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Reader's Digest Article

The Nicholas Effect
 
The Nicholas Effect

   

Chapter Twenty-Three: Life Without Nicholas

An Italian journalist, filming an interview in St. Peter's Square, suddenly said, "Tell me-and I want the truth now-don't you feel any anger?" It would have taken a brazen man to look a million Italians, and the founder of the Catholic Church himself, in the eye and lie. And when I said "no" I meant it. Why? I don't know the real answer, of course. These things lie too deep. But I think that, at one level, the loss of Nicholas has filled my mind-and I believe Maggie's too-with so much hurt as to relegate all other emotions to the sidelines. The finality is so absolute. Never again to run my fingers through his hair or tickle him or hear him say, "Good night, Daddy."

I read once that Einstein said that after he evolved his theory of relativity it never left him, not for a minute. "That's it," I thought. "It colors everything." I haven't had a single moment of exultation since Nicholas died, although previously I had them frequently enough to regard them as a natural ingredient of life. No joy is pure any more. Monday mornings are a little gloomier, Friday evenings less liberating.

Remembering has always been a great satisfaction to me. I can conjure up scenes ten, twenty years ago, calling up almost the exact words and feeling the mood vividly enough to experience it all again. These are treacherous trails now. My thoughts, whatever the setting, seem to find their way back to him. Even when there is no logical progression from one subject to another, the way through the maze goes there. He's always seven and I want to hug him, feel him in my lap for a book at bedtime.

I no longer have the bounce a good piece of news used to bring: a job that turns out well, perhaps, or the car coming back from servicing without needing new brakes. Now I think, "Well, this is okay, it's much better than it might have been." But it's a tepid version of the charge I used to get. The house is often busy and noisy again, but at every meal I always know there is an empty place at the table. Sadness comes in waves, sometimes strong enough to make me feel physically sick. While doing some everyday job, a picture will suddenly come into my mind and I'll say his name out loud. For a few moments, life is as empty as I imagine it gets. It passes, and I pick up where I left off.

All my life I've been able to anticipate the end of an unhappy period, warming myself on the feeling of what it would be like when everything came right again. Meantime, I'd find solace in a book or going for a walk and often discover that, even at its worst, the problem wasn't as bad as I'd expected. Even just allowing time to pass was a cure, since nothing lasts forever. But this time it does last forever, or at least for a lifetime, with no way of repairing the damage or even finding a second-best solution, no cure except forgetting-and what kind of cure is that?

Instead, I want to remember everything. Photographs generally help, bringing back whole periods in one image, like the hike on Point Reyes when we found the deer's antlers or splashing in the bathtub with Eleanor. I can think of only one where he looks unhappy: the day I took him out on a boat to see the whales. He is resting a pale, seasick face in his hand, puzzled by a world that can cause such pain.

Time will dull the pain of separation, I expect, but what won't go away, and what seems to me the worst part of this whole story, is that Nicholas has been denied forever the chance to live out his potential. I think of all those books he'll miss, all those sunsets, all those friendships. I remember my childhood or someone I met who said something funny, and the surge of pleasure comes with a trailing cloud of sadness, knowing he won't know any of those things. Some people, wanting to ease the pain of young death, say a work of art can be beautiful and complete even though it is quite short. I see that and rejoice in Nicholas' triumph as a human being. It's difficult for me to believe, however, that a prelude has the same weight as a concerto. Life goes on, it's true. But not for him.

C. S. Lewis' description of the death of his wife goes to the heart of it for me. "I look up in the night sky. Is anything more certain than that in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch?" Whatever eternity has in store, I know I will never again hold Nicholas' hand as we set off on a hike.

I recently visited Rob Kiener, who wrote the poignant article for Reader's Digest, at his house high in the mountains of Vermont. It was the sort of occasion I used to immerse myself in, enjoying it at every layer, the views, the companionship, swapping journalists' stories. But now I remembered those witty and perceptive friends of my parents, not unlike Rob Kiener, who had fired my imagination when I was growing up. What a depressing deprivation that Nicholas cannot meet people like that who would have confirmed to him that the magic in life is not just for little boys. Nor do we have the prospect of smiling in later years at fears that didn't materialize, the trees he didn't fall out of, or the sicknesses he recovered from. Now the fears are only a pale imitation of the reality.

We all joke about death from time to time, rightly, since it will have the last laugh. But I can't be wry about Nicholas' death. It's a deep, wrenching, daily pain that won't allow verbal conjuring tricks or self-deception. It isn't ironic or wistful or soothing. It isn't like a book or a movie you get caught up in. In the middle of some task, I still catch myself being surprised that his death isn't just a tale. I don't see Nicholas in a star or in the waving grass or among the heavenly host. To me, he has gone. The memory of him can provoke smiles, though rarely laughter, and we are a family that continues to find a good deal of fun in life. But death itself has no comfort in it.

The mind reaches for whatever consolation it can find, of course. One afternoon I suddenly thought, "This is the time Nicholas would be coming home from school." A sadness came over me as I began to relive those days. Then I remembered this was a school holiday and he wouldn't be coming home at this time anyway. Irrationally, I felt a surge of relief.

The year before he died, we'd been sad together thinking about the boy who outgrew his friend Puff, the Magic Dragon. Nicholas knew about aging and death, and I fancy he foresaw the day when I'd no longer be there. In his understanding way, I sensed he was trying to comfort me. Now the words have a cruel irony, "Dragons live forever, but not so little boys." I looked recently into a box that was going to Goodwill and saw with a shock it had some of Nicholas' best clothes in it-a shirt he used to wear with his blue blazer and the warm sweater that made him look so grown up. "Are we really letting these things go?" I thought. Then I reflected we'd given away his heart. But I still haven't been able to bring myself to part with his hiking boots. I can't find his blue striped shirt, which he liked to put on when I wore one like it: it looked so pitifully small when I saw it after he died. I still have mine, however, fraying at the cuffs and collar, but too full of memories to be thrown away yet.

Nostalgia comes in all forms. Eleanor and Nicholas shared tricks of speech: hambugger, quastion, intersting. In the car on the day he was shot, Nicholas asked as he often did, "If we be good can we have an ice cream?" They got their ice cream and the phrase outlived him. When Eleanor, in another room, said something like it the other day, I thought for a moment I heard his voice. A reference to 1987, when he was born, brings a warm feeling, 1994 a chill, even if it's about something as distant as an article on economics. Our dividing line is 1994. "That was before Nicholas died," we say of something that has no other connection with him. When I came across a mutual fund that was started on his birthday, the date in small print leaped out of the page. Eleanor still says wistfully from time to time, "Wouldn't Nicholas have enjoyed this?" or "Do you remember when Nicholas did that?"

Entries in the office calendar mark the Great Divide in our lives. Before September 1994 are the appointments of a busy working life, reminders to make phone calls, interviews scheduled with portfolio managers, and overnight airline reservations. There are weekend family trips and, as we approach the date of our Italian vacation, I feel a tremor, as I see the phone entries marking calls I made to airlines, car rental agencies, and railroads, trying persistently to make it possible for us to drive from Rome to Palermo instead of flying. A few days are blank, our time in Switzerland, then back home after the shooting to a blizzard of events: media interviews, funeral arrangements, articles to write. Had I been asked then, I would have said that following this initial flurry, interest would have died away, reviving now and again with developments in the trial or on anniversaries. But, no, they go on and on.

When the number of people who came into our lives because of Nicholas suddenly exploded, I decided to group them under the letter "N" in my filing system. From simple beginnings, it has expanded beyond all expectations, demanding more and more subdivision: N media, N media overseas, N media overseas U.K., N media overseas U.K. newspapers. It has worked tolerably well, but at a price: instead of looking up a doctor in Italy or a donor group in Illinois, I have to start with N and another reminder, just a split second, but enough to inject a little ice into the veins. Just now, as I typed this, I noticed for the first time that the "N" on the keyboard is almost rubbed away.

Looking ahead is ambivalent too as thoughts of Eleanor learning music or thinking about a career, those fancies that warm the cockles of a parent's heart, rarely come without a sense of loss. At first I thought I might need some things to remember him by more clearly-like the flag on his toy fort which I put at half staff-but they aren't necessary. Memories come unbidden every day. When I lock the door at night, I often have the feeling that not everyone is home safe and sound.

I'd looked forward to reading Three Men in a Boat to him-so much that by mistake I'd bought two copies-and the stacks and stacks of P. G. Wodehouse stories. He was much too young at seven, but I already had a glow of anticipation as I planned to try them out on him when he was about ten and perhaps give him the lifetime of remembered pleasure that reading them as a boy has given me. So far he knew only two and a half lines of Shakespeare and, although I suppose only partially understood, their packed imagery had opened up worlds for him:

"The game's afoot: Follow your spirit; and upon this charge Cry `God for Harry! England and St. George.' "

Then upon that charge he'd spring into action and, against all odds, firmly but chivalrously, put the French army to flight one more time. When he was four years old, I had to go into the hospital for a heart operation, a valve replacement. It's routine nowadays, I was told. Well, maybe, but to be on the safe side I cleared out a few drawers and wrote a note to everyone. I still have them. This is the one for Nicholas:

My dear little boy, Saying good-bye is the hardest thing I've ever had to do, but Mummy will have told you that I had to go. I didn't want to leave, however, without letting you know that you have given me some of the happiest times of my life. Times like our long walks together in the mountains and along the beaches, the books we read at bedtime, and the stories we told about Puffer, the magic engine.

You've been a super little pal, and I know you will grow up to be a fine, upright man. Take care of Mummy.

Your loving

Daddy

But in the end it was he who gave me a lifetime of memories. One late fall day at a checkout counter in Canada, a few months before he died, he pointed to a 99-cent plastic holder for a razor and said, "Look, Daddy, wouldn't that be a good thing for you to have when you go away?" Those are the sort of things I don't have the foresight to do, putting up with rummaging for loose blades in the bottom of my wash bag, but it having been pointed out, I bought it. It was a good choice, and coming home after a trip I told him how useful it had been. He smiled with pleasure. Now I take it with me whenever I travel and on some early mornings, as I start to shave in a hotel far from home, a picture of that checkout line, clear in every detail, with twilight coming on and snow in the air, brings on a shiver of loneliness.

St. Teresa's cemetery is in a narrow, steep-sided valley. It has no buildings or fine inscriptions, no springy turf, no water. A simple cross nailed to the wooden double gate is as near as it gets to art. But Maggie and I have always loved its simplicity. It's a place where the contemplation of life and death comes easily, Thomas Gray's country churchyard set in the West. Not being Catholic, however, it never crossed my mind that I would become a pilgrim there.

Now, every few days in the long dry season, we carry water up the steep concrete path-two gallons in each hand in milk containers, 130 paces from the gate, past the Gleasons and the Furlongs and into the Italian quarter, breathing hard at the end. Sometimes I see someone has been there recently watering the flowers, Donna Walter, perhaps, who lost two sons, one of whom is buried here.

I like to go there in the calm evenings when one side of the valley is in shadow and the other still warm with bright sunlight. The nearby hills are mostly bare, but with thick clusters of trees on the tops and along the watercourses. There are scarcely any buildings in sight. It is always peaceful.

Nicholas' picture is on his headstone and a few lines from the poem Wordsworth wrote about the six-year-old son of his friend, Samuel Coleridge:

"Thou art a dewdrop, which the morn brings forth,
Ill fitted to sustain unkindly shocks,
Or to be trailed along the soiling earth;
A gem that glitters while it lives,
And no forewarning gives;
But, at the touch of wrong, without a strife
Slips in a moment out of life."

Maggie chose it, one of those things that stirred in the memory, and however many times I see it I think, "Yes, that was Nicholas and that is exactly what happened to him."

As I splash water from the containers on the dry earth, I feel as though I'm taking part in an age-old ritual. Sometimes I wash the headstone, very gently as I get to his face. If I'm alone, I may say a few words to him. I know he isn't there, but it's hard to resist the impulse when I look at his smile. And then, before I leave, I often say how much I miss him, if I can get the words out.

From the beginning, people have left things there, small toys, letters, coins, or whatever they had in their pockets. John Cooley, father of the Bodega Bay family our children always felt closest to, made a beautiful redwood bench and someone has fastened a bell to it. Recently, more chimes have appeared and even in the gentlest breeze they tinkle a welcome, like a child's voice. A toy pistol has been there for some time, not an appropriate gift it seems at first sight, but no doubt some small boy felt it was just what another small boy would want. From time to time, we find affectionate letters in Italian. At Halloween a young friend who hadn't forgotten this was Nicholas' favorite night left a pumpkin, carved into a face, complete with candles. Sometimes in the winter when the pelting rain comes in, I find myself wondering if he'll catch cold on that chilly slope.

On what would have been his ninth birthday, Eleanor and I lit a candle at twilight and put it on the grave. After she'd gone to bed, I felt the urge to go back, almost certain it would have blown out. At the gate my heart gave a leap. Through the blackness, high on the hillside, I could see a tiny point of light. The fog had rolled in, there wasn't a star to be seen, and all the sounds were muffled. A small animal rustled in the grass. Everything else was still. I sat on the bench, watching the warm light playing on his face and the shiny leaves of the rose bushes Maggie had planted. For a long time, there was nothing else in the world.

I'd always thought Nicholas would respond to the eternal flame. We have a photo of him in Paris looking gravely at the one on the tomb of France's unknown warrior. Now it was my turn to try to see eternity in fleeting life. But sitting there, and looking at that mound of earth, all that would come was the sense of an irreparable loss. As I got back to the car, however, I looked up and there in the encircling darkness, scarcely quivering, was that one delicate reminder of the unending power of love.

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