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The Nicholas Effect

   

Chapter Twenty-Four: The End of the Road

All my adult life, I've been an agnostic. Since Nicholas died, I've thought harder than ever about this. What a comfort it would be to feel that one day we would be together again in some way. Being agnostic means recognizing that it is a possibility. Many people have written to us to say they see Nicholas as an angel or in the arms of God, and I can agree thus far: if there is a heaven, Nicholas has surely earned a place in it.

Unconvinced, however, I have to make do with whatever consolations I can find on earth. There are many of them. To have had him at all was against all likelihood. At an age when I should have been filling the role of grandfather, I was crawling under furniture looking for pacifiers. But in return I got a little friend who for seven years brought sunshine into every day.

All I know of life tells me how little I know of it and so how tentative all judgments have to be. I've never been attracted to big theories that come and go, are dominant for a time, unquestioned even, then simply discarded and in time begin to seem ludicrous. Yet at one time, people just like us believed in them as passionately as we believe in today's theories. So now, when I'm faced with drawing conclusions from what happened to Nicholas, I don't seek the answers in theories, but in small pieces of evidence I can rely on: the kindness of strangers, the efficacy of modern medicine, the superiority of truth over lies.

It's not as though death is a surprise. As Colin Dexter says, we are all moving toward it at the same speed of twenty-four hours a day. The idea of railing against it or beating the air with puny fists is manifestly futile. We already know the world is a hazardous place and full of random accidents. We expect our children to outlive us, but we can't be sure. Who is free of fear when a child doesn't come home on time?

So, when death strikes, it isn't as though the world has lost the meaning it had yesterday. It's our place in it that has changed. If you are a believer, you can't throw God away because he has failed to protect you, and if you have never believed, you can't turn to a God who will give life an explanation it didn't have before. Our beliefs evolve, certainly, but deathbed repentance is suspect, even when it is someone else's deathbed.

I was pleased to read Maggie's comment in an interview that I'd been tenacious in retaining my agnosticism. I'm equally pleased to see how little this whole affair has altered her views. No doubt her beliefs too will continue to evolve. But, as far as I can tell, her faith is neither significantly stronger nor weaker than it was. It's the mark of principles held by conviction rather than habit.

I believe too that, after all is said, every man is an island. No one, I think, can truly share our moments of exultation or despair. The islands, however, can be set either in a warm and pleasant sea that encourages contact or in a cold and hostile ocean. The response to what happened to us has strengthened my conviction that the environment around these islands is a good deal friendlier than is widely supposed. Hundreds and hundreds of people have written to us, offering whatever help they can, their voices clear and uplifting. I think of it as a benign form of global warming.

The slaughter of an innocent reminded people all over the world of the fragility of life, and hence the importance of living up, rather than down, to it. At the time, I said I imagined parents who heard the story giving their children an extra hug before they went off to school in the morning or reading an extra chapter with them at bedtime. If Nicholas were asked what would be the very best thing that could come out of all this, I bet that would be it.

The awards given to us have put him in the company of Mother Teresa and Walt Disney, St. Valentine and Pope John XXIII, Raoul Wallenberg and Lambchop. Obviously we never fooled ourselves into believing his stature was in their league-he was there representing the power of childhood to transform the world. Nevertheless, when the history of the world comes to be written, I like to think Nicholas will be a shining footnote.

When we were planning our vacation to Italy, we played a game. In it, he was a Roman soldier returning after years of service on the frontiers-the Scottish border, Gaul, the Alps, all places where he'd seen evidence of the Roman Empire. Back in Rome you'll be treated like a hero, we told him. People will write poems about you, you'll be given gold medals, children will cheer when your name is mentioned. It was just a game, but it all came true. With this difference, however: that Nicholas conquered not by the force of arms, but by love-and that, of course, is much stronger.

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An Invitation

Please remember, the Nicholas effect continues whenever you make a response.


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