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The Nicholas Effect
 
The Nicholas Effect

   

Chapter Fifteen: A Spate of Awards

[Awards] came in such numbers from Italy that Maggie wondered if there'd be any left for anyone else. When we heard from a reporter we were to receive a gold medal from the president, we thought there must be a mistake. "We already have that one," we told him. No, he said, this is another and it's the highest of all.

It was hard to think of any Italian medal outranking the president's own gift, but it turned out to be the Medaglia d'Oro al Merito Civile, generally translated as the gold medal for civic virtue, the highest civilian decoration. The foreign ministry's records turned up no evidence that it had ever gone to a foreigner before.

The medal is so rarely given that, astonishingly, for a parallel to our case the diplomatic corps referred to Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian businessman in Hungary in World War II who, using a Spanish diplomatic passport he had somehow acquired, falsified the papers of hundreds, some say thousands, of Jews to save them from being sent to concentration camps.

That we should find ourselves in the company of a man who had defied death and torture day after day doesn't seem right. But there they are, two gold medals, not like a lone wartime hero, but side by side like old family members and, of course, among our most valued possessions.

Across Italy, parks, nature trails, and schools have been named for [Nicholas]. The scale always seems to be the biggest, the quality the highest, that the group organizing it can aspire to. At one end, the largest hospital group in Italy is now the Nicholas Green Hospital and, at the other, the owner of a small bakery in Sicily put his staff of three in coveralls with "Grazie Nicholas" sewn lovingly on them. When a lime tree was planted in Bari, it was in the Piazza Garibaldi. When Florence looked for a site for the cheerful Nicholas Green playground, it put it close to the Piazzale Kennedy.

The Istituto Scudi di St. Martino gave us their silver scudo, a tiny replica of a breastplate in honor of St. Martin, who in legend cut his cloak in two to share with a beggar. As we walked back from a meeting in one small town, I said to Maggie, "You know, that was a cross-section of the whole town." "No," she said, "that was the whole town."

Italy's prime minister at the time, Mr. Romano Prodi, thought enough of the little Nicholas Green Park in Lecco to pay it a personal visit and when, two years later at a White House dinner in his honor, I showed him a photograph taken of him at the site, he asked with unfeigned pleasure, "Can I keep it?" Later that night, I introduced myself to Sophia Loren, whose beauty dominated a room full of handsome women like an empress. "We Italians feel very close to you," she said. Phew.

Many paintings of Nicholas arrived and, though based only on newspaper photographs, were dotted with the symbols he took most pleasure in, as though the painters had taken the trouble to find out about him-Venice, Halloween, dressing up to play a role, things normally only a child's own family would have known about. I blessed the decision to carry the camera on those hikes in Switzerland.

Then there was a masterpiece from Anna Bonomo, from Catania, for whom good deeds are a way of life. When she gave us this painting, she said she had grown to know him so well she could hardly bear to part with it: it was as though he was finally going away. But she did part with it, and it hangs at home where I see it every day and marvel at human generosity.

Music of all kinds was written about Nicholas by people we didn't know. Two busts came, by Marisa Panero and Anton da Cudan, which capture his spirit so well that I still find myself running my hand through the tangled hair or gently touching the cheeks, and for a moment he is there. Poems poured in, sometimes one from every student in a high-school class, and even the saddest seemed to end on a note of hope. Our favorite poet, however, is a friend who lives in Bodega Bay, Jeremy Raikes. This is how he starts a tribute to the little friend he describes as the "quintessential" boy:

"Now he can be laid to rest,
this boy who bore with life so brief,
and left the world to be impressed
by more than sorrow's stifling grief."
A shy craftsman in Sicily gave us a toy soldier, Julius Caesar, which he had made with meticulous attention to detail, not just the uniform, but the character in the face too. "I read that Nicholas had studied him. So have I. Working on this made me feel close to your son," he said. It's on our shelves and I look after it as carefully as if I was his personal bodyguard.

When I asked Jay Hamburger, a photographer who wrote to us from Houston, why he felt so moved, he said, "Transplantation goes off the spectrum at both ends. The death of a child is the biggest loss anyone can contemplate and saving a life the biggest gift anyone can give." It turned out that he knows about territory off the spectrum himself. Virtually every Sunday for more than six years, he and a group of friends have cooked two hundred dinners in his kitchen. Then they drive to parks and bridges and dumpsters to feed the homeless.

When Jay saw Nicholas' Gift, the television movie, a phrase from it stuck in his mind, when I'm shown slipping the coin into Nicholas' pocket after he died and saying it was "to pay the ferryman" to cross the River Styx. Years before, Jay had taken a photograph of a boy and a man in a canoe in a golden sunset on the Amazon. "I never knew what to do with it," he told us. But now the answer came, and the silhouette of a small boy being carried across a vast expanse of dark water to a dimly perceived shore glows mysteriously on our living room wall. He called it "Nicholas and the Ferryman."

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