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The Nicholas Effect


Chapter Eight: We Go Back to Italy

[A few months later we were in Italy again].

The biggest event of the morning was to be a meeting with the recipients-six of them, Andrea being still in the hospital with side effects from his heart transplant. We'd spoken on the telephone with one or two of them and been in a television linkup for a two-hour (!) prime-time Christmas program. But this was our first meeting and none of us knew what to expect.

Then, suddenly, they were there. One by one, they and their families came in and brought with them not one mood, but a whole palette. Some were shy, some ebullient, some restrained, some exuberant, some tearful, some beaming. Nothing perhaps could have demonstrated so clearly the explosive effects of transplantation. Domenica and Francesco could see properly again, Silvia was less dependent on her walking stick, Anna Maria and Tino were jumping about excitedly, and Maria Pia, dying four months earlier, was on the threshold of womanhood. We didn't speak the same language as the recipients, but we pumped hands, put our arms around them, kissed and were kissed, laughed and cried, were asked a flood of incomprehensible questions, and answered in kind. Nods and smiles and gestures did for words, and, across the language barrier, everything was clear.

Yes, they said, they all felt much better. Yes, they were enjoying life as they had not enjoyed it for years. Yes, their families could start living a normal life too. And, yes, yes, they loved Nicholas and would never forget him. We had expected mixed emotions from ourselves. But the relief in those faces overwhelmed the sadness.

As I looked at them I asked myself, "Did one little body do all this?" and, yes, it did. It had saved all those people from the devastation we have faced. Most families, I think, don't realize, as we didn't at the time, what a mighty gift they have in their hand when called on to make a decision about donation. Yet few people will ever have the chance to change the world as much as they can at that moment.

The theater was bursting with excitement. We were taken first into an enormous room full of children. I have never seen so many photographers in one small space. As they lined up in front of us, jostling for position, the flashes were like a summer's night exploding with fireflies.

The younger recipients had never seen anything remotely like it. "This is going to overwhelm them," I thought, "after all, these are people recovering from serious illness." I needn't have worried. They all took it in stride. Eleanor, too. A few weeks later I heard her saying to her dolls, "Look at me, click, look at me, click, click." These photographs made top-of-the-page stories around the world, deservedly, for in one image they captured a stunning victory of life over death. Often in those days people asked if I felt like a father to the recipients. It occurred to me to say "more like the Godfather." This was Sicily, however, and I resisted the impulse.

Then it was time for us to speak, and we did so to thunderous applause. Maggie mentioned that Nicholas had a set of U.S. cavalry soldiers and Indians that were so important to him he had taken them with him on vacation. They were in the car the night of the attack. They rarely fought each other, and when we had unpacked his things we found the two sides had been having a party and had exchanged clothes and weapons. I've often thought that, if Nicholas had been at the Battle of Little Bighorn, instead of General Custer, the history of the West might have been quite different. Maggie had lovingly put them all back in order, taking the bugles and gloves off the chiefs and the moccasins and headdresses off the soldiers. When she gave one to each of the recipients, they looked as though they had been handed a present from heaven.

A few days later we visited Maria Pia at her home, alongside the main railroad line to Palermo. In her room was a large photograph of Nicholas, next to which she puts a fresh flower every day. Guarding both was the little soldier. Trains thundered by night and day. To anyone unused to it, the sound was deafening. "Wouldn't Nicholas have loved this house?" Maggie whispered.

From the start, Maria Pia seemed to feel close to us. In the faces of her family, who clearly adored her, we could see the strain her illness had put on them. Now a load had been lifted and, though still unable to let go of worry, they reflected the relief of people coming back from the very edge of a calamity. Before we left, she gave me a pen. "It's so you can go on writing beautiful things about Nicholas," she said.

From there, we visited Tino at his school in Syracuse, where he was jumping around, singing, dancing, having to be warned not to overdo it. He was the class comic, we were told, though a comic who had been wasting away before his kidney transplant. We met his mother and aunt and his concerned teacher too, gracious ladies, but with the careworn faces we were beginning to expect. I sat down at the next desk to Tino, feeling a little like a father on prize-giving day. I thought of all the games he'd play and all the gags he'd pull and, remembering a desk in another schoolroom, I felt my eyes fill with tears. I looked at him and saw tears in his eyes too. At this tender age, he'd understood. I put my arms round his shoulders and hugged him.

Chapter 9 omitted | Chapter 10 | Back to Table of Contents

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