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The Nicholas Effect
 
The Nicholas Effect

   

Chapter Twenty: We Get Busier-and Busier

The days were full and long. We got up with the chicken farmers and went to bed-figuratively-with the bartenders. Dawn over Europe became a common sight. The morning I met Lorenzo Minoli, the movie producer, I had three breakfasts: one at home, one on the 7:00 a.m. plane, the third-and by far the best-with him at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. Some days I was on the phone to an Italian newspaper at 2:00 in the morning and to New York at 7:00.

At a peak of activity, this was what one day was like: Received phone call from the American Association of Motor Vehicles Administrators asking for a synopsis of my talk at their annual meeting. Received call to say that the land we'd chosen for a memorial was not included in the lease we'd been counting on and we'd have to think of a new plan. Held phone discussion with the National Alliance for Excellence on the scholarships being set up in Nicholas' name. Made travel arrangements for talk in San Diego. Visited with Benedictine monk looking for information on Nicholas he could use in teaching. Signed twenty letters to people who'd sent a bell. Wrote letter to Scout troop in Maine wanting information for a jamboree. Wrote article for an Arizona organ procurement newsletter. Received second call to say the lease for the memorial was okay after all. This continuous splitting myself up to meet deadlines and work on new projects sent my mind searching for parallels. Dickens? Mozart? Sir Walter Scott? None was convincing. In the end, I settled for an amoeba.

All these meetings took some juggling with my real job. On trips I'd write articles on investing in the plane both coming and going and in odd moments between, in taxis, on envelopes, on the backs of programs. I'd seize on any interval in the schedule to start in on the round of calling money managers to find what they were doing with their portfolios, whether they thought high-yield bonds were vulnerable, whether small company stocks were likely to start catching up, and the other minutiae that make economics so boring to some people and so fascinating to others.

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On the face of it, May 21, 1996, was not a day for surprises. I was at the place where, for the previous five years, I'd known I'd be. Although I find it impossible to forecast what I'll be doing next week, I do know the Investment Company Institute, the mutual fund association, invariably has its annual meeting in Washington in May and almost always at the Washington Hilton. I'd been going to those meetings for twenty-three straight years. It was my most faithful addiction.

This year was the second annual fundraising lunch for the Nicholas Green Scholarship Fund, and I was a speaker. Otherwise I might not have made it for the twenty-fourth time. At midnight the night before, I'd telephoned Maggie and been told, "Not yet. There's no need to catch the early flight back," and she had not called back during the night. But as soon as I went into the hotel that morning I was handed a message which read, "It's time. I'm leaving for the hospital now."

The staff of the institute's press room is under pressure at that time of day, attending to people like me who repeatedly lose their sets of conference papers or leave their badges in the pants pocket of the suit they wore yesterday. Now they dropped all that, calling airlines, checking reservations, and paging the hotel manager so that within minutes I was on my way to the Dulles airport in a hotel car with a fast driver and a faster-beating heart. The rush-hour traffic was thick, however, and I arrived to find the flight everyone had worked to get me on had left ten minutes before. I went to the telephone and called the hospital. Alicia, Maggie's mother, answered. "You have two beautiful new children," she said. "And Maggie's fine."

I suppose the idea of having another child must have come into our minds quite soon after Nicholas died. The emptiness of the house was a constant reminder of what we'd lost. But it was far too painful to think about it seriously. As time wore on, and we began to talk about it, we could see the problems. How would Eleanor react? How would we react seeing someone growing in Nicholas' place? Did we really want a child, or were we simply filling a gap? And at my age, wasn't it foolish to think of becoming a father again?

Eleanor was a fundamental consideration. She was coping heroically with the change in her life, but any suggestion that we were transferring our affections could have been disastrous. But, as we thought about it, the arguments began to run strongly the other way. She had lost companionship and was having to look for what had previously come naturally. She drew closer to Maggie and to friends. There was no harm in it, but it seemed a response to deprivation. As for my age, it had worked wonderfully with her and Nicholas a few years earlier: being mistaken for their grandfather only added to the magic. I think we also knew enough about ourselves to feel we'd treat any newcomer as a separate person, not a substitute.

Another thought influenced me. At some stage I too would be leaving this household, and Eleanor and Maggie alone seemed a poor alternative to the full set of relationships we'd had at one time. In the end, the prospect of the house filling up again with gurgles and water splashing out of the bath carried the day.

There is no history of twins in either of our families, but these were IVF, in vitro-fertilized children, what Italian journalists and I still call test-tube babies. This is a high-tech, low-fun way to make a baby and frequently produces more than one. It had been our best chance of success, however, and at sixty-seven I had become father of a girl, five pounds five ounces, and a boy, six pounds six ounces. At a stroke, the population of Bodega Bay expanded 0.2 percent and the average age of our household dropped 40 percent.

I had the same headiness I'd had each time this had happened before, that mixture of relief that everyone was safe after a hazardous journey and of awe that something which wasn't there yesterday had just become the most dominant fact of life. I'd never been able to banish entirely the worry that a larger family might somehow change my relationship with Nicholas, dim the memory, or push him into a corner of my mind. But what I found that day, and to this day too, is that there was ample room for all the children. Perhaps the room simply expands.

I landed in San Francisco, got to the parking lot-not long now-and found my battery was dead. By the time I was on my way, I was in the San Francisco evening equivalent of that morning's Washington, D.C., rush hour. Time was passing. "These kids are going to be in college before I arrive," I thought.

Then finally I was climbing the hospital stairs, no time to wait for the elevator, and into a room that was like an environmentalist's vision of the global population explosion. Two nurses, a radiant mother-in-law, a glowing wife, and a small girl, who had recently been in the front row of the stalls for not one but two of life's greatest dramas, were crowded together. Oh, yes, and two featherweight bundles, each containing a very old, wrinkled person.

We had the kind of excited conversation families have in these conditions, everyone with a story to tell, piling on extra details as they remembered them. The contractions had started at 4:00 in the morning, strong and rapidly strengthening. Alicia, driving Maggie and Eleanor along the pitch-black road, had so little time to spare that when the traffic light in the middle of Sebastopol was red she wondered if they'd make it in time.

Laura came twenty minutes after they arrived. The labor coach arrived ten minutes later, just in time to shout "push" once before Martin was born. Eleanor, who had been practicing giving birth for weeks, screwing up her face as though she was on the toilet, found the reality less glamorous and a little frightening. But she was determined to be there and watched throughout.

Humiliatingly, on their first day, I was the last visitor, and the reporters and photographers had already done most of their work. Weeks before, we'd had a series of inquiries from the media about special arrangements, like the paper whose note read, "We are prepared to make a VERY SUBSTANTIAL offer for the exclusive rights." In Italy, Oggi magazine was equally keen to have the first pictures. They'd been very good to us-sending money to the foundation we'd set up in Nicholas' name and writing a series of stories-but this was not possible. This story belongs to everyone, we pointed out.

"Well, what would you agree to?" they had asked and we entered into a headache-producing series of discussions in which we all finally agreed on a media pooling arrangement to give everyone the first pictures at the same time, while Oggi would have the first rights after the babies arrived home.

It all worked out as planned. The first photographs were taken within a few hours of the births-Pat, a friend in Australia, saw the television pictures before I saw the babies-no one was mad at us, and Oggi made another generous contribution to the foundation. Still, my daddy-come-lately behavior added an item for the quick press conference they held now that I was finally there. "With the whole world watching," I was able to say, "I had to be late."

Someone handed me some phone numbers and a few names, two of which were for the next day's morning shows. "They wanted to talk to Maggie, but this will be in the small hours of the morning. Can you do them?" I was asked. So, as usual, in the even smaller hours, the television crews arrived, the furniture was rearranged, and I tried to find the words to say what it feels like to have new life coming back into a house still aching from lost life. I think I said my only regret was that Nicholas was not there to see it. I should have added that, if he had been, he would probably have said, "This is the best day of my life."

Picking the names had given us some problems. We like sturdy names that have borne a lot of weight over the years. Every parent goes through it, of course, but two names raise the problems to a higher level and a seven-year-old daughter, with 33 percent of the vote and hence veto power, raises it still more. We ransacked our memories, looked on every twig of our family trees, and combed the 10,000 Baby Names book.

In the end, Laura was easier. I had just finished plowing my way with Eleanor through The Little House on the Prairie books, in which Laura Ingalls Wilder does herself a few good turns in portraying her own childhood. Eleanor was entranced by the story of this kind, brave, selfless person and enthusiastically endorsed the name. It also had a satisfying Italian connotation: Petrarch's Laura came to mind.

We had to look around more widely for a boy's name, but the combination of a Roman god and the award by the St. Martin's Institute carried the day. There were some unexpected results. I conceived the idea of collecting every recording of the song "Laura" and quickly bought several, including Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan.

Naturally, I already had Frank Sinatra. One day in a record store, I decided to find out how many I still had to go. I looked it up on the electronic screen and found the answer: 249. I gave up the idea without further thought.

Italy was as bountiful as ever. Enza, a stranger from Sicily, wrote that when she heard Maggie was pregnant her eyes "were filled with tears and I almost could not sleep that whole night." Elisabetta, from Parma, made two exquisite hand-embroidered baby gowns, saying simply, "I know what is life after sorrow." The dozens of letters that came in shared our happiness to the full, but most of them included a note that said: we know they will never take Nicholas' place. As always, they had not just dashed off a pro forma congratulations card. They had felt first and written second.

Those comfortable relationships are still there, and it is always easy to tell when the phone calls about the twins come from Italy. "How is L-au-ra?" they ask and, "And Martino, how is he?" To which, for the first two years, I was able to reply routinely, "Well, he's never a dry Martino." No doubt their personalities are being subtly molded by the names we chose, and it's lucky, I suppose, I wasn't still reading the Wizard of Oz books to Eleanor when they were born. Introducing strangers to little Dorothy and Toto would have produced some awkward moments.

Most school afternoons at 3:00 the front door slams, the house shakes, and I hear Eleanor shouting, "Laura! Martin! Where are you?" A moment passes and I hear feet scuffling toward the front door, followed quickly by sounds of tickling, whooping, and laughter. She's like a mother coming home from work, who has been thinking about her children all day, and the reunion is explosive. Whatever doubts we had about her reaction have proved groundless. She dotes on the twins. It had seemed likely from the moment we told her Maggie was pregnant. We sat her down on the sofa and let her into the secret before anyone else, so it would be a complete surprise. The response was exuberant. It was better, she said, than having a new kitten.

At that time there were still long months to go, and we couldn't be certain how she'd take it when these creatures of the imagination became real. In fact, however, she has been delighted throughout. From the beginning I saw Maggie taking time out of the relentless toil two new alimentary canals bring to a household to pay some special attention to Eleanor and involve her in simple tasks for the babies.

From the first days, she has helped look after them, and I watched in wonder as this elfin creature changed diapers with an assurance that makes a mockery of my pathetic fumblings. Happily too, she does not treat them like props for a dolls' house, to be dressed and paraded for the houseowner's pleasure, but as little people with their own desires and wishes.

The house no longer seems empty. They have brought a savor to life nothing else could have done and, though sharing some characteristics with Nicholas, are both quite different from him and from each other. One day too they will come to realize that, if he had not died, they would probably never have been born. I hope they will see that twist of fortune in a way that magnifies life rather than death. At present they are too young to know about their older brother, and when they do, I expect for years it will be like a fairy tale.

Keeping the face in the newspapers separate from the real boy will not be easy, and we will need to be on our guard not to sanctify him. But I don't dread it. On the contrary, I look forward to recreating him for them so that, like some famous ancestor they will never meet, they will take from our memories a keener sense of how precious life is and how much it has to offer those who enter most fully into it.*


* They are now old enough to know a lot about Nicholas. They speak sadly about what happened to him but do not seem frightened by it.

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