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The Nicholas Effect
 
The Nicholas Effect

   

Chapter Six: What Was Nicholas Like?

We went home from the burial to a house that on the outside was just as it was when our vacation started three weeks earlier. It had then belonged to a family of four, statistically unrepresentative in some obvious ways-a mother of thirty-three and a father of sixty-five, for example-but quite normal for the rest: a boy of seven, a girl of four, a house with a large view and a larger mortgage, decent but not lavish furniture, two cars past their prime, books spread around, a fair-sized collection of popular and jazz CDs ranging from Peter Rabbit to the Beatles (but no later) and classics to Delius (but no later). All the rooms had a slightly untidy look as though whoever lived there couldn't remember where things belonged.

The boy had just moved into second grade, the girl was still in pre-school. The husband worked from an office in the house, and the wife did the books, fixed the computers, looked after the children, and helped keep the house untidy. They lived next to a golf course, overlooking the ocean. They didn't eat out much, rarely went to the movies, and none of them liked shopping. They all seemed to feel the house and the area around had all they needed for day-to-day living. They walked on the beaches and the nearby hills a lot, read a lot, talked a lot, and found plenty to argue about. When they broke out, they did so decisively. Every year for several years, generally in the fall, they had exchanged houses with people in Europe-Scotland, France, Switzerland-and at other times tacked days on to business trips to travel all over the western United States. The boy never learned there was any way to get to Colorado from California other than traveling twenty-four hours continuously in a station wagon. Now only three people were living in the house. An idyllic period was over, and a new phase was beginning, full of uncertainty.

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What was Nicholas like? It's important for me to get it right while the memory is still strong. There won't be any conversations between a father and a grown-up son to rekindle childhood incidents. Not that any two people ever remember things in the same way. ("That wasn't me, that was Eleanor.") But they are among the most satisfying parts of being a family, the intimacy of growing and changing together. Losing them is another casual sideswipe that death deals.

For one thing, he was like Maggie. Perhaps that's why I loved him so much. Straightforward, trusting, genuinely caring about others, and with a keen intelligence. He also had her mixture of good humor and gravitas: life, he seemed to feel, is a serious business but not solemn. On the way home from Italy, Maggie said, "You know, I never knew him to tell a lie." Neither did I, nor to do those sneaky things most of us do as children. I think his honesty was connected to his trusting nature: he felt the world was fair-minded enough not to punish him unduly for a genuine mistake. He also assumed everyone else was telling the truth. Nor did he seem to be good because he was afraid of the consequences. I mentioned this to Dererca, a friend who loved him. "He had a conscience," she said simply.

When the children in his school were asked to write what they remembered of him a few days after his death, they obviously reached for kindness. Even so, the unanimity of his peers is convincing. "He would play with kids when no one else would." "When you were upset, he'd make you laugh." "When a kid didn't know how to do something, he'd show him the way." One even said, "He never told a lie that I know of." And, perhaps most revealing of all, "He was nice to his sister." It's an epitaph a great man might envy.

David Tully-Smith, my doctor and the ablest I've ever had, told me he was struck by what he called the wisdom he saw in Nicholas when he was not much more than a year old. "It's remarkable that among the hundreds of patients I meet he should stand out so vividly almost ten years later. Most infants are inwardly focused, but he had a perceptiveness about the environment around him that was quite striking. He looked at me as if to say, `I see, you're the man in the white coat and this is what you do.' Then, having understood it at the level he needed to, he turned to look at something else." I know that reflective gaze. It's dangerously pretentious to say so, but even at that age he did strike you as being wise.

"He doesn't talk nonsense, does he?" my daughter-in-law, Shan, said of him when he was about three. It was true. He didn't babble, didn't say a string of silly things without knowing what they meant. He didn't repeat parrotlike something he'd been told, as I did when I was a child, getting the words mixed up and failing to grasp the idea behind them. When something was explained to him that was beyond his years, he seemed to shelve it until he was ready to absorb it. Months after I'd told him something without evoking any obvious reaction, I'd hear him say it with enough understanding to have made it his own.

From time to time, someone in Italy tried to call it "the Green effect." We always resisted. It's true, Nicholas knew nothing about organ donation and it was our decision, not his. But when you were with him, you wanted to be worthy of his expectations, and I feel quite sure the donation is what his expectations would have been. He stamped his personality on the news stories and brought a fragrance of himself to the dullest organ donation meeting. No one who watched Jamie Lee Curtis on the Oprah Winfrey show can easily forget how profoundly she was moved when she was shown a video of him for the first time. Three years after he died, a man stopped me in the San Francisco airport. "That boy of yours was really going to do some wonderful things, wasn't he?" he said. It took me by surprise, and I asked if he'd known Nicholas. "No," he said, "but I could tell from the things people said about him in the paper."

Nicholas felt things keenly, good and bad, and his summing up of a transient disappointment was routine: "This is the worst day of my life." I think I maligned him in my eulogy, however. The room he shared with Eleanor, now hers, is messier than ever. I now believe he was simply powerless in the face of her relentless untidiness.

Sometimes I'd go out to meet him at the bus stop as he came home from school. Generally late, I'd hurry along the road, trying to spot his head bobbing up and down over the tops of the bushes. At last I'd see him and we'd both quicken our pace. "Nicholas, do you know what happened to me today-?" "Daddy, during recess this morning, a boy-" He'd slip his hand into mine-he loved that contact with other people-and we'd return home full of the day's events. Normally, I'd go straight to the room that's become my office and shut the door, and he'd head for the television room. The whole meeting would have taken less than ten minutes, but it left a glow that lasted all afternoon.

Once, when he was four, I went on a trip to Texas. At the airport check-in on the way back, the security belt with the carry-on luggage suddenly stopped, bells rang, and lights flashed. There to my horror I saw the x-ray machine was highlighting, among my socks and underwear, the cowboy pistol I'd bought for $1.79 at Kmart. Two policemen arrived and corralled me into a corner. If they felt their reactions were overdone when they discovered the gun was a toy still wrapped in its plastic, they didn't show it. "This incident will be reported to the Federal Aviation Authority. Under section de da de da de da of the Enemies of the People (or some such) Act, taking a simulated weapon aboard an aircraft is punishable by a fine not exceeding $10,000." I went home in a state of depression. No cap gun was worth $10,001.79. But when I gave it to Nicholas the next morning, he banished all the clouds. "It's the best present I've had in years," he said.

He joined the Cub Scouts and loved those Tuesday evenings. He'd wear his uniform at school, and all afternoon after he came home he'd ask, "How long will it be till we go?" Just before seven, we'd walk over to Mr. Halloran's house, where the blue and yellow uniforms were converging. At six years old, he wasn't ashamed to hold my hand in front of his pals. An hour or so later, I'd walk back and pick him up. No, he hadn't caught anyone out at softball. And yes, he'd lost every arm wrestling contest. But he didn't seem to mind. He'd had a good time with people he liked.

He never really cared about winning. He could have stepped straight out of a boy's book of Edwardian England. Playing the game by the rules was what made him feel good. Lording it over an opponent degraded the spirit of the contest. I knew at the time those Tuesday walks were precious. Now they are touched with gold.

When Eleanor started to take dancing lessons, Nicholas opted to go too. Dressed in black tights and tap dancing shoes, he never looked the part to me. He was the only boy among mostly younger girls, but he didn't seem to find that odd and went about his business, falling over his feet and coming in off the beat. But this year, four boys were in that class. He was also taking piano lessons, again at his choice and again, I felt, without any special talent. The green shoots, however, were beginning. One night after he had gone to bed, I was listening, quietly I thought, to Chopin's Nocturnes. I turned and Nicholas was standing by my chair. "You know, Daddy, I might be playing like that one day." That, at least, is something death has allowed us to keep unsullied, a dream of Nicholas as Horowitz.

We talked about what he'd do when he grew up. For a long time, he had set his heart on becoming a truck driver for Safeway supermarkets, and he stared hard into their cabs as we passed them on the highway-did they know their jobs were in jeopardy?-but as time passed he'd decided he wanted to try everything. On my first job as a reporter, I had worked with the son of the sheriff of Nottingham. Nicholas showed more interest in journalism when I told him that than at any other time. But he was too young to catch the news bug, so we took to finding more meaningful jobs for him: pâté taster, spaghetti grower, captain of the trash boat in Venice. We discussed the problems they'd have, the tools they'd want, the training they'd need.

One night, two years after he died, I stopped for gas on the autostrada in Calabria. There, outside the toilet, a man was sitting at a table with a few coins in a saucer. In some parts of Europe after World War II, the attendant who depended on tips was a common sight. In the poorest places he (or generally, she) handed you your two sheets of toilet paper. What a memory to describe to today's children. For a flicker of time the old excitement bubbled up, and the words rushed into my mind, "Nicholas, Nicholas, I've got another job for you," then just as quickly went out again.

Similarly, when asked what he liked to learn, he'd say he wanted to know about everything. He found it all exciting: fairy tales, comic strips, poems, songs, children's encyclopedias, maps, everything. Fairy tales had always bothered me as a child: I could never understand why the hero, having been told never to look back or eat an apple offered by a kind old lady, fell at the first test. Waywardness of that sort forfeited my interest. But Nicholas listened with, I think, deeper understanding, seeing the underlying concept of human willpower pitted against deep unconscious forces.

From an early age he'd started to read books for himself, and every evening one of us would read to him also. "I'm bringing my bony bum over there to sit on your lap," he'd say, picking up the expression I'd used with him since he was tiny (Eleanor was "soft tush"). We were progressing well right up to the end: by then we'd read the Robin Hood tales in every version we could get our hands on, were getting on well with Robert Louis Stevenson, and were in the middle of The Swiss Family Robinson when we left for Switzerland.

But he was even more deeply touched by the C. S. Lewis Narnia books Maggie read to him when he was just six. Those books had what he loved most: the perilous conflict of good and bad in an imagined world. I can still feel, quite palpably, the intense silence that surrounded those bedtime readings. Maggie's voice low and serious, Nicholas almost fearing to breathe, an occasional shocked intake of breath at danger lurking and a long sigh of relief when it passed. If you could sum up a view of life in one set of books, I'd guess that for Nicholas this would have been it.

He loved the magic in life, and in Maggie found the perfect choreographer. He would inch toward his next role, and in her battered boxes they'd find ribbons and buttons and colored cloth that in a few hours would turn into tunics and shields and suits of Lincoln green. Both were hard to please. The breastplate had to have the red cross of England on it, the Mountie pants the yellow stripe. "It's not right," he'd say tearfully. "This hat looks dumb." "Well, it's the best I can do. Let's look at it in the morning and you may like it better." Another two hours of late-night stitching and cutting followed, and there would be a hat Richard the Lionheart would not have been ashamed to wear.

He thrilled to stories of honorable behavior, and I made a tape of the 1930s Errol Flynn movie The Charge of the Light Brigade, which had entranced me too as a boy. He saw it time and again, the quintessential battle of right (in tailored uniforms) against might (in ill-fitting tunics). Sometimes in another room I'd hear the preparations for the charge being made, and I'd drop what I was doing to sit on the sofa with him as yet again the wounded standard-bearer bravely held up the flag until another trooper swept alongside to keep it aloft. I'd just started picking out some of the easier classic verses to read to him, and after one of these television viewings I took Tennyson's poem from the bookshelf. The effect was enough to gladden a poet laureate's heart: his little body erect, and an imaginary steed under him, he rode undaunted into the jaws of death and the mouth of hell.

Maggie's sister, Isabel, remembered him like this in an article in the Los Angeles Times. "He organized and oversaw the games of childhood with authority, sweeping along the others in his powerful wake. Even my little Kathryn, ever strong and defiant, would willingly play Maid Marian to his Robin Hood." So too with music. My Frank Sinatra records have ruined many a dinner party. But they found a second home in Nicholas' heart. Quick to find the right costume, he'd appear dapper and cosmopolitan, hands resting lightly in his blazer pockets, for "I Love Paris" or in his Venetian sailor's peaked cap like an airline pilot for "Come Fly with Me." I bought the most booming recording of "The 1812 Overture" I could find so he could prance with Napoleon's cavalry outside Moscow and the Tsar's outside Paris, while Eleanor handed out flowers indiscriminately in both cities.

When he was only a few weeks old, we took him on his first hike, and he seemed happy to be on our backs as we climbed a steep mountain in mid-California. He came to many places after that and often it was just the two of us, going up slopes and over rocks I'd never have attempted with Maggie watching, and in the backpack or the car I talked to him long before he could reply. But a rapport grew up, and when he'd go to sleep as we journeyed on, I'd look forward to him waking up and continuing the one-sided conversation. Once speech did get started, however, it came strong and clear. One of his expressions was "Let's chat," and we often did. And so all the time I was teaching him about St. George and Robin Hood, he was teaching me about kindness and gentleness.

From an early age, he was good company. He looked around, taking things in and reacting to them. One evening, coming back through the woods in British Columbia when he was about four, we'd strayed from the trail, and up on my shoulders Nicholas realized it. I could feel the lack of confidence through that bony bum. At length, in deep twilight, I spied a light from the cottage where we were staying. What a relief. "Hey, little man, what can you see through the trees there?" He peered ahead. "A bear," he said, and there in shadows fifty feet ahead, sure enough, that's what he could see.

One night, I made up a bedtime story about a baby playing near a river that was rising swiftly. Nicholas and a friend were alerted to the danger but desperately late. As I talked, the bedroom was hushed, his breathing barely audible, until at last with the flood rushing toward them the heroes snatched up the baby. He breathed a long, happy sigh and put his slender arm around my neck in silent gratitude for having saved that baby. I think of it now as the first remembered example of the utter contentment Nicholas' love could bring.

By then he was walking part of the way on hikes, and we took on more and more-along the Continental Divide ("Shall we walk north toward Canada today, Nicholas, or south to Mexico? It's warmer in Mexico, remember"), through the snows of the Sierras, the long walk down from Gornergrat for the close-up view of the Matterhorn, solitary lakes in the Canadian Rockies. But ecstasy on even the best hike can fade fast and one of the treasures of memory is how by swinging Nicholas up on my shoulders I could instantly change dejection into happiness.

As he grew older and Eleanor joined us, something else was needed. I found it in telling stories. That's how Puffer was born, a locomotive who lived in Toys `R' Us in Santa Rosa and could shrink children to his size and fly them to adventures and dream lands. Most of these stories started wherever we were and were sparked by some incident on the trail. A hot sun would become a desert or a patch of snow an avalanche, and only the children, with Puffer's help, could rescue families in danger. Puffer was also a bit of a clown: he'd suggest climbing to the very pineapple of the mountain (he pinched other people's jokes freely) or confuse obstacles with popsicles. The thought of Nicholas, footsore and dispirited one minute, helpless with laughter the next, still makes me smile.

None of these tales would stand up to literary examination-when she was there I always walked well ahead of Maggie to avoid hearing her snorts of disbelief-but they were astonishingly successful. "Tell us a Puffer story," became the standard demand from both children on a hike of any length and we journeyed miles under his spell. His fame spread a little too. As we came to the end of the crowded trail from the Nevada Falls in Yosemite National Park, a Japanese hiker who had overtaken us on the way was waiting. "And how did Puffer get away from the witch?" he asked with a smile.

Largely unconsciously then, Nicholas was learning geography by being involved in it: about glaciers by touching them, about the tides by scrambling over the rocky seashore, about vegetation by crossing the timberline. He was absorbing history in much the same way. Traveling to Colorado, we'd often stop at dusk at a place where the Pony Express trail crosses the road. I liked to take Nicholas along the trail, looking at the lonely way heading straight for the distant purple hills and feeling the emptiness of the desert and a departed world. He guarded the Roman frontier against the Scots on Hadrian's Wall and scrambled over the walls of Fort McHenry, sometimes a British attacker, sometimes an American defender, because he understood there are good people on both sides of any dispute. He'd been to the American and British forts disputing the entrance to the Niagara River, felt the touch of Iona's civilizing society at the very tip of the Old World, and had the best sight of his life when he saw the Edinburgh castle and the railroad station in one view.

He startled one of the mothers when he got into the pool car one day and announced this was the anniversary of the eruption of Vesuvius. He didn't carry the date in his head: one of us had read it to him from the Today in History paragraph in the paper. Still, he thought it important enough to share with the other five-year-olds.

He was more interested in museums than almost anyone else I've ever known. On our last vacation in Switzerland, high up in the Alps, but fogged in and wet, he complained, "All you guys want to do is go for walks." "Well, what would you like to do?" asked Maggie. "Go to a museum," he said. We found one in Martigny, which was probably as close to perfection as he could have imagined: one part the contents of a Roman garrison, the other a collection of vintage cars. His favorite: the one with three windshield wipers.

I think of him as a Renaissance boy. So, when we went touring, it was rarely a problem to include art galleries or famous buildings. He didn't just tolerate them, he yearned for them. In Italy we could spend fifteen minutes looking at a painting like the Assumption of the Virgin or a crowded scene by Veronese. Why were some people looking happy and some sad? What was that dwarf doing there? What was the dog waiting for? He was awed by St. Mark's and laughed aloud at the trick paintings at Maser.

On what proved to be his last Halloween, he was a Royal Canadian Mountie, correct in every detail to the casual eye, except for the cowboy boots and his mother's hat. Eleanor was a rose, her slim body the stem, all green, and her face surrounded by a red homemade ruff. They were two of Maggie's finest creations. Waiting at the end of driveways, I'd hear at door after door, "Hey, Nora (or Jim), come and look at this. A real live Mountie and he's brought a beautiful flower with him." No wonder he trusted people. He looked for kindness in them and found it.

In his last few days in Switzerland, we had a visit from one of my old friends from England, Roy Atherton, who, knowing his audience, brought his box of conjuring tricks. As on previous occasions, Nicholas treated a coin coming out of Eleanor's ear as a miracle. "One of these days he'll want to know what deception Roy used to palm that coin," I thought, but for now his innocence made me want to hug him.

That was how he had always been. Planning a trip to Europe in a previous year, I showed the children a map of the route which went over the land where Santa Claus lived. "You should drop your notes out of the plane when we pass over so he'll be sure to get them," I suggested. "How can we do that?" Nicholas asked scornfully. "The windows don't open." I was ready for this. "Haven't you noticed that when you flush the toilet in an aircraft a flap opens? We'll wait until we're right over Greenland, go for a pee, and send the letters down." They wrote the notes and on our first visit to the toilet we had a dummy run. They were mightily impressed as the trial pieces of paper disappeared in an explosive swoosh. They were both asleep when we flew over Greenland and I pocketed the notes. Some time ago I found in a drawer the one Nicholas wrote, but I could scarcely bear to read it.

Maggie worried at times that the world might crush him. It's possible. No doubt his gentleness would have been tested. But I like to think he would have gone through life believing unswervingly in something-God, man, goodness-that would have given him the strength to stay the course. Certainly his total honesty would have protected him against ordinary corrosion. It was part of his DNA. When I remember him on his last night, as he settled contentedly into a sleep from which he never woke, he fits Dante's picture as if it had been written for him, "Pure and ready to mount to the stars."




Early one morning, a few weeks after the shooting, there was an unusual flurry of calls. We let the first two or three go to the answering machine. But clearly something was happening. Maggie picked up the next one and was told, "They've arrested two men for your son's murder. How do you feel about it?" How did we feel? A little sick, really. There was relief, certainly, that they had been caught and the process could move forward. The men who attacked us were terrorists, and I was in no doubt that I wanted to see them held accountable. There was satisfaction that the confidence the police had expressed, that whoever did this would not get away with it, had been justified. But there was dejection too, knowing that the cardboard figures were now real people with families who on that day were presumably saying to themselves despairingly, "Why did this have to happen?"

Chapter 7 omitted | "The Nicholas Effect Grows" |Chapter 8 | Back to Table of Contents


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