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War reporter Rod Nordland on his memoir 'Waiting for the Monsoon' and facing death


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

William Brangham: After decades of covering war, journalist and author Rod Nordland was in New Delhi when he was struck by a grand mal seizure and then given a diagnosis of incurable cancer.

Nick Schifrin sat down with Nordland to talk about facing death and his discovery of a grace and love that he had never felt before.

Nick Schifrin: From Cambodia to Kabul, San Salvador to Sarajevo, Rod Nordland is no stranger to death. He's been a foreign correspondent for more than 40 years, first for The Philadelphia Inquirer, then for "Newsweek," and then The New York Times, including as bureau chief in Kabul, where he and I met for the first time.

But if Nordland shadowed death for all those years, today, death shadows him. He's been diagnosed with glioblastoma, a malignant incurable grade four brain cancer known as GBM. And so Nordland has written his final assignment, "Waiting for the Monsoon," a memoir about his career, that disease, and what's known as the second life, life after being diagnosed with a fatal disease.

Rod Nordland, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Thank you so much. It's so good to see you again.

How has this fatal disease, as you write, "become the best thing that ever happened to me"?

Rod Nordland, Author, "Waiting for the Monsoon": I mean, it just changed everything in my life.

It led to my reconciliation with my children and also to a lot of old friends. It just made me think about what was important in life. I'm having brain surgery again tomorrow for the third time since the beginning of my illness.

Nick Schifrin: Does that kind of thing scare you anymore?

Rod Nordland: I think one of the things I have learned in the course of my illness is how to be vulnerable and how to accept my vulnerability and admit it and cope with it, and not just deny it.

Nick Schifrin: The book, as I said, is not just a memoir of what we have been talking about, your illness, but it's also a memoir of your career and your life and your childhood, which you survived, if I could use that word.

You describe how your father beat you, beat your siblings with a belt, how he used to beat your mother, and he became a convicted child pedophile who died in prison. You describe this, that your childhood fueled your craft and your storytelling. How so?

Rod Nordland: My childhood gave me a lot of rage, and I went through a period where I was always in fights, a kind of violent street fighter.

Then I managed to grow out of that and realize I needed to take that -- the energy of that rage and redirect it into my work. I felt like it was kind of a duty, that I owed it to my mother, who had given me such strength and love, despite the brutality that she struggled to live through.

I was a war correspondent in many wars, but I never liked war, and the thing I liked least was the bang-bang. I never wanted to be on the front line in the bang-bang. What I wanted more was to talk to the victims of war, the women and children especially.

Nick Schifrin: The story that you turned into a book called "The Lovers" about two star-crossed Afghans named 18-year-old Zakia and 21-year-old Ali, and my colleague Jeffrey Brown talked to you a few years ago, and this is what you said about it.

Rod Nordland: I stepped over the line between being a journalist and being a participant, and I did that, and probably by the precepts of my profession, that was the wrong thing to do. Rules sometimes need to be broken, in the interest of doing what's right.

Nick Schifrin: How do you look back on that story today?

Rod Nordland: With a lot of pride, actually.

That story and that book, the end result were that that couple were rescued from Afghanistan, and our government brought them in under humanitarian parole. That was a real happy ending. We so seldom as journalists get to do stories with happy endings.

Nick Schifrin: When you started researching your disease, you realized that John McCain, Ted Kennedy, Beau Biden had all died from this.

And I went back to my old e-mails, Rod, that I had sent to you back in 2019. And I sent you a note. And you replied this: "I feel great physically. Went for a five-mile hike in some woods yesterday, pushed the pace until we were huffing and puffing, so I feel like my chances are good."

Describe the hope that you had and still have about your illness.

Rod Nordland: The median life expectancy on diagnosis with glioblastoma is 15 months, and I'm now 40 months out.

And I actually literally -- I mean, I joke that I have terminal cancer, but I feel healthier than I ever have. The tumor made me look at my -- the mistakes I had made in life and do things to correct them, and really did bring me a second life, which was a tremendous gift, an opportunity to fix whatever I had done wrong in the first life.

Nick Schifrin: You have got this scene at the beginning of the book. It's your 70th birthday. You're about to have brain surgery. Your ex-wife is there, from whom you would been estranged. Your children are there, from whom you have been estranged, with your new partner.

But you describe yourself as -- quote -- "feeling so happy." Try and explain that.

Rod Nordland: I had never felt so happy in my life, especially the closeness of my children and the new love in my life, my partner, Leila Segal, who's been with me since my first seizure in India and had stayed by my side when another person would -- a more sensible person would have moved on.

It's made both of us learn about the power of love and how to keep it alive in the worst of circumstances. And we really have been through some of the worst possible circumstances.

Nick Schifrin: The book's epigraph is a poem from Raymond Carver written as he was dying of lung cancer.

And it begins: "And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?"

Rod, do you feel like you have gotten what you wanted from this life, even so?

Rod Nordland: I did. And the rest of that fragment goes: "And what was it that you wanted? I wanted to know that I was beloved upon this earth."

Leila Segal, Partner of Rod Nordland: He's said to me many times that he's -- before this, he's never been unconditionally loved before, and the feeling of unconditional love brought him the kind of peace that he had never had.

You said that to me, didn't you?

Rod Nordland: Yes. Yes.

Really serious when I say I don't think I have ever felt happier in my life, and I have the tumor to thank for that. Even though it'll kill me, I will die a happy man.

Nick Schifrin: Rod Nordland. The book is "Waiting for the Monsoon."

Great to see you. Thank you so much.

Rod Nordland: Great to see you, Nick. Thank you very much.

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