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The Nicholas Effect

   

Chapter Ten: Letters from Around the World

We're all so used to complaining about illiteracy that the quality of the letters we received was a revelation. Many start by saying they can't find the words for what they feel, then say it with the simple eloquence that comes only from the heart. They filled boxes and boxes. They came from old and young, scholars and high school dropouts, right- and left-thinkers. Christians and Jews, Buddhists and Hindus spoke of Nicholas' story as a spiritual experience. Agnostics rejoiced in its humanity. Surgeons applauded it as an example to others. Recipients wept and cheered in the same sentence. We heard from presidential palaces and jails, American Legion posts and nunneries, pediatric wards and hospices, business leaders and labor unions. All seemed to be reaching to find the core of their beliefs and pass it on to comfort us. It was hard to believe these letters came out of a decision that had seemed so obvious to us. But as they arrived, day by day, their unwavering intensity told us we were part of something profound.

"My heart is breaking for you," said Gene Agan, with whom I'd enjoyed years of rollicking friendship untinged by any hint of solemnity. "It made me want to let go of my usual sense of privacy and share our family's story with you," one letter from a stranger said. A letter from Italy opened like this, "Who is writing is a boy, a university student, who is 22 years old-I am still today not able to forget what happened to you. I don't want to forget it-I feel as if I were directly involved." An American monk wrote, "I want to thank you for the inspiration, encouragement, and hope you have afforded me." Many letters were from parents, some who had lost children, some whose children had been saved from severe illness, some who had no tragic experience at all and said they couldn't imagine the anguish of such a loss. People seemed to have made a conscious effort to bare their souls so their attempt to soothe us would be more effective.

Many spoke of a mysterious transformation of sorrow into strength, darkness into light. "I will always remember you as people who interrupted an old pattern and began a new one," someone wrote. When I heard Ronald Reagan's decision to make public the onset of his Alzheimer's disease, I wrote to him, admiring his honest courage. He replied in what seems like an unforced personal statement, "Although there are no words to ease your sorrow, I want you to know that you are in my prayers. Hopefully you will gain comfort in knowing that he is safe now in the arms of God." He added that our sympathy was making it easier for him to face whatever lay ahead. President Clinton kindly wrote on behalf of himself and the First Lady, and my notes show that when we replied Eleanor insisted that we tell them she now had a kitten.

Eternity was in many of these letters. "I will never forget Nicholas," said a father from Sausalito, California. An American mother living in Italy said she had learned that "a single unselfish act can change the world." A Roman spoke of the classical virtues, "Thank you for bringing back those ancient feelings." Nicholas would have purred. Most of the people breaking down the barriers were strangers. But many too were friends, familiarity with whom has always made anything but routine praise out of the question. Words that would normally have been laughed off in embarrassment instead took old relationships to a deeper level. "Mythical," wrote Maggie's Aunt Carol. "Biblical," said John Adams who, reared in Fleet Street like me, would normally have cringed if I'd ever tried to pay him anything other than the most trivial compliment.

Some elderly people obviously wanted to say something before it was too late, like a lady from Genoa who wrote affectionately. A few months later, the receptionist at the old people's home where she lived wrote to say she had died, but that writing to Nicholas' parents had warmed her last weeks. "I have never written friendly correspondence to people I do not know," one Californian wrote. "I have never made gifts for people I do not know. I have never done anything like this before. When I said you had inspired me, I meant it."

I'm struck by how well those early letters seemed to understand Nicholas, having only our words to go on and a few snapshots we almost didn't take. They seemed to understand us too, why we did it, what we were thinking. The strength of the response, however, was a daily surprise. People often contacted us long after the event, saying they had wanted to write before, but were afraid of saying something inadequate. "Even now the words don't come any easier," one letter read, "but know that you have given me faith in humankind and hope for a gentler world." It isn't possible to read these letters without the sense of a momentous event having taken place. A Bostonian I've always admired wrote, "I am sure Nicholas is in the company of the innocents, and among them he must also walk with pride in the knowledge that his death was an extension of hope for others rather than a vengeful quest." A phone message came from Sydney: "All Australia pours its heart out to you."

"Are they talking about us?" we kept asking ourselves.

Deborah, twenty-three years old, wrote from Bologna, "I got a friend who was died: his name was Roland. Nicholas had remembered me my Roland. You have a lesson of love and I don't forget Nicholas." Someone I had worked with, but never really knew, opened her heart about her eight-year-old daughter: "I hold Kate a little tighter, look more directly at her, put down the paper when she asks a question and treasure her more deeply-recognizing that should she be taken from me, I do not want to feel wanting in my love for her." And a father said something that sent a tingle through me, "You know, Nicholas would have been very proud of his family."

A few were anonymous, but passionately close for all that. On the grave one day we found a card from an Italian family who had been on vacation in San Francisco and had driven up specially to say thank you to Nicholas. They didn't leave their address, they weren't there to parade their emotions, but for weeks afterward I carried around the note they left: "Dear little Nicholas, we love you. God bless you to eternity, sweet child."

Letters from Italians in all walks of life abolished national boundaries with equal ease. One said simply, "Grazie, America." Wanda Ferragamo wrote to the American consulate in Florence, "Once again the traditional American generosity has not failed. Please allow me to express my great admiration for your wonderful country." A seventy-year-old man from Ravenna, twenty years old when the Allies liberated Italy, said it was then that for the first time he had met free men and had loved this country ever since.

The Little Sisters of the Poor in Messina wrote, saying they had given the clothes we left with them to a young boy "with no mother" and sent a photograph, a half-hidden face smiling from the green and blue anorak I'd walked beside so often. It was so uncannily like Nicholas that for an instant my heart leapt at the notion that, after all, the nuns might have managed a miracle.

"We feel the impulse to be close to you," a letter from Turin began. "We had a loved and nice girl of 22, a brilliant university student-she left us in the worse way it can happen to a mother and father: she suicided. Since that day we are dragging our lives, in a house full of remember, where there is a room we quite don't dare to go in, where everything is still like it was that day." A mother says she and her husband live in daily terror of losing their daughter because of a rare congenital heart defect-and dare to hope Nicholas' example might contribute to finding her a new heart one day. If she reads this book, I hope she'll let us know: I still think about that girl. A forty-two-year-old man telephoned one night and said he recently went blind. "How do you stand it?" I asked. "It's very hard. And sometimes I think of suicide," he said. "But the thought that Nicholas helped those people to see again is giving me the strength to resist despair."

A desolate letter came from a mother whose son had died, "I find it hard to understand God's plans- I just cannot believe [my son] is not here with us any longer. Sometimes I can swear I hear his footsteps on the stairs, running up, or I can hear his joyful voice around the house- I have always spent my married life just caring for my children-and now I am empty-handed-some days I just would love to sit down and die." What can one say? Some letters were smudged, others ended abruptly. The reason was clear. "I am a father too and while I am writing these few words I can't keep back my tears. I apologize but we have lost our happiness too."

A sense of the unity of life is in every one of them and phrases that fill the memory. A young woman in Rome wrote, "Since when you have lost your son my heart has been beating quicker-today I think that people, common persons, can change the world. When you go and see Nicholas in the little graveyard place, please say this to him, `Nicholas, they closed your eyes but you opened mine.' " You can imagine what it meant to receive these letters, every additional one giving Nicholas' death more meaning, and each picking up a little piece of the burden of grief to make it less crushing.

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