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Chapter Five: Funeral in a Country Churchyard

St. Teresa of Avila's in Bodega, four miles inland from Bodega Bay, is famous in our part of the world. Built in 1860, its first parishioners were mainly immigrant Irish farmers, soon followed by Italians. It has been beautifully photographed by Ansel Adams, a shapely splash of white among the green rolling hills. Maggie and I are not Catholic, but when Nicholas died, we each thought independently how much we would like him to be buried in the cemetery there. While we were still in Rome, we had asked if it was possible. The church's reply was immediate: "Of course." I remember the relief I felt. It was something to hold on to at a terrible time, a vision of soothing visits on quiet afternoons.

Now it was time to attend to the details. Father Dan Whelton, who arranged to meet us at the cemetery, is the very spirit of an Irish priest, warm, generous, and studious too, who spent several years in Rome and is visibly pained by man's cruelty to man. He was with Tom Chapman, a kind and gentle man, who at that time looked after the graveyard and had steadfastly refused to raise the price for gravesites set decades before. We chose a site almost at the top of the hill, in a section where almost all the names are Italian, the Gonnella and Maretti families, Mazzonis and Ponzas, Piazzas and Mantuas. I thought of Nicholas dwelling on a little Italian street among friendly neighbors.

Our own neighbors in Bodega Bay took the rest of the work out of our hands. As All around town, homemakers chopped, buttered, and baked, and every restaurant donated one of its special dishes. For the next two weeks, neighbors took turns to make us a hot dinner every night, some with a bottle of wine or a rose in a vase, and all brought to the door without the slightest fuss.


Saturday, October 8, was one of those exquisite fall days on the California coast, blue and gold and green. By the ocean, the wind blew and the flag at the clubhouse crackled at half staff, and I smiled at this final tribute to Nicholas' staunch heart. But inland all was calm. Entry to the church was restricted because of the large numbers wanting to be there, the Sonoma County police volunteered to direct traffic without pay, and the road from Bodega village to the graveyard was lined with cars.

Many people had helped with the funeral arrangements, but we wanted the service to be ours. "Is there anything special you'd like?" Maggie had asked on our last night in Rome. As she said it, I remembered something vividly from my own childhood. It was a song called "Sonny Boy," about a small boy dying and his father's broken heart. My father had a scratchy record of it, by Al Jolson, and was always saddened by it. I have a memory as a six-year-old of putting my arms around his shoulders as he sat in a chair and telling him not to worry, I wasn't going to die, not for a long, long time. "We should ask my grandmother to sing it," Maggie said, without hesitation. We telephoned when we got back home, and Thelma found the music. "It's perfect," she said. But, although she has spent a lifetime performing and teaching singing, she added, "I couldn't sing it in church. I'd never get through it." Instead she recorded it and we played the tape, her strong maternal voice filling that old building.

"But the angels, they grew lonely
And they took you because they were lonely
And now I'm lonely, too, sonny boy."

For a moment four generations of our family came together as one. Loretta Smith, Nicholas' teacher in kindergarten and first grade, whom he adored, gave the eulogy. "Nicholas was the most giving child I have ever met," she said. "He was very wise, and he taught me about love and patience and caring. He stood out as someone so well adjusted, so confident, and so full of love that he could afford to be giving. I always knew he was my teacher." "Mine too," I thought. "But I had no idea," she went on, "that this smiling little boy who walked into my class every morning would be a teacher to millions."

As the solemn service went on, Eleanor dabbed Maggie's eyes with the Sally Rabbit she had brought as her own comforter. It was photographed, and the world responded to the heartrending purity of it all. "I can never forget the picture of your little daughter," said a stranger from Chicago, one of dozens who wrote later. "That this little girl had the power to deal with her own grief and still be able to console her mother moved me beyond belief."

We walked the few hundred yards from the church, led by bagpipes played by Maggie's stepfather, Richard Sheridan, a former captain in the Marines. The sound filled the narrow valley, adding something from my own traditions. A few months before I'd read Kidnapped to Nicholas. Night after night we followed Stevenson's young hero, as principled and truthful as Nicholas was, and as brave as he wanted to be, dodging his way across the Scottish Highlands. What pleasures I'd looked forward to then as Nicholas grew in body and mind. Now, as we walked up the final hill, I heard on the bagpipes a tune that has conjured up poignant visions for me since childhood.

"The minstrel boy to the war is gone.
In the ranks of the dead you will find him."

The brief, choking ceremony at the graveside over, the local children watched in a mixture of awe and curiosity as the casket was lowered deeper and deeper into the ground, farther and farther from those he was leaving behind. It was a dreadful moment. Would it ever stop? I asked Eleanor to wave good-bye and we both did, for the very last time.

We drove to the reception, where Andy Harris, the father of Luis, a special friend of Nicholas, read a poem he'd just written, recalling how they never knew in what role Nicholas would lead the game that day, centurion or Mercury or a general on a silver saddle, but they could count infallibly on what he wanted to eat:

"Always spaghetti, spaghetti please,
No sauce, no sauce, just Parmesan cheese."

Susan, the preschool teacher, told how one day he'd put on the sailor's peaked cap we'd bought in Venice, announced that he was a taxi driver, and offered to drive the other kids to the best restaurant in Paris. Even in death he was kind: the Paris he knew was covered on foot, searching for cheap restaurants.

Then it was my turn and this is what I said:

"He was a liability to any sports team he was on: he couldn't throw a ball, he couldn't catch a ball, and he was always falling over his own feet. He was one of the most finicky eaters I've ever met. And his room was a mess. But in his short life he was Robin Hood, George Washington, and St. George of England. In the Colosseum he was both a Christian and a lion. At his seventh birthday party a few weeks ago, he was Robinson Crusoe: prophetically, perhaps, because it was Daniel Defoe who said `the good die early.'

"He had traveled so far that the airline still owes him a free trip to Europe. He won two gold medals in Rome, has had trees planted in his name, and will have parks named for him. He has already helped save the lives of other children and indirectly perhaps many more in the future. He could have lived to a hundred and done less. He has also struck a spark of love in the hearts of millions of parents and children around the world. If this isn't immortality, it must surely come close.

"But now, little boy, although your radiance is still with us, it's time for you to sleep. From all of us, good night and sweet dreams."

“The Nicholas Effect,” can now be ordered here for $9.90 plus shipping and handling. Discounts apply for quantity orders and for non-profit organizations. For details about these orders please call 888 280 7715. It is also available through online bookstores, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders. For those orders purchasers should specify the 15th anniversary edition.

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