“My survival alone was a miracle.”
Diagnosed in 2002 with a life threatening head and neck cancer, Liam Ryan’s doctors told him he should have never survived. Beating all the odds, today Liam wears an eye-patch as his only reminder.
According to Liam, his book was written by somebody ordinary, to encourage and inspire every cancer patient that will come after him. This is the second of nine articles in a series that covers his final chapter, Closure. Click here to read Part III.
We arrived at the check-in desks full of good humoured holiday banter. This was my first pilgrimage. I was impressed with the collective bonhomie that a trip like this can generate. I suppose most people going on a pilgrimage are bringing a personal need of some kind. This can become a great leveller. It created a common social unity within the entire group, right from the off.
Pilgrims appear to set off full of optimism. We were all bonded by the hope that we would find something inspirational from our trip. This unilateral aspiration breaks down many of the usual barriers that a normal group of travelling strangers face. I found a warm sense of immediate absorption with travelling pilgrims that I had not experienced on previous travels.
So the first impressions were good. This looked as if it was going to be a memorable trip before I had even boarded the plane.
The departure lounge in Shannon is just one big long room. There is a small bar and cafeteria area in the middle with two huge seating areas at each end. When I entered this room on my trip to Medjugorje, I could not believe what I saw. The entire space was filled, as far as your eyes could see, with thousands of U.S. soldiers. The dramatic nature of the scene was underlined by the fact that everybody in the room was dressed in exactly the same kaki coloured uniform and all had the same shaved head haircut. It was not just thousands of soldiers, but thousands of identical soldiers. I was in a hanger full of clones.
It was just like accidently walking onto the set of a Steven Speilberg movie. Dolores, Geno and I eventually manouvered our way, through the kaki maze, to reach the bar. I ordered last pint of Irish Guinness for a week and as I sipped it I couldn’t help but wonder about the young soldier beside me. What lay ahead of him in the weeks to come. I took my chance to exchange a few words with him and enquired if they were going to war or returning home. He told me they were on their way to Baghdad. As I looked around the room I realised I needn’t have asked. All of the faces I was seeing were sombre rather than cheery. We exchanged a few pleasantries and I wished him well. I told him that I hoped he would soon be back in Ireland again on his way back home to his family.
This brief encounter allowed me, for the first time, to put a face on a story. For the previous few months I had watched the news every night. I was familiar with the many atrocities that were occurring on both sides in the Gulf war. These shocking stories unfortunately meant very little to me. I had nothing to relate them to. They were terrible stories, I knew that bit, but they were happening so far away they had little connection to my life.
Now I had a connection. I had just been talking to a young American soldier at a bar only 20 miles from where I lived. Our life lines had crossed for a few seconds. He was part of those images I had seen on television.
Now I would spend the rest of my life wondering how long more he was destined to live. He became just like the boy I sat beside on the bus in Mexico. Would this young soldier ever see Shannon airport again. Would he complete his tour of duty, return to his family and live until he was ninety. Or would he be killed in the coming months.
How quickly I had lost the ability to see. I had been watching the news without really taking in what the pictures were telling me. I knew nothing about hospitals until I got sick and now I knew nothing about the war in Iraq until I could look a young soldier in the eye and wonder about his future.
I started to look at all of them then. They were just kids really, seventeen, eighteen and nineteen years old. They were all just a few years older than Christy. How convenient this scene was I thought for the army generals of the world. They were able to sit in their plush offices in Washington, Baghdad, Beijing or wherever and send out somebody else’s children to do their dirty work for them.
Stay tuned as we continue Liam’s story…
Reprinted with permission of the author.