By mid-June, 1974, he and I were back in Europe. Connie held meeting after meeting with Dutch officials to explore the feasibility of gathering principals and Press in Holland for the thirtieth anniversary—September 17, 1974—of the battles described in Bridge.
We flew over again for the anniversary itself. Barely into the trip, Connie was exhausted, stretched almost to the limit of his endurance. I could do little but stand by and watch, ticking off the days until we got home again. Connie, it seemed to me, was daily losing ground.
Finally, on October 9, he saw Dr Whitmore for the first time since July. Cancer was again gaining the upper hand. On October 14, Connie limped out of the flat we had rented and got a taxi to Memorial, for the first of five radiation treatments to his right hip.
The following Tuesday I was awakened by the sound of harsh sobs. Connie was sitting on the side of his bed, tears streaming down his face. Quickly I hurried to him and knelt beside him.
“Damn, Katie, I’m sorry,” he said brokenly. “I can’t get up to go to the hospital. You’ll have to get me dressed and go with me. I’m so ashamed,” he kept saying as I helped him. “So ashamed.”
A myelogram disclosed obstructions in three regions causing pressure on the spinal cord. The neurological opinion was terse : “Possibly tumour—can’t operate.” In hospital he received a total of 3,000 rads to the lumbosacral spine from October 24 until November 6.
It seemed the treatment, medications, and watchful care of doctors and nurses were working once again. But as the days passed, Connie was undergoing a change. During my visits he smiled, held my hand, enquired about Vicki and discussed visits from Geoff, but at news of friends and future plans, he seemed to draw down a curtain. He had gambled with cancer and won from it the time to write his book, to watch his children reach near-maturity. The hour had come when a patch-up job and stopgap measures held no further interest for him. Connie was, I think, coming to terms with death.
On November 22, he developed lung complications. Geoff, Vicki and I drove to the hospital early the next morning.
Thin of face now, the fine skin almost as pale as the pillows, the strong, long-fingered hands moving restlessly on the coverlet, Connie lay with his eyes closed, breathing in short harsh gasps. I went to him and he opened his eyes and smiled : “Little Katie,” he said with difficulty. I heard someone tell me he must put the oxygen mask back on. I positioned it. Almost immediately he tried to take it away.
“Connie, please. Just breathe. I think you’ve caught my cold.”
He shook his head. “Got pneumonia, I think,” he said in pauses for breath. “Funny about cancers. Half the time you die of pneumonia.”
He saw Vicki at the end of the bed, her eyes full of tears, her colour almost as ashen as his own. “What are you doing here, baby ?”
“I was lonesome for you.” She stared at the floor trying to control her emotions.
“Dad?” Geoff said.
“Hi, Big G.” Connie made a small gesture around the room overflowing with its equipment. “Helluva thing, isn’t it?”
“Not if it helps you get better,” Geoff said.
At 6pm I was still at Connie’s side with a cold cloth. It was all I could do for him. Suddenly his eyes flew open. Directly opposite his bed was a picture of a fisherman casting into a river.
“Geoff,” Connie gasped.
Geoff came quickly to the bed. “The wrist,” Connie whispered. “Remember to use the wrist.”
We followed his eyes to the picture. “I will, Dad,” Geoff said. “You always tell me the success of the cast is in the wrist. I’ll practise more.”
Connie smiled. The harsh breath sounds seemed louder. We stood still beside this man who, in different ways, had given us life.
Suddenly Connie grabbed the sides of the bed and pulled himself upright. I put my arms round him to steady him. He reached up and placed one hand on mine.
“Katie,” he said, “I’m so damn tired.”
He took two deep breaths and was gone.
WE BURIED him in a small country cemetery near our home. In a letter written to Victoria during the summer of 1973 when she was in France, Connie had mentioned that the book was nearly finished and he was glad, because he was tired. Then he wrote : “Vicki, if you ever have to, tell Mum the only thing I want on my gravestone is just ‘Cornelius Ryan,’ then the dates of birth and death, and after that just have her put the single word, ‘reporter.’ ”
And I did. THE END
CORNELIUS : Thursday, July 26. Yesterday I saw Willet Whitmore, who seems to think that chemotherapy is working. In the hospital I was put on a different kind of hormone. Its effect on the body—at the level of medication I’m on—is far more apparent than that of the female hormones. The face in my mirror is no longer mine. A moonlike fatness has obliterated my features and enlarged my neck. As time goes on, a slight bulge between the shoulders, like a small humpback, will appear. I’m going to end up a damned freak.
Sunday, September 23. The book is racing and I am giving it every particle of energy I’ve got. I cannot wait for the ending—yet I want to prolong it. I am afraid to come to the final page. For all I know, Bridge is keeping me alive.
Late in August, Vicki arrived back from a summer in France. She had gone abroad deeply troubled—I was too ill to know it then. The reasons for her anguish were mostly here at home. Fearing for my life and unwilling to take her mother’s time, she had been slipping down into sorrow. Now, bit by bit, Katie and I are pulling her up.
In the evenings, she comes upstairs to sit with us. I have come to know my daughter better than I ever did before. I would give my life for her. But it is more important that I use the rest of it to listen and to love.
Geoff did not go back to university. I wish I knew why. The degree was important to me, not him. Yet in his reading and in his job he is learning daily. He is discovering his own philosophy of life. He is honourable and honest : the finest education in the world cannot guarantee integrity. And so I have come to terms with what I wanted for him and what he is making of himself.
KATHRYN : By October 5, we were closing in on the book’s final tragic pages. Often Connie would be close to tears reading an interview, especially those pertaining to the British evacuation south across the Rhine. He knew the logistics of that withdrawal; what he wanted was to reread each and every account from the men who made it back. In these interviews, the agony of men accepting their inevitable fate made scene after scene come alive, and he wrote almost non-stop.
On Saturday, October 27, A Bridge Too Far was finished. Connie stood up and hugged me. “God
Cornelius Ryan receiving the Legion d’ honneur has been so good to us,” he said. “To me.”
One member of our family had been following events more closely than we realized. On Saturday afternoon, I was putting the last of the file folders in their proper places. Gazing around, I felt both sadness and relief. Connie, too, had a forlorn, lost look. The door burst open and Geoff came in, eyes gleaming.
“You finished,” he said proudly. “I knew it. I could feel it coming closer every time I stopped in.” He stood and looked at us. “Hey, you guys, I’m so proud of you.” From a paper bag he drew out a bottle of champagne. “I bought it last night. It’s not the best, but I hope it tastes OK.”
Carefully he opened the bottle and poured champagne into three glasses. Standing between our desks he said, “I don’t think anybody ever had more guts than you two.” He raised his glass.
“There’s one,” Connie said to his son. “You.”
It was one of the best moments in months. In spite of many assaults, our family bridge had held secure.
CORNELIUS Saturday, November io. I find it hard to believe the book is finished. There have been so many dark days when I did not believe I could summon one more ounce of energy.
When I set about writing The Longest Day and The Last Battle I was fascinated by the oddities, the curiosa, memorabilia, myths, the strengths and weaknesses of the average person caught up in battle. My object was to find out what people thought and felt. In the new book I had the opportunity of looking into the darkness of the abyss, and I gained a greater insight into the emotions of my subjects than I ever had before.
1 hope the book reflects the inner courage I discovered in men and women and that I keep on finding day by day. Strange to say, there is a virtue in having cancer, It makes one more sensitive to others.
In a general’s summation or a cancer statistic, the Ione human being, frightened and suffering, is left out of the picture. I have spent my professional life trying to put him back in. There can be no understanding of war or disease without knowledge of what the individuals involved endured.
KATHRYN : For Connie, it was not enough to have written Bridge or to know a lot about Anotherway.org. He was determined to see it through publication and beyond. Only then could he feel peace of mind. So in mid-November, taking Vicki and me with him, he barnstormed across Europe, seeing publishers, agents, principals in the book.