Although each of them was different, the dozen or more times we went to Italy in the four years after Nicholas' death had a basic theme: bursts of intense living surrounded by fatigue. Our usual flight from San Francisco meant getting up at around 4:00 a.m., traveling during most of the daylight hours to Newark, hurrying to make a connection there, flying all night, waiting for another flight from Rome, and then going straight into a lunch meeting with a lot of details to absorb.
Our hosts were solicitousness itself, presenting baskets of flowers to Maggie, dolls to Eleanor, and pieces of paper with crowded itineraries to me. The mayor, the prefect, the chief of police, the head of the local hospital board, representatives perhaps of the tourist board or the gas company, and their spouses, would often be waiting on the tarmac, smiling and gracious. Some of these people we never saw again. They had played their part in the welcome and had gone back to making a living.
Others would be with us on long journeys, especially professional drivers. All of them were highly skilled and the cars highly powered. We overtook other speeding vehicles on the autostrada as if they were standing still, and were blind to traffic signs. We always raced, whether early or late for appointments. One Sunday morning at 5:00, the driver kept the needle at 120 miles an hour for most of the forty miles to the Bologna airport. I arrived with ninety minutes to spare. On long journeys, car phones rang frequently and drivers would carry on conversations at seventy miles an hour.
The driver we met most often, and perhaps the most intrepid of the whole fearless species, as well as the most loyal and attentive, was Luigi Taurisano, built like a good-natured fireplug, but as gentle as a nursemaid. A friend of Anna Lagana, then vice president of TRIO Italia, Luigi owned a large car sales business near Rome, but when we came to Italy he dropped everything and ferried us around, however early in the morning or late at night.
At airports, hotels, and busy restaurants he was invaluable, his oblong shape miraculously finding its way to the front of any line. As a young man he had followed his father's footsteps, a firefighter famous enough to have a street in Rome named for him. The walls of his office are covered with commendations, firefighting apparatus, scrolls, a plaque for saving the life of a young girl who had fallen into a well, and a personalized photograph of the Pope. On his desk, more prominently displayed than any of these, is a photograph taken with us in Florence. With all that competition, it is a compliment in a class of its own.
Eleanor was always more interested in the girl in the well and wanted me to extract all the details. "That girl is now a woman living in Naples with three children," he added. Eleanor beamed. "What else did you do?" she asked. "I rescued a horse that had fallen in a well too," he said. Her happiness was complete. I complimented him once when he jumped out of the car to direct traffic around a hidden danger in the road. "I'm just a little fireman," he said. Maybe. But with the heart of a lion and the generosity of a prince.
In the middle of one night, a fax arrived from Italy. That itself was not unusual. Later I found the senders were mortified to think that, having miscalculated the time difference, they had wakened us. In fact, we slept through it-as we have slept through dozens of others-and found it only at breakfast time.
What was unusual was that it was an invitation from a Nicola Sama, one of the coaches of a soccer team of "chicks" from a village not far from Venice, called Villaverla, which had arranged a Nicholas Green soccer tournament. The idea of spending a weekend near Venice with a soccer mom and her friends obviously had a lot going for it.
It happened to fall next to a trip I'd already planned to Modena, so I sent back a fax saying Maggie was earthbound with household duties, but indicated that taking tea with a group of young ladies like them would be a pleasure. Things moved swiftly. I was the first off the plane in Milan, the first to collect my luggage, the first through customs. What I didn't know, however, is that in Italy Nicola is a man's name, and instead of five athletic young women I was met by five burly men.
They were, however, a delight, all five, and on the three-hour drive to their home it was like being with old friends. They let me easily into their jokes, including references to Nicola's beautiful wife being much too good for him. When he turned to me to say they shouldn't be surprised at his good fortune because his name meant "winner" in Greek, I felt at ease enough to say that was already clear to me and that it was obviously his wife who was the loser.
I learned that Nicola had felt compelled to do something positive after Nicholas died. "Through sport we can spread the message to children in a way they can understand," he said. It turned out that he was from Calabria and was troubled by that now familiar sense of personal responsibility. But his colleagues were northern Italians, and Nicola's idea had ignited a flame in them all. This was the third year of the tournament, and this time sixteen teams were involved, ranging from eight to twelve years old.
The team Nicola coached, Novoledo, was called the Nicholas Green team and his name was on the shirts they played in. "How old are they?" I asked. "The age Nicholas is now," he said, and in this strong, tough man I caught yet another glimpse of the mixture of thoughtfulness and tenderness that has gone into all these commemorative ideas.
I'd understood there would be a small ceremony on the Saturday morning before the games started, but in fact the sports ground was overflowing-children in soccer kit, parents, grandparents, nuns, nurses, organ donation groups, TV teams, and the commander of the American paratroopers stationed in the area.
Many of the children had written messages to us and those who could not write had drawn blooming flowers or sunlit clouds. I was given a boxful of these messages as a present, but a larger number had been attached to balloons. In a huge bunch they floated high into the sky, separating as contrary winds caught them. They would come down randomly over a wide area, and whoever picked them up would read two or three words of anonymous love from the skies.
There were other events, but at last it was Sunday afternoon and the Novoledo team was getting ready to play. They were in a tie for first place, and a win would clinch the tournament. They were the home team, and the atmosphere was electric. The games, six a side, ten minutes a half, were played in a large gym, and every seat was taken, every inch of standing room filled. Specially favored guests lined the touchline and at moments of high drama spilled onto the playing area.
Kids were hanging from every piece of apparatus. I was allowed to sit on the coaches' bench and, as the noise mounted, I was aware of a special interest building around me. From the corner of my eye, I was aware of fingers pointing in my direction and whispers, "There he is." "It's him." I'd deliberately kept out of the way, not wanting to take anything from the players, but this was too much to ignore. I turned around to smile appreciatively and saw Fabio Viviani, one of Vicenza's top players, at the center of attention. I returned to obscurity.
The game began exactly on time: this was serious business. It was obvious from the start it was going to be a hard match, and though played at a furious pace neither side could get the vital edge. My heart was in my mouth. The visitor's striker, a strong forceful boy, looked dangerous every time he got the ball and sure enough, as the first half wore on, the right winger crossed the ball in classic style high into the goal area and he headed it in. This was bad. A single goal could easily settle a game of this sort. But Novoledo kept cool, and four minutes later was rewarded when a crashing shot gave the goalkeeper no chance. I cheered myself hoarse.
I spent almost all the rest of the game on my feet as the ball went from end to end. But then in the second half, the home team-the Nicholas Green team-scored its second and third goals to win the game and the tournament. We hugged and cheered and shouted like World Cup winners. I was given the honor of presenting the cup, and pointing to the blue shirts, made my two-word speech, "Viva Nicholas." The rafters rang loudly enough to put a twinkle in a faraway star.
A few months later, I met them all again - Beppe, Bob, Franco, Bruno, and Nicola, along with Gianpietro and Marilisa, the town's mayor. I think of them now as my pals from Villaverla. We laughed and joked as before. Then Franco said quietly, "Do you remember the coach we met? Two weeks later his son was in a road accident. He was killed." The table fell silent, as we all thought about that stirring, glittering day, a day in a boy's life that could have brought a smile even in old age.
"The family donated the organs," Franco added. For a moment, it seemed irrelevant in the face of such a loss. Then I remembered the children I'd seen in Italy being eaten away as just one vital organ steadily deteriorated. Now three or four of them would live. Nicola's tournament had won its biggest victory.
One of our interpreters told me of a cross to Nicholas that was put up in Calabria. It says simply, "Forgive us." As we'd said from the start, it had never occurred to us to blame Italy. It could have happened anywhere, as the hundred chapters of the Parents of Murdered Children in the United States attest. But time and again, I found myself having to reassure people who seemed to feel they were at fault. Even Professor Giuseppe Nistico, the cultivated president of the Calabrian assembly, wrote to us, "I feel deeply ashamed for the premature death of Nicholas. But he will continue to live with us and no one is going to forget him."
One morning in a hotel restaurant in Salerno, I looked up from the powdered croissants to see standing at my table not the spruced waiter, but an unshaven, unbrushed older man, looking earnestly at me. He was a hotel employee from one of the unphotogenic departments and well outside his own territory. He waited to be spoken to but when I smiled the words tumbled out: "PapÓ di Nicholas? I saw you through the door. I knew it was you. I wanted to speak to you. I wanted to say how sorry I am. Do you need anything? Can I help you with your baggage?" Unthinkably, he even strayed on to the waiter's turf. "Can I get you some more breakfast, some juice?" And before he left: "Good-bye, Mr. Green, we always remember Nicholas." It was typical of hundreds of encounters, a desire to help without hurting.
Regional presidents and farmworkers invited us to stay with them. Restaurant owners would open a bottle of wine they said they'd been saving for an occasion worthy of it. Teachers wrote songs for their students to sing to Eleanor. A man standing in front of a sidewalk bar stopped me as I walked by. "PapÓ di Nicholas? I thought so. Will you have a drink?" and chose a Mexican beer to remind me of home.
Everyone seemed to relate the story to their beliefs. One day in Venice, when I was looking at a mosaic of St. Nicholas in St. Mark's, I turned to find a monsignor standing close by, who smiled in recognition. "I was just thinking it doesn't look much like our Nicholas," I said. "Oh, I think it does," he answered, "as he is now."
We became accustomed to being approached, though even now it's a surprise when hearty men in Italy shake hands with tears in their eyes and leather-jacketed youths smoking cigarettes stop to say a kind word.
Even the professionals were affected. Sue Patterson, the U.S. consul general in Florence, who has handled dozens of difficult situations, spoke tenderly but calmly in a speech she was giving about Nicholas. But as she came to the quotation from Romeo and Juliet she'd chosen-"and, when he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night"-her voice quivered and for a moment she had to stop.
"I've read everything about you," a disconcerting number of people in Italy said. They knew our ages, the children's birthdays, anecdotes I'd told and forgotten. Many have seen "The Birds" and almost feel as if they have been to Bodega Bay. These are not just people with time on their hands. "We followed your story hour by hour," said the owner of a damaged Palladian mansion in Vicenza, who has devoted his life to restoring it. "I know where you've been and what you've been doing," a middle-aged lady confided. It could be quite unnerving. When I came back to one hotel late at night, a note from the maid lay on the bed: "Thank you for being like you are." For once, I thought, I must have left the bathroom tidy.
We knew about Italian warmth, but their correctness was a surprise. We saw it all over the country, however, little niceties of manner intended to protect against life's bruisings. The entire export department of the BASF company in Cinisello Balsamo near Milan wrote to us several times. We exchanged photographs and floated vague plans to meet. On a freezing day when we opened the Nicholas Green Park in Lecco, we found out later, a few of them had taken the long trip, sat through the proceedings, and gone home again without introducing themselves. "We didn't want to intrude," they said when we asked why.
That same night, we had dinner at a hotel in a village on the side of the lake. We lingered over the meal and sat around the cozy lounge afterward, reluctant to step out into the piercing wind. When eventually we hurried to the car, a young woman stepped out of the shadows. "I'm a nurse," she said. "I saw in the newspaper you'd be coming to dinner here. I just wanted to say thank you to you and your son." "How long have you been waiting?" we asked. "Oh, not long. Half an hour maybe." "Why didn't you come in?" "I didn't want to get in the way," she said.
I don't know what the correct response is, but I put my arms around her and hugged her tightly. I don't know her name and I can't think we'll ever meet again. But equally, I don't think I'll ever forget that mixture of gentle courtesy and strength of purpose.
These were people I'd never seen before, but those we came to know quite well were equally restrained. In the middle school at Motta S. Anastasia, near Catania, there are two clocks, one conventional, the other labeled "Bodega Bay time," and each day, I imagine, some students feel the Pacific coast giving them a little tug. It's there because the principal, Dr. Giuseppe Aderno, has thrown himself into our story. On the day before we were to attend a meeting at his school, he said he would drive to our hotel, an hour or so away, to go over some details. We assured him it was unnecessary, but he insisted. Usually meticulous about timekeeping, he was late. "I'm sorry," he said when I met him in the lobby. "My mother died today."
He stayed forty minutes, going over the arrangements, making sure we knew enough to feel comfortable. Only when he was satisfied we had no questions did he excuse himself and get into his car for the lonely ride home. At school the next day, I'd prepared a few sentences to let him know how moved we were by his dedication. But as I tried to say it, the tears welled up and for once I couldn't force myself to go on.
I was not often alone on these tours, but one Sunday in spring I found the time to go back to Positano, drawn by a desire to recreate Nicholas' last happy hours. I had lunch looking over the same sparkling sea, and I now know exactly how many steps there are to the beach. I've decided not to put it down here, however. One day, who knows, on some vast ethereal staircase, I might get the chance to quiz Nicholas again.
Normally, however, these were tightly packed days, beginning early, moving around, making and listening to speeches, often getting back to the hotel after midnight. On one such night in Syracuse, a middle-aged man was in the lobby. He had the air of someone who has been waiting a long time on an unlikely errand. "I was hoping you'd come with me. Just for a few minutes," he said. "I want to take you to a disco." We'd become used to unusual proposals but this seemed outlandish. I couldn't possibly come, I told him. "We have to be up at 5:30 to move on."
"I know it's strange," he said. "But two young men have written a song for Nicholas and they want to play it for you." I didn't have the heart to refuse. We drove for a few minutes to "The Disco Speakeasy," which like its counterparts everywhere was filled with young people laughing, drinking, and listening to loud music.
As we went in, the music died away and, after a word of welcome, the two performers played and sang their pulsating tribute to Nicholas, the words incomprehensible, but the sincerity crystal clear. When they had finished, there was a moment's pause, then a roar of approval and the entire audience was around the three of us on the tiny stage, hugging, smiling, crying, patting our backs, shaking our hands. No sacred music could have been more uplifting.
Time and again we found emotions like these swept over all the barriers, but they reached a peak in the little fishing town of Bagnara Calabra, where the last event in the annual festival was a variety show in a huge tent pitched in the main square. It was already packed to capacity when we arrived, but, with scores of people waiting outside, more and more plastic chairs were being brought in, lengthening the rows until they touched the canvas at each side and pushing the rows closer and closer together. In the front row, our knees were jammed up against the stage.
I'd been told that at this event I would have to give the most important speech of our weeklong visit to southern Italy. Many awards were being made, but ours was the big one and our whole tour had been built around it. Aim for a ten-minute talk, they told me; everyone will be there from the president of the Calabrian assembly down-and there he was, sitting next to us, legs painfully sandwiched like ours, hot like us, deafened by the music like us, and apparently pleased to be there.
I wanted to do my best that night. This was low-income Calabria, close to where the shooting took place, at the heart of those conflicting emotions it had aroused of shame and guilt on one side, fierce local pride and a feeling of being pilloried by the world on the other. I'd decided days before that the speech would be about the bells people from all over Italy were sending for the children's tower we had built in Bodega Bay. I wanted to say this established a bond between us, and I'd asked someone to find me a school bell to give them an inkling of what we'd done.
The first glance told me this wasn't the audience for a ten-minute speech. They were here to enjoy a show and only at the end would the awards be given. They were excited to be seeing some well-known Italian entertainers-Calabrians mainly, who'd made it in Rome-excited by the transformation of their little town, excited by Saturday night.
Scrunched between the president on one side and Eleanor on Maggie's lap on the other, the stage in front and someone's knees in my back, I began to pare my notes. After every song or comedy routine there was tumultuous applause, and it became clearer and clearer that anything that broke the mood would be a disaster. A picture came into my mind of an English vicar walking on stage to give thanks at the end of a Punch and Judy show.
At last the slapstick and the rock groups were finished, and those of us to be honored trooped up on stage. The audience was kind, applauding politely and listening as one after another said thank you. But the tension had dropped dramatically, and a long speech in English was going to put it away. I mentally cut another paragraph and tried desperately to think of a joke. Then it was time for our prize. It came with kind words about Nicholas, obviously from the heart, and listened to with more attention than we had the right to expect. But the fun was over, and the audience was ready to go home. I was asked to say "a few words" and mentally cut a few more phrases. By now I'd got it down to a minute or so.
As I stepped forward, however, the answer came. "I have only one thing to say," I said and stopped. The interpreter looked surprised, but said it in Italian and then waited too. "Viva Nicholas," I said loudly and rang the bell a few fast peals. There was a moment's silence, then a roar came back, "Viva Nicholas, viva Nicholas," and I saw the crowd rising, row after row, like waves, hands clapping above their heads, cheering and shouting. I rang the bell again, then stopped, but the cheers went on. People were climbing on their chairs, children being picked up for a better view.
I held the bell at arm's length and rang it again and again and again. The cheers were deafening. At last I moved off the stage and the hands came out, very old and very young hands, peasant and presidential hands, touching, stroking, patting. No one, it seemed, wanted to leave. Nicholas had done it again.