The time has come to admit defeat. If I live to be 120, I will never be able to respond to all of you who sent me good wishes for a speedy recovery, and I might as well give up trying.

Let me explain. By the time I had returned to consciousness after my heart operation, your cards and letters had begun to arrive. I was in no shape to read them, but my wife used to read them to me.

"Here's one from your cronies in the weekly poker game," she said one day. "They say they dealt you in and they're mailing you your cards. It takes jacks or better to open, and they want to know if you're opening." Enclosed were the six, seven, eight, nine and ten of spades.

Each night she would take the letters back to her hotel and acknowledge as many of them as she could. When they took the plumbing and tubing out of me and let me sit up, I began answering letters, too.

However, it quickly developed that there are a half million of you and only one of me, and that the stack of unanswered letters wasn't being whittled down; it was getting bigger each day. More were coming in than I ws answering.

What finally brought me to my knees was the influx of mail that began on Dec. 1, as our fund appeal for Children's Hospital got under way. About 80 per cent of the people who were sending in checks for the children were accompanying them with wonderfully warm messages for me. "We prayed for you," many of them said. "We were so happy when we heard you had come through surgery safely." A man simply must respond to that kind of mail, mustn't he?

Yes, a man must. But it grieves me to admit to you that I cannot. I hope you will understand and forgive me.

A formal tally of current receipts in our Children's Hospital campaign will be published tomorrow. Meantime, let me give you a sampling of the varied types of letters that arrive during these drives. Today's mail includes:

1. A check for $20 from a retired man who wants me to add his contribution to those of the FAA Flgith Standards group when it reports in. This can't be done, and I must write to explain to him that all contributions must be reported accurately and to the penny. Otherwise the people in each office who know the correct amount would be saying, "Oh, those newspaper fellows never get anything right."

2. A check for $5 from a man who repairs mailboxes for his neighbors in exchange for contributions to Children's Hospital.

3. A check for $50 from a woman who writes, "Please don't retire until you absolutely must.My husband retired two years ago and it was a huge mistake." I will keep the advice in mind, but I do hope I am not foolish enough to wait until they have to carry me out.

4. A check for $50 from a woman who writes, "I have won the football pool three times this season and I don't even know the name of the shortstop who caught Joe Theismann's home run pass last Sunday."

5. A check for $10 from a man who wants an acknowledgement of the gift sent to his healthy 7-year-old nephew - for educational purposes.

6. A check for $9.50 from a woman who saved pennies all year. "Children's Hospital saved the life of my husband's brother when he was a baby," she explains.

7. A check for $50 from a woman who is sorry she never had any children of her own.

8. A check for $6 from a woman who, when she moved into her new house, was assigned a phone number that Redskin coach George Allen had to get rid of because too many people were calling him. When the woman complained that she was getting Allen's calls, the telephone company immediately gave her a new number - and charged her $6 for the change. She asked me to intercede for her. I did. Children's Hospital gets the $6 refund.

9. A check for $10 from a man who came through open-heart surgery at NIH with flying colors and writes a three-page letter in glowing praise of his surgeon, Dr. Andrew G. Morrow.

10. A check for $5 from a man who writes, "I am disappointed that you had such high praise for your surgeon at New York University Hospital but didn't give his name. Didn't you think the surgeon's identity was an integral part of your story?"

Frankly, yes. But I was afraid that identifying my surgeon might embarrass him. However, I will say this much: If you happened to watch the MacNeil/Lehrer report on Channel 26 Friday night and were impressed with Dr. Frank Cole Spencer of NYU, you have excellent judgment.