KATHRYN: Ever since the publication of The Longest Day, friends, Second World War veterans, French men and women and correspondents had used June 5 (Connie’s birthday) or June 6 (D-Day) to write. In 1973 the mail was heavier than ever. Word of Connie’s illness had made the rounds.
Then on June 30 we learned that the President of France, Georges Pompidou, had decided to honour Connie with France’s most distinguished decoration, the Legion d’honneur. It would be presented to him at our house on Saturday, July 8, by the French ambassador to the United States, Jacques KosciuskoMorizet.
Though delighted, I was in a state of panic. Connie’s illness, our intense work on Bridge, the constant care he now required had left me no spare time. The flower-beds, rock gardens, lawns and hedges—untended for more than a year–were a disaster, as was the house. There was no way we could be ready for such illustrious guests in the space of a single week.
I had forgotten the power of friends. Learning the news, many of our neighbours practically took up residence to work in the house and on the grounds.
On Saturday evening we wheeled Connie to the terrace. Preoccupied all week with his acceptance speech and work on Bridge, he had been scarcely aware of the work being done around him. He could not believe the transformation. Even as he sat in the sweltering summer heat, friends were finger-picking the last blades of grass from the rock garden. Another neighbour was mopping the terrace, yet another was gently hosing down peat moss and mulch round the borrowed roses.
Connie slept soundly that night. At 8.3oam Pat Neligan arrived to examine him and stay with him for an hour. “Katie, Pat, I want to tell you something about that special ceiling light,” Connie said, his voice trembling. “This is the greatest accolade ever given me. I’m damned if I’ll accept the Legion d’honneur from a wheelchair, and I’m damned if strap on a rubber bag. I intend to greet the ambassador of France at my doorstep, on my feet, and I am not going to allow any problems in the lower regions to occur.”
Pat looked at me. “That’s it, then, Katie.” He turned to Connie. “But I warn you, I’ll be right behind you all the time.”
“No.” Connie shook his head. “I have to stand alone.”
We reached the threshold of our door just as the ambassador stepped from his limousine. The diplomats and their wives came up the path. Tall and elegant, my husband greeted them each by name, and we welcomed them in.
The luncheon went beautifully. Then the moment itself came. Connie had gone upstairs. (The heat and pain had actually drenched his clothes, Pat told me later.) He had showered and, with Pat’s help, dressed in fresh clothes from the skin out.
The terrace began to fill with people. The ambassador, his wife and I waited at the bottom of the steps as Connie, dressed in another suit, shirt and tie, came slowly down the steps with Pat. Connie was paying a price for his determination to walk—a price he would continue to pay to the end of his life. Never again, except at airports, did he let himself be wheeled anywhere. France’s great medal had already begun to work a minor miracle in our lives.
It was brought forward on a royal-purple pillow, its colours gleaming in the hot sun. As the ambassador pinned on the decoration, I saw Connie’s hand begin to tremble. I moved forward, afraid he would fall. But it was emotion that caused the tremor, not illness.
He stood in the sun, erect and proud, the Legion d’honneur on his lapel. I do not think he heard the applause that rolled across the terrace.
Soon the ambassador and his party took their leave. Connie insisted on seeing them to the door. Only when they had cleared the driveway did he turn from the doorway. “Well, Doc,” he said to Pat, “you’re looking at a new man.”
“Go up and rest, you idiot,” Pat said. “I swear I don’t know how you did it.”
“I do,” Connie said. “God gave me back my legs. The French gave me the Legion d’honneur. And my friends–” He stopped abruptly. Carefully he started for the stairs.
I reached out to offer support.
“Don’t need it, Katie,” Connie said. “I’m going to rest and think about today. Tomorrow I go back on the Bridge. It’s got to be my thanks to everyone who ever helped or read my work. It’s got to be as splendid as today has been.” He slowly turned on the stairs and looked down at Pat. “You know something, Neligan? I think the Man Upstairs is going to let me finish it.”