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The Nicholas Effect
 
The Nicholas Effect

   

Chapter Eleven: A Dialogue Starts

From the start, we read and tried to answer every letter. In the first few days, they poured in with such force that we had to resort to a form letter, with a version in Italian translated for us by the Italian embassy. But as we sat at the dining room table every night, reading the twenty or thirty letters that had come in that day and preparing the responses, it became clear this didn't come near what was required. The letters were so personal that a set response was almost a cold shoulder. I found myself writing a postscript almost every time, picking up some part of the experience they had described or responding to some illuminating phrase. But soon I gave up the form letter completely. Some phrases, naturally, recur over and over. But I wanted to make each one a reply to the individuals behind the words, thinking myself into their unspoken questions.

When someone wrote from a place Nicholas had visited, I'd try to remember an incident to fix him in their own streets. When a twenty-nine-year-old from Verona said, "I think of Nicholas every night before I fall asleep," I told her he loved old cities and that on a day we'd spent in Verona we'd visited all the most celebrated sights-the amphitheater, the churches, Juliet's house. On the way home that night, I'd asked him what was the very best thing we'd done that day. "Lunch at McDonald's," he said unhesitatingly. A few weeks later, she wrote again to say she had taken her young cousin to McDonald's and told him the famous Nicholas and Eleanor had been there.

Our replies produced a second round of stirring letters. One said, "The photograph you gave me is always in my diary: it is one of the greatest presents I have received in my life." A Sicilian woman living in Rome wrote, "Your letter provoked a special happiness that I seldom felt. Before going to bed I read it through, discovering each time something important and new".

"Thank you for making me feel like your friend," said another, after I'd replied to his moving letter. But no thanks were called for. That's just how I did feel. All over Italy, I signed visitors' books, concert programs, or casts on broken limbs in hospitals simply as "papÓ di Nicholas" and no one seemed to want anything more formal. People still write to us about their vacations or a new baby-some of them called Nicholas-and sometimes the death of a parent. It has a family ring about it.

Some were obviously suffering. "I shall treasure your letter in the dark patches to come and it will help me find the sunshine," said one American lady. "Your card arrived on a day that was particularly hard for me. I thank you and Nicholas for teaching me in a way I cannot describe," said another.

We sent dozens of copies of photographs of Nicholas and were rewarded by deeply felt thank you notes. "I keep it on my desk so I see it all the time." "I have put it between the photos of my own two children." "I keep it in my wallet so it will always be with me." Later, in schools we visited, we came across some of the photos we'd sent, often in the entrance so every visitor can see them, or reproduced in local newspapers. Beautiful tasteful cards came from some people, a pleasure to gaze at; others were scribbles on scraps of paper. But in the hundreds and hundreds there was scarcely a false note. Some people couldn't find the words, but preferred that to glibness. "I just saw the article in People. It helped me somehow. I just thought I'd call- I just wanted to say- Take care."

Most letters said something about Eleanor. I told her I was sure she'd be getting offers of marriage and, whenever one was addressed to her, I asked what he was like. Many asked detailed questions or wanted a photograph. Even for those who just mentioned her, I was reluctant just to say, "She's fine, thanks." Rightly or not, I concluded that they'd like to know more than they were asking about the sad but spirited little girl they'd seen on television. So I told them about the kitten and, then later, that it had been killed by a car, and about the school she went to and what she ate for breakfast.

One Italian scholar, knowing of Nicholas' interest in Julius Caesar, wrote to say he had just written a biography and had dedicated it to him. I thanked him for a wonderful gift and added, "In a small boy's way he had picked up a lot of information about Julius Caesar-he'd marched along Roman roads, walked in the mountains where the legions fought, and visited Roman camps. He had even crossed the Rubicon." In all these encounters, it was a fact understood by both sides that we had gone through some profound experience together that made sharing confidences quite natural.

We got a few unusual requests for help, like the unemployed man in Sicily who heard we were going to make a movie and wanted to produce it for us and the Italian lady who asked for Madonna's address. But I can remember only one harsh letter. "What on earth were you doing on that dangerous stretch of road at night?" wrote Peter from Davis, California. "There are areas one hesitates driving in this country even during the day. The death of your son saddens me enormously. However, one fact stands out supremely: You, sir, are a very stupid man!!" In other circumstances, that could have hurt. Even the sympathy rang false. Having satisfied myself, however, that at around 10:30 p.m. on the most important road in the whole of Italy's deep south I could not reasonably have foreseen that our car would be mistaken for one filled with jewelry, I felt this was one letter I could justifiably ignore. In any event, I didn't see much likelihood of us becoming pen pals. It was balanced by a note from a man who said his family regularly traveled that route with his children asleep on the back seat "just like Nicholas."

Some conversations were cut short. "I am quite ill with a liver cancer," one letter started. "Until this year I taught elementary school here in New Hampshire. It seems as if I might be more depressed, but then I hear of someone in even a more difficult situation. Your decision must have been very difficult. I thank you for it." Later that year, there was no reply to our Christmas card. Another letter came from a "very grateful mother and grandmother who was able to celebrate a 61st birthday because of a loving family like you." She had received a transplant a year earlier. The following Christmas we sent her a card. Soon afterward her husband called to say she had died of cancer. "She knew she couldn't be cured when she wrote to you, but she didn't want to say so. When I saw your card it made me cry," he told us. "And now you're making me cry," I replied. I felt as though we'd lost somebody close. And, of course, we had.

Some letters came back undelivered. I worried about them more than I should, I suppose. They were only a tiny percentage, but I wanted to reply to everyone who had felt strongly enough to write to us. I hoped for a dialogue with each of them, brief necessarily, but enough for a genuine encounter that said, "Our paths will probably never cross again. But I want you to know you have touched something deep in us. That little piece of giving and taking will always be there." In the hundreds of letters I wrote, I never lost the feeling that these were special moments.

As it happens, many of those paths did cross again. Many people wrote a second or third time. Often at the end of organ donation meetings in this country or Italy, somebody will come up to say they were the people who had written to us about the park that had been opened for Nicholas or had sent a card for Eleanor. Meeting them in a crowd of people, they were sometimes difficult to identify, but I'd worked on those letters and after a few clues more often than not I'd remember the key points of their story. We'd shake hands, embrace, laugh more often than cry, and part, having kept alive a little flame.

All this time, telephone calls were coming in steadily. Many seemed surprised when Maggie or I answered, and it was hard not to feel like a celebrity after all. They could be difficult to handle, somebody crying softly at the other end, perhaps, or asking something urgent in an unknown language. Europeans frequently called in the middle of the night, saying, "Good afternoon." But I can't remember a single crank call, and even the most committed believers held back from preaching, offering instead help and counsel only if we should need it.

The early letters from Italy had indicated such a depth and breadth of feeling that I decided to write an "open letter to the Italian people," a grandiose expression I'd picked up from nineteenth-century history. By then I felt we were among a whole country of friends who would want to hear all the details. So I told them about the cemetery where Nicholas was buried and what the church was like and the rows of graves with the Italian names. I told them about the many acts of kindness we'd received since his death. And I told them I hoped everyone who was saddened by his story would find some inspirational act that would bring people closer together. I signed it: Proud Father of Nicholas.

I asked the Italian embassy to translate it, which they did graciously. Together we released it to the press. The result was overwhelming. The national newspapers in Italy ran it, mostly in full; it sparked a spate of letters to the press and became a subject for columnists and editorials. It did have one unfortunate result. Elegantly translated, it suggested not our near-illiteracy, but a command of the language fitting to someone who has gone to diplomatic school. The letters came back in droves-in colloquial Italian. Even here, however, as we plowed nightly through idiomatic phrases and complex tenses, there were compensations, and I learned to love envelopes addressed to Orgoglioso PapÓ di Nicholas.

Two years after the shooting a letter arrived, postmarked Quebec, from Mike McGarry, a friend from London whose whereabouts had been a mystery for twenty years. "I heard about the tragedy," it said, "but didn't know it was you. Six months later when I was visiting my daughter and son-in-law, he fished out a copy of People magazine from his briefcase and put it on the table. `I've been carrying it around for months. I don't know why,' he said. I started to leaf through it and there was the article on you." A day or two after receiving his letter, I telephoned him. "What a coincidence," I said. "Our daughter thinks it was fate," he replied.

I've thought about issues like this many times since that night on the autostrada. What took us there at that exact time? Why, when that bullet was fired, did it go in that precise flight? Why did the car, rocking along at high speed, momentarily dip or rise in that fatal microsecond? Such questions touch the deepest mysteries, and we all have different opinions. Many people have written to us to say they see a purpose in this incident. For some it is a matter of faith, God's inscrutable will. Many, even those not particularly religious, seeing the electrifying effect the massacre of an innocent had around the world, conclude it couldn't be accidental. Some call it destiny.

By contrast, I have always been impressed by what seems to me to be the random nature of events. The most trivial decision made today-to park in one space at the grocery store rather than another, for example-affects every subsequent action in your life. You go through the store in a slightly different way depending on the space you took, by the time you get to the checkout counter you are in a slightly different order, as you get back on the road you are in a different traffic pattern. The consequences are magnified at every step so that by the time you arrive home the conversation you have with your family is different from what it would have been. By the end of the day, you have had thoughts and minor experiences different from those you would have had if you'd gone into that other parking spot. By the end of the week, some of that reshaping has become significant enough to make lasting differences.

From then on the paths diverge further and further, changing your life more and more. Think of how you met your wife or husband. What an unfathomable chain of events it was, starting from birth, that put you in just that place and in just that mood that lit the spark. And what about your children? What ever-changing combination of microscopic particles conceived them at that particular moment and gave them the personalities they have?

I look back to our vacation in Switzerland. We had planned to leave for Italy on September 27. The weather was poor, however, and with some trouble we managed to change our train reservations to the 26th. I remember getting off the phone and saying happily, "We did it. We can go a day earlier." I had started a sequence of events that would otherwise have been impossible. Even in the final few hours and minutes so many events could easily have gone a different way. On the night before the shooting, heading for Amalfi, where we had tentatively planned to find a hotel, we suddenly came across a huge traffic jam at an intersection. On an impulse I turned the car left on the quieter road to Positano where we stayed instead. Everything from then on was altered by that unreflecting decision.

As we left Paestum the next evening, thinking all the shops were shut, I caught a glimpse of a lighted window. The owner was just closing, but stayed open long enough to sell us fruit for the journey. A few moments later, we would have missed him. We stopped again soon after to fix the back seat of the car so the children could sleep more comfortably. Just before we got to the autostrada, I made a wrong turn, which cost us five minutes. A few hours later in Calabria, we pulled into a rest area at Pizzo, but almost immediately started off again.

If we had not done any one of those things, or countless others, all would have been different: a different part of the road, different traffic, a different lurch of the car. I now find myself thinking of those what-ifs. If I hadn't written to the family in Palermo and offered to exchange houses. If we'd chosen a different month. If I'd parked at the right of Safeway instead of the left.

Chapter 12 | Back to Table of Contents


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