After taking me to dinner at the famous Cesarina restaurant in Rome the other night — once the second home of Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni — my host, a renowned transplant surgeon, told the maitre d’ that I was the father of an American boy who was shot in an attempted carjacking on the Salerno-Reggio Calabria autostrada and whose organs were donated to seven Italians, four of them teenagers. “Ah, Nicholas Green,” came the reply and as we shook hands I saw tears in his eyes.
It was deeply satisfying to me for my seven-year old son to be remembered in the company of such gods of world cinema but, I have to say, not a great surprise. Twenty years ago, I wrote ‘an open letter’ to the Italian people, thanking them for their massive eruption of support for our family. In a long lifetime I still can’t recall anything else like it anywhere in the world.
Now, just back from my latest visit, I am writing another open letter to mark an equally unprecedented event: the continuation of that emotion after all these years. I have grown used to it but in many ways it is even more meaningful than the initial upsurge.
Italy has turned its sorrow into the most practical benefit possible. immediately after Nicholas was killed organ donation rates soared and went on soaring for 10 years until they are now triple what they were then, a rate of increase no other country has come close to. Thousands of people are alive, who would have died, including many children. a gain of that size must have contributory causes but no one doubts that the prime reason was the story of one small boy and Italy’s generous-hearted response to it.
History is littered with good causes of white-hot intensity that cool a few months later. Every day the media is full of tragedies, sometimes involving thousands of deaths that a year or two later most readers find difficult to remember in any detail. Yet this one small death has stayed in the hearts of millions of Italians, many of them who were just children themselves when Nicholas was killed.
On this latest visit I heard again what I have heard on the forty something other times I have been in Italy to talk about organ donation: people of all types, from professors of philosophy to members of an alpine rescue team, saying just where they were when they heard we had donated his organs: “I had just come home from work,” “I heard it on the car radio when I was going to pick up my daughter from school.” “My whole family were glued to the television set waiting for more news” and tears come to their eyes. This is the kind of thing we who are old enough to remember used to say after President Kennedy was shot to describe our shocked disbelief.
On a recent trip to Sicily I talked to a class of small children, who listened wide-eyed as I told them how a little boy not much older than them had saved the lives of five people and restored the sight of two others. “You and your wife spoke in this school in the year after Nicholas was killed,” the principal reminded me. It was only then that i realized I was talking to the children of the children who had also gazed at me in wonder that day in 1995.
In the hallway of another school there are two clocks, one like those in every other Italian school, the other marked ‘bodega bay time,’ a daily reminder of the little village in California where Nicholas lived and a continuing stimulus to the idealism of the students.
Traveling on a road in southern Italy last year, we suddenly came to a road block manned by strikers from a local factory. The line of traffic was long and growing. Burly men were on hand to silence anyone pleading to get through. My driver drove on slowly but undaunted. “Get back over there,” the strike leader ordered us. “I’m with the father of the American boy who was shot,” the driver replied. “He’s going to give a speech about organ donation.” A suspicious face peered inside the car, then broke into a smile. “Let this one through,” he told his fellows and off we went.
Nicholas at the age of 7, on the Alps, a few days before he was killed
Every segment of the population continues to show its sympathy: young, old, rich, poor, every shade of political opinion, every religion or none, some of the world’s most prominent men — Maggie and I have met two Italian prime ministers and a president, all of whom have treated us like old family friends, not as leaders of their country — and some of the most beautiful women. At a dinner at the White House for a visiting prime minister, some years ago, where i was a guest, I spoke to Sophia Loren, another guest, who told me, “We Italians feel very close to you.” (Wow!). One night in Rome, when blonde bombshell Alessia Marcuzzi was sitting at a nearby table in a restaurant, I introduced myself as Nicholas’ father. That night she wrote a short piece on her Facebook page. Normally she receives a thousand ‘likes’ for these posts. For this one, it was 39,000 including thousands of passionate comments in favor of organ donation.
The Catholic Church has been heartfelt in its support at every level. Pope John Paul II authorized the making of a magnificent bell with Nicholas’ name and those of his recipients on it for a bell tower commemorating children who have died that we built in Bodega Bay. On the tower are 140 other bells, most of them sent by Italian families. I think of it as a little piece of Italy’s soul on the Pacific Ocean. At the grassroots level, an order of young nuns, The Apostles of the Interior Life, who combine four hours of prayer a day with the most tender compassion for humanity, were eager to help extract the greatest possible good out of Nicholas’ death, when I visited them in Rome recently.
I also met for the first time Valentina Lijou, a cousin of Andrea Mongiardo, the boy who at age 15 received Nicholas’ heart and who died a few weeks ago. Two years older than her, he had been the driving force in their childhood games. “He was always making us laugh,” she said. By the time of the transplant, however, he was receiving transfusions of blood products twice a week, a gaunt, frail little figure who could barely shuffle to the door of his apartment. All that changed with the transplant: “I’ve now got a Ferrari for a heart,” he used to say. Like most transplants, this one didn’t prolong a sickly life: it transformed it and, until last June, he was living a more or less normal life in good spirits and with a job. Once, when I met him, I remember putting my hand on his heart and feeling it beating strongly and regularly. “Good boy, Nicholas,” I said to myself. To the very end that heart did its work perfectly and Andrea’s death was due not to its weakening but to respiratory failure.
I think everyone who has heard about Nicholas knows he loved Italy: Maggie, who studied architecture, gave him his fascination with its art and monuments and I, through my love of history, helped add color. But it was his own personality that brought all this together into an appreciation for Italy far beyond his years. He thrilled to the idea of the ancient roads radiating out from the center of Rome to the ends of the known world, he was astonished by the mosaics at Ravenna and when I read to him the story of the blinded Polyphemus running his hands over the giant rams where Ulysses’ men were clinging I thought he would burst with excitement.
Having lost all this, we are asked at almost every stop, “Don’t you hate Italy?” I hope the answer is clear. Maggie and I have never thought that Italy pulled the trigged. Two criminals killed Nicholas: it could have happened anywhere. But what couldn’t have happened anywhere was the response. I don’t think any other country in the world would have shown involvement of this order. It was that flood of human warmth that helped turn a reckless act of brutality into a universal lesson in which life has triumphed over death and hope over despair.
What else is there to say, except “Thank you, Italy”.
Link to the Italian version: https://nicholaseffect.org/2017/03/28/una-lettera-aperta-agli-italiani/