far, The research for the last of these military histories was complete, yet not a word was written when, in 1970,
tragedy overtook him. Using tapes and notebooks in which Ryan secretly recorded details of his four-and-a-half-year struggle for life, and adding her own observations, his widow, Kathryn, has woven a poignant story, told here for the first time, of personal heroism—and of their last collaboration.
CORNEL1US : On this early summer morning my office—a four-room building that stands 1oo feet from our house in Connecticut—is patched with sun and shade. Even the great stand of trees at the far edge of the lawn cannot bar the dim light that pours into the small hedged garden just outside my windows and splashes into my work-room.
As on so many other days, I have swivelled my chair to the, view, stretching for miles to distant hills. Today, everyday sights take on uncommon importance. The world hums with life outside. Inside, I am not so sure. On this soft morning I think I must begin to acknowledge the possibility that I am dying.
On this Saturday, July 25, 1970, the big clock on the wall across the room makes its customary noise. The time is 6.13am. Just under 12 hours ago—at 6.35pm yesterday—my wife and I were told by a prominent New York urologist that I have a primary carcinoma of the prostate. Cancer. In these tormented hours this is the first time I’ve said that word out loud.
The diagnosis changes everything. Here in the office the memorabilia of my life are all around me. On the desk a young Kathryn—now my wife for 20 years—smiles out from a small silver frame.
Opposite is a photograph of the children, Geoff and Vicki.
Time doesn’t fly, it hurtles. I took that picture nine years ago with a camera that’s quite different from the modern digital cameras when they were seven and four. That little lad with face and ears and almost noble brow has disappeared beneath a hirsute avalanche. But Vicki has not changed her hair-style in all these years. It sweeps back from her forehead, straw-coloured as mine once was. The plump little oval face has thinned in adolescence, disclosing cheek-bones and a growing beauty. There is also temper, but I think of it as spirit because it’s in me, too.
On the wall with the clock are other favourite photographs—heads of state, friends and journalists I love. On the table facing my desk are awards, plaques, medals. Near by are my helmet, knapsack and map case from the Second World War, conjuring up memories.
These objects, the trappings of my office, represent the essence of my life.
I want to spare Kathryn and the children as much as possible. I will only be able to deal candidly with the subject through this tape-recorder or notebooks I will have to hide among the research material that only I delve into.
In the long hours since we got the news I’ve tried to rationalize the verdict. But all the pat, logical arguments—like “You’re good for at least 15 years,” or “Look, you might be run over by a truck this afternoon”—work for only a second. Then I hear the doctor’s voice again and there is no logic or reason that helps me.
My one hope of “cure,” he tells me, is a radical prostatectomy. “You will be sterile, and there is about a 20-per-cent chance that you will have some incontinence. If it occurs, you will require a rubber-bag device strapped on to catch the urine.” His definition of being “cured” is to survive cancer-free for five years following the surgery.
The doctor wants me to have the prostatectomy next week. Such urgency appals me. Professionally, I have never accepted a single piece of historical data without researching it, collecting all the opinions and interviews I could. For all I know, the cancer may be firmly entrenched and surgery may not be the answer. The doctor believes the disease is confined to the prostate. Suppose it’s not?
Even if the urologist is correct, I must get other views. Somewhere out there are the medical sources, statistics and terminology I will need in order to assess for myself my chances of survival, to find precisely the course of action that will work best in my particular case.
Just now I thought of something that might compare to my present predicament. During the Second World War, I found myself with a patrol in a minefield. I cannot remember experiencing fear, or any great surge of courage.
Unless, unwittingly, I have already stayed too long. The first indication I had that something was wrong occurred four months back. Presumably I have been dying for the better part of this, my fiftieth year.
I’ve just played those last few sentences back. Clearly, the mathematics of self-pity can be raised to infinity. It must be due to the shock. I would guess that the worst time emotionally is in these first few hours after you get the bad news.
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