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The Nicholas Effect
 
The Nicholas Effect

   

Chapter Three: Death and a Decision

The next morning, we caught a bus to the hospital. There had been no change, no improvement, but no deterioration either. With a shock, we saw him through the glass of a special room, tubes and monitors all over his pale face. "You know, there are miracles," said the man who had been appointed to act as an interpreter. They wouldn't let us go in to him, however. He needed rest, they said. Maggie found this hard to take, and asked firmly but quietly to speak to someone who could give permission for her to sit with him. Nothing could be done that day, they told us. Perhaps tomorrow. The visit, far from easing our minds, had only made us feel worse.

The police were shocked to find we had come by bus. A high-level officer, told of our arrival at the hospital, rushed out there to say that as long as we were there a police car would be on twenty-four-hour-a-day duty to take us anywhere. We began to see we were not alone. We filled in forms-in Italian, but with everyone's help we managed-and were asked about his medical history. That was easy. He didn't have any. Until a few hours before, he was in perfect health. Now, even if he lived, his life was shattered.

Back at the hotel it was clear something had changed: there were police officers in the lobby, reporters and cameramen outside. First one journalist, then another, came up to express sorrow and ask for details. All seemed baffled by our account. "On the autostrada itself? A private car? You really were moving at the time, not stopped somewhere? Your child was with you in the car when you were attacked?"

By now the plainclothes police had arrived. They said they knew what we had been through and would wait as long as they could for us to feel better, but they must talk to us sometime to discuss the police report sent from Calabria. I told them I'd do it right away. They said I was very brave. I said-to myself, how could I explain to them?-that what was happening to that little boy was so overwhelmingly more important than anything else that nothing anyone could do could make it worse.

We went through the details again, with the help of a fluent interpreter, and they said things I remembered being asked when we made our statements the night before. Did I do business with anyone in Italy? One of my jobs was editing a newsletter. Did it ever cover Italian affairs? Did anyone know we were on that road last night? I became aware that, like the Calabrian police, these people could not comprehend an unprovoked attack on a small private car. They were groping for some other explanation. In the following days, this pattern of questions was repeated over and over: Was I sure I hadn't written about Italy? Did no one know of our movements? Had we gone into one of the cafés on the autostrada and shown our American money? I took a deep breath and asked, "Is this kind of incident rare?" The reaction was absolute. "In my entire experience, I have never known anything like this," the ranking detective replied. "Please ask again?" I said through the interpreter. "Have I understood you? Does this sort of thing happen from time to time?" "I know of no similar case to yours," the answer came back emphatically.

As a newspaper reporter, I'd learned people characteristically give at least two kinds of misleading answers to hard questions: first, the one they want you to believe about them and, second, the one they think you want to hear. In this case, there would be an obvious temptation for them to downplay the dangers and no one, I guessed, would willingly tell a grief-stricken father he should have known better. So I did what I would have done as a reporter. From then on, I asked every knowledgeable person I met if the road we took was dangerous: our police interpreters, the detectives who arrived from Rome, the doctors in the intensive care unit, journalists, businessmen, traveling salespeople. Every one of them seemed flabbergasted.

It's true, they said, this is a crime-ridden area. It's professional crime, however. Trucks are regularly hijacked, the merchandise disappears, but the truck drivers are not normally hurt. "It's a lucrative business: organized crime is not going to risk a public backlash by unnecessary violence," they explained. Still not content, I read everything I could in the newspapers with the help of our interpreters. The media know better than anyone what is unusual. This was a front-page story from the start, not in just the local papers, but the nationals too. Searching for a precedent, La Sicilia found nothing that came close. Its top-of-the-page headline on page one read, "Calabria Wild West."

Since then, I have driven on that section of the autostrada a score of times, day and night. Anyone traveling any distance on the west coast of Italy has to use it. In the end, the only theory the police took seriously was that our car was mistaken for one thought to be delivering a cargo of jewelry, a case of mistaken identity that raised what happened to Nicholas to a new level of tragic absurdity.

I had made another decision that night, to drive on when told to stop. Again I asked everyone what I should have done. Here the answers were more ambivalent. Many shrugged their shoulders: how can you tell? When pressed to say what they would do, almost all said, "I'd have done what you did." Clearly, however, their views were colored by wanting to shield me from self-reproach. So here I have been thrown back on my own thoughts.

Every moment of it remains perfectly vivid. The car coming up and puzzlingly keeping pace instead of overtaking, then the shock of those voices filling the night. What would have happened if we'd stopped? They might have taken everything we had and left us stranded: it would have been terrible at the time, but soon we'd have been over it and probably found something in it to laugh about. But what instead if they had been vicious? Once we stopped, we would be completely at their mercy. What happened from then on would be what they decided. They could be easygoing with us or brutal, but we would have no say. Michele Iannello, one of the men later accused of the killing, admitted to murdering four other people. Whoever fired the shots that night, it shows the kind of values we might have had to deal with. If, worst of all, we'd stopped after the first shot and together found Nicholas hit in the head, I find it hard to believe that men who hold life so cheaply would have left any witnesses.

Long before any arrests had been made, Tony, one of our many police interpreters, told me, "The people who did this are loners. They are probably on drugs. They are completely unpredictable. You may just say the wrong thing or they may think you'll recognize them again. Then they can do whatever they want with you." It's the kind of informed response that helped me, then and since. But, of course, it will trouble me to my dying day.

That night, a man called the hotel and falteringly said he was an American born in Italy on a visit to his birthplace. "We've been watching the television, Mr. Green. I'm so sorry, so very sorry. My wife and I can't sleep for thinking about you and your family." His voice choked into a sob. Deflated too, I forgot to make a proper note of his name. If he reads this, I want him to know how often I've thought of him: he was the first person who let me see that all over Italy people were praying for the little American boy to make it.

After that, however, the signs were unmistakable. When Eleanor looked out of our bedroom window, she was immediately photographed. A crowd of reporters followed when we went to the hospital. Almost always, they asked in such a restrained manner if we'd mind being interviewed that I could see what pitiful figures we had become. This turned out to be an important moment. We had the option of saying no, and I think everyone would have understood. From the start, however, we had taken the view that the more that came out about the story, the better it would be for everyone. If that road was dangerous, it should be known. If any of the details of our story helped catch the attackers, how could we hold back? Those interviews in the hospital parking lot, on the steps of the police station or in the crowded lobby of the Hotel Europa set the pattern for all that followed: it was the genesis of "the Nicholas effect."

So from the beginning, besides giving the press all the details of the attack we could remember, we dredged our memories to think of stories to tell about Nicholas, things he'd said, the books he liked, the songs he sang. A photographer asked if we had a photo of Nicholas with us. We didn't, but Maggie remembered we had taken some pictures in Switzerland which were still in the camera. "Can I take them, develop them, and bring you the negatives back?" he asked. He flashed a soiled ID which meant nothing to me. "You know how important they are to us," I said. I didn't need to labor the point: these were the last pictures we'd taken. We might never get another chance. "You can trust me, Mr. Green," he said with a quiet certainty. I fetched the undeveloped film. One of the police escort joined us. "Are you sure you want to do this?" he asked. "He knows how important they are," I replied. I squeezed the roll, as I might have squeezed a child's hand before he went off with a stranger, and handed it over.

Later that night, he came back with the negatives, half a dozen prints, and a handshake that said, "You see, I didn't let you down." That night too the photographs that accompanied Nicholas' story went around the world, putting a face and a personality on an otherwise anonymous tragedy. None of this added up to the complete Nicholas, of course, but it was a thumbnail sketch and it made readers and viewers feel they knew a little more about him, reminding them too of their own children. Nor was it all fanciful. We received scores of letters that spoke of the level gaze and quizzical smile, the gentle nature and honesty we knew so well.

In one of these curbside press conferences, we answered a few routine questions, then Maggie was asked something out of the blue that proved to be seminal. "What would you say to the men who shot your child?" True to herself, as always, she said, "When they see what they have done, I hope they will turn away from this kind of life." It was done with such simplicity and conviction that tears sprang to my eyes. The effect on the press was electrifying. I don't think I have ever seen a group of reporters so moved.

We were driven to the hospital where the news was what we'd been dreading. His condition had worsened during the night. His body was still strong, but his brain was beginning to give up the struggle. We took turns to sit with him for a few minutes while the other one stayed with Eleanor, but it was a grim business. In those days I had not yet become a U.S. citizen, and Richard Brown, the thoughtful and attentive British honorary consul, met us at the hotel. He was immediately thrown into translating questions from the press, who were out in greater force than ever, and we were asked again to go over every detail of the shooting as though some vital piece might have been left out.

While we were there, the hotel clerk approached softly, "There's a lady here who says she would like just to say something to you. She doesn't want to bother you, but she's been waiting quite a long time." I turned to see the tear-stained face of a beautiful, youthful woman and her young daughter. "I'm nobody," she said. "Just a mother. But I wanted to say how sorry we are, Mr. Green." I put my arms around her and we wept together. Then, still crying, she asked her daughter to hand me a stuffed animal and a huge box of chocolates for Eleanor. That was the first of a series of presents, dozens of hugs, and some thousands of shared tears over the next few days. The hallways of the hotel always seemed to be filled with people, some of whom just smiled sadly at us from a distance or shook hands without a word. The Profumo family, whose apartment we had planned to take over for our vacation, came in all the way from Palermo, not once but twice. They didn't speak English, they just wanted to sit with us. Italy was beginning to enfold us in its arms.

The end came dully. We were called to the hospital, and the chief neurologist said in a flat voice, "I have bad news. We can find no sign of brain activity." What does this mean? "He is brain dead." Is there any hope? "I don't believe there is any hope at all. However, we will do another test to be sure." A half hour or so passed while we sat and held hands in that sunny room, silent and oppressed. Then the result of the scan was brought in: there was still no activity. He had died, like one of his classical heroes, on the shores of the straits of Messina, and I knew I would never be really happy again.

A few more moments passed as we struggled to come to grips with what had happened. Then one of us-we don't remember which, though, knowing her, I'd guess Maggie-looked at the other and asked, "Now that he's gone, shouldn't we give his organs?" "Yes," said the other and that's all there was to it. We told the doctors and they explained the procedure, which seemed clear and simple. We signed the forms and left. It was the least difficult major decision either of us has ever had to make: the boy we knew was not in that body any more.

Italy, however, saw it differently and a second electric charge seemed to go through our still-growing band of press contacts. We had thought it was a purely private decision, but when we arrived back at the hotel from the hospital, the press already knew. Until then, the questions had been about the attack. Now, in public, organ donation dominated everything else.

Not in private, however. Early the next morning, one of the hotel staff pushed a telegram under the door. It was a message of condolence and offer of help from a charitable association in Italy with ties to the United States. The name caught at my heart: the Robin Hood Foundation. The words on the paper made official what last night's dreams had feared but shied away from. It was true after all. We had lost our own Robin Hood forever.

-

We switched on the television set in our little hotel room in Messina to find out if there was any news about the killing and saw a strange sight, hospital staff loading ice coolers onto ambulances. "It's Nicholas," said Maggie quietly, and so it was. His pure heart and the rest of his organs were going off into the night to bring relief to seven people and their families. It was another wrenching moment, but it wasn't horrifying. To us Nicholas was not a collection of organs, but what he had always been, a generous, loving, and intelligent boy, and now deeper inside us, in our hearts, our memories, in everything we do, than ever before. A day or two later, I even managed to say to Maggie, "I thought they were carrying the drinks for the hospital picnic." "So did I," she smiled. But even then we had no idea of the human results those little boxes would bring.

Within a few hours we received a message from the mayor of Rome, expressing his sympathy and gratitude. From this we learned the heart had gone to a Roman boy, Andrea Mongiardo, who had spent half his life in the hospital. At age fifteen he was scarcely bigger than Nicholas at seven. The liver was for Maria Pia Pedalà, a nineteen-year-old from Sicily, who was in her final coma when Nicholas died. "We'd given up on her," one of her doctors said when we met him later. "You really did save her life." The kidneys went to Anna Maria Di Ceglie, fourteen years old, a tiny bright-eyed vivacious girl, and Tino Motta, age ten, the youngest of the seven, a manly little boy, whose lives had been ruled by dialysis machines and whose families lived in a state of suppressed fear. "Think of something nice," the doctors said when Tino was wheeled into the operating room. "I am," he said. "I'm thinking of Nicholas." The pancreas cells went to Silvia Ciampi, from Rome, whose long fight with diabetes had ravaged her health and happiness. The corneas were for two Sicilians: Domenica Galletta, who had been waiting for five years for a transplant and had never seen her baby's face clearly, and Francesco Mondello, once a keen rugby player and father of a young active family, whose world was gradually darkening. That night, these people were still just statistics to us. But knowing what we do now of the agony they had gone through, it's clear to me that if we had made a different decision, nursed our grief and shrugged off their troubles as none of our concern, we could never have looked back without a deep sense of shame.

-

From the start, and quite instinctively, both Maggie and I wanted to minimize the horror of it for Eleanor, but not its seriousness. As it happened, we had little choice about the seriousness: she saw Nicholas through glass in a hospital bed, his face covered with tubes. The stream of people who came to the hotel all looked solemn or tearful. In visits to the hospital, even the tone of the clinical talk must have made its meaning clear.

At all times, whenever she asked, we tried to tell her exactly what was happening. "Is Nicholas going to die?" she asked once in a breaking voice. It was a question I'd been asking myself from the beginning, and I knew I had to answer it for her the way I was answering it for myself, "We don't know, dear. Those doctors we saw today are giving him all the help they can. And all those nurses are helping too. We must just keep hoping." I tried not to dramatize it or cling to her too closely, but I put my arm around her, hoping she wouldn't see my tears.

More and more visitors arrived-the police, political leaders, the media, sympathizers-a generous procession, but an additional source of confusion for her. Among them, however, was someone Maggie had asked the hospital to assign to us, a doctor who spoke English well enough to act as an interpreter, but who was fluent in medicine too. She turned out to be Alessandra Barraco, who had an understanding that inspired confidence from the start. Better still, she won over Eleanor as instantly as she had won us and when she suggested a trip to the beach, Eleanor beamed with pleasure. As it happened, they were away when Nicholas died, and we were glad to be on our own to take the blow.

When Eleanor came home that day, she jumped into Maggie's arms, but smiled happily at her memories of the swimming and ice cream and the games she played at Alessandra's apartment. We took her up to the room and sat on the bed with her and told her Nicholas had died. The happiness drained from her face. "Won't I ever see him again?" she asked quickly. "Nicholas is an angel now. He'll always be with us, all of us," Maggie told her. "He'll always love you and you'll always love him. You can think about him any time you want to." We went to the hospital and they asked if we would like to see him. "Can I come to say good-bye?" Eleanor asked. "I wonder if we should?" I said to Maggie. "It might frighten her." "You know, the unknown is so much more difficult to deal with than the known. I think she should come if she wants to," Maggie replied. I saw at once that she was right. It was a chilling experience, another blow to steel ourselves against, but now more than ever I'm sure it was the correct decision.

That afternoon, as the three of us huddled close together in the back of a police car, Eleanor asked in a barely audible voice, "Can I have another brother?" It pierced the heart. "I don't know," I told her. "It's too early to think about, but-" and a new thought formed-"but I do know we can have a kitten." It was something she and Nicholas had been talking about for months, but which I'd resisted because of the traveling we always seemed to be doing. Her eyes opened wide. "Can we? Oh, yes. What color is it? What's its name? What does it eat? Where will it sleep?" As we talked about this kitten and everything it would do, sunshine came back for a while into that little face that had gone through so much.

Back at the hotel was a message from the owner of the Syracusan, a large department store in Messina, offering to supply the clothes Nicholas would be buried in. She is known, appropriately, as Lady Syracusan for her good works and, with Eleanor helping, we found what we needed. So Nicholas is dressed for eternity in a blue blazer and slacks, just as he dressed at home when he wanted to look his best. There was no tie like the grown-up ones he wore, but there was one with Goofy on it and that seemed right too. On our final visit to the hospital, I slipped a 500 lira coin in his pocket so he could pay the ferryman to cross the River Styx, the final curtain of the game we'd been playing those past few months.

We gave away the clothes he'd taken on vacation to the Little Sisters of the Poor, where we met Mother Imelda, an Irish nun, bursting with vitality and high spirits, despite working with some of the poorest people in Sicily. Their home is next door to the Messina brewery and she pressed a beer on me, just about the first break from the bread and marmalade we'd lived on for three days. It somehow reminded me that life would go on.

The diversion with Alessandra was the only time I can remember one of us not being with Eleanor until we got back home: we felt we had to convey at all times a feeling of safety and love so that not a moment's doubt would come to her that she could depend on us. She was with us when we met the president and prime minister of Italy and the mayor of Rome. She was there for presentations and press conferences and speeches, quiet but receptive, as her memories later showed. A few weeks afterward, an acquaintance told me, "Your wife must have a very strong back. I've never seen a picture of her without your daughter in her arms."

That's Maggie's style. She listened attentively to all that was said to us from the first moments of the tragedy, through police statements and heartbreaking doctors' reports and affecting meetings with some of the most influential men in Italy. She was interviewed by the world's press, made a decision about Nicholas' body that was to influence millions of people, and said good-bye to her only son. But in that time she had never stopped thinking about Eleanor's needs. It's the daily miracle of motherhood.

-

Even at times of great turbulence, we all go on making decisions, both mundane and far-reaching. When death comes, there are other family members to inform, funeral arrangements to make. Mothers may have to find someone to drive the children to school, fathers change business schedules. You can be emptied by these preoccupations, but they have to be done. For the 15,000 American families every year with a loved one who suffers brain death, one of those decisions is whether to give the organs to someone else. For some it is an easy choice, for others heart-wrenching, but each year 5,000 families in lonely hospital rooms do decide in favor. Many more donate tissues-corneas, bone, skin, ligaments, and so on-which can be done in cases other than brain death.

Most of them, I suppose, feel much as we did. We would have done anything to have kept Nicholas alive. But he was no longer in a coma: he was dead. That beautiful body was of no further use to him, and nothing we did to it could hurt him in any way conceivable to us. It could still help others, however, and far from disfiguring him, that gift, like that of all donors, transformed his earthly self into a symbol of sharing life rather than hoarding it. As I went into the room to say good-bye, the first thing I saw on his pale face were his freckles. "I wish they could have used those," I thought.

Nor was it really a spur-of-the-moment decision. When I think back to what came to mind when I saw we had this option, I don't think of the shudder that went through me when I realized his calm regular breathing, which for a moment had seemed so hopeful, was dependent on a clever machine. Nor of the brain scans showing that his mind, once filled with brightly colored fancies and high ideals, was now quite empty.

I suppose you could say the choice had been made for me twenty years before he was born. It was then that Dr. Christiaan Barnard was conducting his tenuous operations on heart patients in South Africa. I remember talking about them to a doctor friend who was concerned that the sensational effect would divert attention from mass killers like cancer or tuberculosis. I thought the objection prosaic. "Those things are on a different level," I remember saying. "This is like going to the moon."

Although I can never remember discussing it with Maggie or paying anything more than casual attention to the subject over the intervening years, nothing changed my views either. Transplantation was a leap of the human spirit that transcended mere numbers. Death we know has a necessary purpose, replacing the old and infirm with fresh life. But in its clumsy way death gathers up spring flowers too. Transplantation meant we were no longer at the mercy of this arbitrariness. We had a say in the outcome.

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