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Waiting for the Monsoon by Rod Nordland review – a war reporter finds a ‘second life’ in the shadow of death

Waiting for the Monsoon by Rod Nordland review – a war reporter finds a ‘second life’ in the shadow of death

In the searing heat in Delhi in July 2019, the New York Times foreign correspondent Rod Nordland went for a morning jog across the city. It was more than 48C (120F), and the monsoon rains had arrived the previous day.

The Pulitzer prize-winning war reporter collapsed during the run, with a witness describing him reeling in circles, arms raised, before falling to the ground with a seizure. He had been struck down by an undiagnosed malignant brain tumour. Within days, Nordland had been flown back to the US by the New York Times and was being treated at the Weill Cornell medical center in New York, one of the best hospitals in the world.

Nordland had survived numerous conflict zones, having reported for more than four decades from countries such as Timor-Leste, Afghanistan and Iraq, but now he faced a dire prognosis. The “cerebral intruder” was diagnosed as a glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer. “I will be with you the whole way; but understand that it will get you,” he was told by Dr Phil Stieg, the world-renowned neurosurgeon. “It’s a terminal disease, it’s incurable and it will eventually kill you.”

Waiting for the Monsoon is a compelling and clear-eyed dispatch in the face of a cruel and relentless illness, or what Nordland describes as the “hawks’ boil”, a description of birds of prey circling their quarry. It is also the journalist’s autobiography, revealing how he survived appalling malevolence in his childhood and went on to have an award-winning career as a war reporter.

The median survival time for someone with a glioblastoma is about 15 months. Around 250,000 people are diagnosed globally each year. In the US, it killed senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain, and President Biden’s son Beau at the age of 46. In Britain, the former Labour culture secretary Tessa Jowell and former Labour general secretary Margaret McDonagh were both victims. Nordland describes his research into glioblastoma as “supercharged” and quickly discovers it is a neglected type of cancer. Survival rates have barely improved in 40 years. He writes movingly of the personal insight that comes with diagnosis, saying: “As Confucius is reputed to have said, it is only when confronted with your second life that you realise you only really have one life and finally appreciate it fully.”

Nordland was brought up in southern California, one of six children. There were days on the beach, camping expeditions and fishing trips in the high sierra, but his father, Ronald James Nordland, was a violent and predatory figure. He would beat his wife, Lorine, with his fists and the children with the belt.

Lorine escaped with the children back to her family home in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. It proved a safe refuge from the sinister presence of her husband, who later remarried. Several years later, Nordland discovered his father was a paedophile, convicted of a series of assaults. In July 1995, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for kidnapping and abusing an eight-year-old boy.

“I am the son of a convicted paedophile and kidnapper who died in an Idaho prison,” he writes. “I am also the son of a working-class single mother of extraordinary fortitude and devotion, who was determined to protect her children from him, which she did at brutal cost to herself.”

Nordland was juggling four jobs by the time he was 13, but also got involved in petty crime, with a spell in a county jail for shoplifting. He was released on probation for theft and was determined to mend his ways. “I lived in terror of going back to jail,” he writes.

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Nordland in hospital in Delhi, awaiting transfer to New YorkView image in fullscreen

He was unbowed by the past. After studying at Pennsylvania State University, he landed a job in 1972 on the Philadelphia Inquirer, benefiting from the tutelage of executive editor Gene Roberts, a former national editor of the New York Times. This era was the high-water mark of US journalism, with teams of reporters deployed on stories and the Watergate scandal starting to break.

In March 1979, the Inquirer covered the Three Mile Island accident, a partial nuclear meltdown at a power plant on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Nordland was tasked with heading the on-the-ground reporting team, going to the site despite the risks. The Inquirer won a Pulitzer prize for its coverage.

Roberts was impressed by Nordland’s initiative and determination to land the scoops, posting him to open the paper’s Asia bureau. Nordland joined Newsweek in 1994, was appointed their chief foreign correspondent in 2005, and moved to the New York Times in 2009. This book provides an invaluable aide-memoire on the foreign reporter’s craft, with the author describing the ruthlessness that is required. He explains that the best stories are often found miles behind the frontline, and repeats his mentor Roberts’s advice to zig when everyone else is zagging.

After a career reporting from 150 countries, and moving from one bloody conflict to the next, Nordland came to a standstill with the glioblastoma. Family and friends rallied to support him at the New York hospital. His ex-wife, Sheila, was at his bedside, along with his three grownup children. His partner, Leila Segal, provided constant support.

Nearly two weeks after his collapse in Delhi, he had a “lime-sized” mass removed from his brain. The surgery on the day of his 70th birthday was followed by six weeks of radiotherapy and then eight sessions of chemotherapy over seven months. There were lifestyle changes. He quit alcohol, lost weight and started a low-carbohydrate diet. There were also more profound changes. He viewed the past and present with deep gratitude and relished his new life.

Nordland had brought up his children in different countries while commuting to war zones. He realised he had pursued a career with certitude and arrogance at the cost of family life. He now felt beloved. “In my second life, my children and I made peace and enjoyed a closeness I had once thought impossible,” he writes. “In my second life, I could see clearly all the mistakes I had made in the first one.”

Nordland has managed to survive beyond the median life expectancy, citing world-class care as one of the reasons. When asked by his son how his book ends, he responds: “I guess with my death.”

This is a gripping memoir of a consummate foreign reporter, and an inspiring journal of self-discovery when the “cold breath of mortality” is on the neck. Nordland says it is a future he now faces with greater clarity. “If I do have to die – I have yet to accept that as a given – know that I will die a happy man.”

Source: theguardian.com