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The Nicholas Effect
 
The Nicholas Effect

   

The Nicholas Effect

Chapter Four: A Nation Grieves

Although we know much more now than we did then about the low rates of organ and tissue donation in Italy, we are still astonished by the effect of our decision. It seemed to take the whole country by storm. When we got back to the hotel on the afternoon of our last day in Messina, the desk clerk had a sheaf of messages in his hand from people all over Italy.

The president's office had called to ask if we had time (!) to receive a medal before we went home. The prime minister had suggested a meeting. The mayor of Rome wanted to make a presentation and asked if we could think of something Nicholas would have liked. The clerk reeled off the invitations, one by one. "We don't know how we can do any of these. We're flying home tomorrow morning," we told him. He shrugged his shoulders in a "you know best" gesture. If we couldn't meet Italy's leaders, that was our affair. But at the last message, he paused and said firmly, "But this one, Mr. Green, you really must accept. It's for tonight and it's from the most important talk show host in Italy."

In the end, we said yes to everything and crossed our fingers. Keeping these appointments meant catching a plane from Catania on an excruciatingly tight schedule, and we still had to pack our clothes-characteristically, spread in every corner of the hotel room-telephone the police to let them know we wanted to leave at once, and check out of the hotel. Ten minutes later, we were ready. As we stepped outside, a police car drew up. "Don't worry," said the codriver as I handed him a paper on which I'd written the time of the plane. I'd used the twenty-four-hour clock system so there'd be no confusion. "16.40 hours. We'll get you there." I knew they would. They breathed an air of relaxed self-confidence. Still, it was a hairy ride. We shot past everything on the road, lights flashing, warning siren going. At the edge of Catania, another police car was waiting to guide us through the tumultuous city center.

At that point our codriver, who had been on the telephone with the airport, handed back my note and asked, "16.40?" I checked my notes and got a sinking feeling. 16.10, not 16.40. I hung my head in shame. "Oh, you turkey," said Maggie softly. The codriver said something even more quietly to the driver, and the car, already traveling at its limit, suddenly went even faster. Neither man uttered a word of reproach. By now we were racing through the heart of Catania, the wrong way down one-way streets, careering round corners, continuously sounding the familiar "Mommy, mommy" siren. Since that day, Steve McQueen's chase through San Francisco has looked like child's play. On and on we hurtled, the minutes dragging by, and since it was now already 16.10, Toad's Wild Ride was clearly a lost cause. At last we turned into the airport and there already on the runway was the 16.10 plane to Rome. We had missed it, and there was no other flight that would get us there in time. "I'm sorry," I said to our policemen. "It was my fault." "Oh, don't worry about it," one of them said. "They're bringing it back for you." And they did. As we watched, that big aircraft turned back and trundled to where we were waiting. Handshakes all round. Smiles on sad faces, "Good luck, lady. Good luck, mister. Good-bye, little miss," and we were climbing a temporary staircase that had been dragged out to the plane. As we entered the cabin and shrank shamefaced into our seats, the passengers broke into applause, warm and prolonged.

In Rome, we were ushered off the plane first and into the arms of the staff of the mayor of Rome. All six misshapen pieces of luggage magically appeared, and the Alitalia agent thrust first-class tickets into our hands for the next day's flight home. Radio and press reporters were there in force, the mayor's staff in silent agony at the hold-up. But being silent isn't the best way to deal with journalists, so I added to their misery by not only answering questions, but also placing a call to the Rome correspondent of the New York Times, Alan Cowell, who had called just as we left Messina. At last, however, we were on the way, the police escort slicing through the dense traffic. At city hall, Francesco Rutelli, the charismatic mayor, met us explaining that because we were due at the television station, time was pressing. "But at least," he said, "I can show you the most beautiful balcony in Rome." And there it was, an aerial view over the classical ruins that less than a week earlier the four of us had wandered around so happily. We could even see the fountain where Nicholas, his face running with perspiration, had drunk three cups of what we told him was Julius Caesar's private water supply. It seemed an age away.

We were taken into a large room filled with officials and the press. Mr. Rutelli gave a speech, short but moving, with the sort of restraint I came to recognize in our dealings with Italians at all levels, and gave us what we had said on the telephone Nicholas would have wanted most, a medal from Rome. It was beautiful, large and gold and breathing tradition. It was easy to respond. I said what I knew to be true, that Nicholas would have regarded it as his finest possession. There occurred to me also a phrase from Roman history that people all over the civilized world once said proudly, "Civis Romanus sum. I am a citizen of Rome." Now, I said, it applied to Nicholas. He would have liked that.

Before leaving, we were taken into the council chamber, a magnificent hall where the elected officials, filling the benches, stood and applauded on all sides. For a moment we had united the city government of Rome-and that probably does count as a miracle. Outside, a crowd of people standing in the rain applauded as we got into the car. It was becoming clearer by the minute that something very big was happening.

-

The Maurizio Costanzo show, broadcast nightly, is less of a television program than an institution. "Everybody watches it, everybody," everybody told us. We had reason later on to believe them. The interviews are held on the stage of a theater in front of a large audience. Having traveled without a moment's break, we were still in the clothes we were wearing for the walk we'd planned to the harbor wall at Messina. The mayor and council, and even the chauffeur, had courteously let pass Maggie's most shapeless dress and my worn sandals and even more worn bare feet. But this was national television and in fashion-conscious Italy too. However, there still was no time to spare and, introduced by a cheery tune on an organ from a musician dressed in a white suit, the host himself was seating us, the audience was standing, and twenty minutes of sympathetic but careful questions began. "You have given us a lesson in civility," he said at one point. Several times I noticed tears in his eyes.

Some days later in a newspaper article, he said he couldn't get us out of his mind. In many years of television, he wrote, he had never seen anything like it. It apparently affected audiences the same way. Three years afterward, we received a letter from Turin which said, "I will never forget the evening when you were invited at the Maurizio Costanzo show. Everyone present standed up when the three of you appeared. I was in front of the TV and I could not stop my tears." At the end of the show, we were asked to give an impromptu press conference, crammed into one of the dressing rooms. Show business reporters are hardened against the shallow emotions they come across daily, but as we told our story again I saw the tears welling up and the sniffles to hide them.

We were whisked to the Inter-Continental Hotel, where the hotel manager had come back from his home to show us to a suite of such dimensions that we had to shout to make ourselves heard across its spaces. The bathrooms looked as big as many of the hotel rooms we've stayed in. There were baskets of fruit and flowers. A huge patio looked across the roofs of Rome to a distant view of St. Peter's. In the plush dining room, we ate a late dinner, Eleanor curled up asleep on the thick carpet under the table.

To save carrying all our Swiss mountain clothes to Sicily, we'd left some pieces of luggage at the small hotel where we'd stayed on our way through Rome a few days earlier. I'd planned to collect them, but yielding to the pleas of so many people to "please let us do something for you," I asked someone to pick them up. As we went back into our hotel room after dinner, I glanced back along the long luxurious corridor, which until then had never seen anything less than a Gucci or an Armani, and saw the hotel porter, with an expression of distaste, carrying two overfilled backpacks that kept falling off their frames.

-

Knowing I couldn't sleep, I decided to go for a walk, drawn by the idea of visiting the sights we had planned to see on our vacation. It was a beautiful night, warm and increasingly calm as midnight passed into the small hours. I experienced a feeling I know well, wandering without a plan through a big city and coming across some of the world's masterpieces unexpectedly, though now with a leaden reminder at each one that Nicholas would never see any of them.

-

The next morning, the American ambassador, Reginald Bartholomew, came to the hotel and took us to meet the Italian president, Luigi Scalfaro, at the Quirinale Palace, once the home of the popes, then the kings of Italy, now the president. As we drove by the colorful operatic uniforms and the saluting soldiers, all three of us had the same thought, "Wouldn't Nicholas have loved this?" We were shown the high-ceilinged rooms, the priceless tapestries, the longest corridor in Europe. But all this splendor turned out to be less memorable than the kindness and courtliness of the man we had come to see. In a simple ceremony, he presented us with the president's gold medal. "I am a father too," he told us. "You must be brave." The president's medal is a glorious ornament-given usually, we were told, only to heads of state, and even then not always in the gold version. "The king of Spain got one," someone said. "You're in good company." We talked with Mr. Scalfaro for a while and, as we got up to go, I said something about dealing with the pain. "Let me tell you a story," he said. "A long time ago, an Italian man married a young woman he loved dearly. In time she had the child they both wanted, a lovely daughter. But the mother died. The man is now quite old, but he still thinks of her and the love they had. He never married again. That man is me." "I knew you understood," said Maggie quietly. It was like visiting a wise and loving member of the family.

We were taken to the office of the prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, a controversial figure in Italian politics, but to us a model of simple compassion. There were no reporters, no camerapeople, no breast-beating or lamentation. This was a private visit. He talked gently in fluent English. "He rarely does that," we were told afterward. "He prides himself on his command of Italian and doesn't like to miss the subtleties when he speaks in a foreign language. He was obviously very moved." He walked down the stairs with us and into a courtyard where a car was waiting, said good-bye to Maggie and Eleanor, and turned to me. "May I embrace you?" he asked. "Of course," I said, impressed again by the correctness of everyone's behavior. But as he put his face to mine, I felt a tear run down his cheek and realized that all this time he had held his emotions in check so as not to upset us.

In Messina and again at the Rome airport, the weight of the state had been brought into play to change our flight reservations so we could go home as soon as our appointments were over. This effort turned out to have been unnecessary. The president offered instead to have us flown home in one of his military jets. This changed our procession, formerly one police car ahead, one behind, into a cavalcade. Led by a godlike figure on a motorcycle, graceful and commanding, our fleet of cars sped across Rome, lights flashing, horns blaring, and the little stick with the circle on it that police cars use to ward off other cars-the American ambassador calls it "the magic wand"-repelling anyone who threatened to get in the way. All along the route, policemen jumped to hold back the traffic. We drove round the Piazza Barberini without one other car to share it with. "I'll never see it like this again," I thought. At every street leading into the square we could see the traffic backed up. You could almost feel the pent-up fury. But the god ahead cut his way past all this human debris, dragging us along behind him.

At the military airfield, we clambered aboard the plane and found the three of us were outnumbered by the crew. A meal, simple but elegant, was already prepared, and there was a choice of wines. We had the cabin to ourselves, the two stewards out of sight in their own quarters. There was space to lie down and move around and watch from the windows on both sides. The military markings on the wings were a thrill. "If only Nicholas could have seen this," we said again. At Gander in Newfoundland, where we refueled, I telephoned home. Dee Wickham, my secretary, who had handled everything at her end single-handedly, said a large press contingent was planning to meet the plane at the airport. The phone had never stopped ringing. As we approached San Francisco, we ran into a huge storm, sheets of rain and high winds. "It must be Zeus," smiled Maggie sadly. "He knows it's a big occasion."

The crowded press conference at an uncomfortably late hour for deadlines didn't add much information, but it confirmed this was not just an Italian but a worldwide story. We were asked again how we felt about the killers. "I know this sounds strange, but the men who did this are probably shocked," Maggie replied. "I hope they get caught, but I hope it changes their lives." The Italian consul general in San Francisco, Giulio Prigioni, and his wife, Esther, were there. The assistant of a Hollywood movie producer introduced herself and said she'd be in touch, and we said no to a request for an exclusive interview with a talk show. Then Dee drove us home to Bodega Bay with a rapid fire of details about the arrangements she'd been making: the funeral, press calls, movie company calls, letters from all over the country. She had risen to the occasion nobly, as I'd expected. We took a deep breath and went in the house. This, we thought, was going to be one of the worst ordeals, all those memories underlining the emptiness. Surprisingly, it wasn't that way. The kitchen was filled with food and flowers, cider was being kept warm in an urn someone had brought, the whole house was warm and welcoming. It was the first example of the well-thought-out help the people of our little town have given us from that day to this.

Maggie took Eleanor into the bedroom she had shared with Nicholas, undressed her, put her to bed, and kissed her good night. She went to sleep without a murmur. Maggie avoided looking at the other bed where a tousled head usually lay. It was a wrenching moment. But we were learning something: Eleanor had made a crucial step on the path she would take to deal with a blow that could have crushed her. She wasn't afraid. She was the spunky little person we'd always known, and the next day she went to pre-school as usual.

That day too Nicholas' body was flown home in a second presidential plane, in a manner befitting a national hero and the sensibilities of a proud nation. The plane arrived in the middle of the night, and in the silence of San Francisco's almost deserted airport, the guard, who had traveled all the way with him, performed the full ceremony to which military tradition, and a small boy's dreams of honor, entitled him.

A hurricane of meetings, arrangements, and media interviews followed. All three major network morning talk shows came to the house on our second day home and, after that, the television magazine programs. A procession of reporters, photographers, and feature writers came too. The telephone rang incessantly, with calls from friends and strangers, and Dee's "things to do" notices, which already covered the office walls, began taking over the kitchen.

Every day, the mail brought stacks of letters. It threatened to overwhelm us, but I can't remember ever wanting to damp it down. Quite the reverse: if, as seemed likely, we'd been handed a life's work and if people were that interested, it seemed clear we had to expand our efforts, not contract them.

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