Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something!
Grief’s Wake Up Call by Gabriel Constans.
Nicholas Lives On – Part 1
In the fall of ninety-four, Reggie and Maggie Green were on holiday in Italy, driving peacefully through Messina with their children Nicholas and Eleanor (seven and four years old) sleeping soundly in the back seat. Out of the dark night a vehicle creeps alongside. They hear angry shouts and demands to pull over. Terrifying gunshots slam into the body of their car. Reg outruns, what turns out to be, Calabrian highway bandits. Upon arriving safely at their hotel they check the children, who they believe have slept through the traumatic incident. As they try to arose Nicholas they discover a horrible gunshot wound to his head. Two days later Nicholas is pronounced dead.
Without hesitation the Greens decide to donate his organs. This act, which to them is the only choice imaginable, soon catapults them into national and international attention. Nicholas organs go to seven people. Organ donations increase dramatically. Surprisingly, revenge is not in the Greens’ vocabulary, only the reporters ask about retribution. Reg Green says, “There is no sum of money that could give me back my son. Whereas justice heals, vengeance just creates new problems.” The Italian Ambassador Boris Biancheri tells them, “Your names and the name of Nicholas have become for Italians somehow synonymous with courage, of forgiveness and compassion.” Upon their arrival back in the U.S. they continued to advocate for organ donations and speak frequently in public about the importance of turning personal tragedy into life for others.
REGGIE: Nicholas was a very gentle and intellectual boy. He had the usual tantrums every kid does, but he was unusually well behaved. I was already in my sixties when we had him and was astonished at how easy he was growing up. He didn’t seem to cry much.
One of the great things was he was such good company. He seemed to be interested in everything. Going out with him on my back or with him sitting next to me in the car was very fulfilling.
He was rigorously honest. When we came back from Italy, after he’d been killed, Maggie said, “I never remember him telling a lie.” I said the same thing and thought, “We better not tell anybody, because they’ll think it’s too much.” But of course now we’ve told everybody. I just couldn’t resist . . . I wanted to do my best. I didn’t want to deify him . . . because there’s always that temptation. Whenever I’m asked to describe Nicholas, that always stands out . . . his honesty.
He loved games and dressing up to play different roles. Robin Hood was his most enduring . . . he kind of owned that role. Maggie always made a big thing of Halloween, getting dressed up and all. They’d make things from scratch weeks beforehand. Nicholas was terribly proud of his costume. Everything had to be exactly right . . . he was awfully fussy. His gentleness was very pronounced . . . he wasn’t a rough boy.
MAGGIE: He was quite comfortable playing alone. He was a little bit different from the other kids but it was never a problem for him or the kids either. They liked him. He was different but he wasn’t a stranger. He was very friendly and willing to play with anybody. He never noticed that people did things differently then he. When he wanted to wear his bowtie, that’s what he wore. He never got caught up in Ninja Turtles or that kind of thing. He was more interested in reading Robin Hood with his dad or Treasure Island.
REGGIE: It didn’t strike him as strange that he was doing this. Like Maggie said, he never noticed that they weren’t doing the things he was. He wasn’t a leader exactly, but he had such good ideas that people often ended up doing what he was doing. Eleanor (Nicholas’s younger sister) still misses him. Early on she would say, “It’s not so much fun anymore without Nicholas to play with. He isn’t here to show me what to do.”
She was four when he was killed. We haven’t gone out of our way to talk about him but we haven’t closed off either. If the conversation turns that direction we let it go that way. Her attitude is sort of wistful. She says, “Do you remember when Nicholas did this? Wouldn’t Nicholas have liked that?” Her memories are surprisingly accurate. She spoke of an incident that occurred in Canada, three or four years ago now, and her memory conformed to what I recall as well.
She was on the backseat of the car at the time Nicholas was shot but slept right through it . . . which is what we thought he had done. She awoke to find that he’d been shot at the same time we discovered it. She doesn’t remember the horror of it . . . the loud angry voices and the shots themselves, which could have been quite terrifying.
When we came home she went back to sleeping in the same room where they’d both slept. She’s had no nightmares and no more tantrums than her father has. There are no obvious, as far as we can see, major psychological scars.
MAGGIE: I’ve heard of families who lose a child and then never speak of them again. They don’t dare say the child’s name to the mother for fear of upsetting her. I can’t understand that. We have many pictures of Nicholas around. Coming across an unexpected photograph can be difficult, but most of the photos are comforting.
REGGIE: One doesn’t want to forget. I mean, if the price of reducing the pain is to forget, then I don’t think it’s worth it. I always remember as much as I can. Day by day the memories fade a little. I try to write things down on paper. Those photographs to me . . . although there is a shot of pain about coming across one unexpected . . .or you know, a piece of clothing . . . something that has a special significance. I saw some of his books the other day and it is hard . . . but they’re very precious also.
MAGGIE: Eleanor has adopted Nicholas cowboy boots. They were an important element in many of his costumes. She wore them until she finally outgrew them. Either they mean something to her or she just felt, “Now they’re mine and I can do whatever I want with them.”
REGGIE: I don’t think of Nicholas being “present” in a spiritual sense. I’m agnostic, which means I don’t know, but it’s very unlikely that he’s somewhere, as it were. To me his being lives only in my memory. I sometimes try to think about something that happened, because it’s a precious memory for me . . . just as it would with other things as well. You know . . . like, “What did my friend and I do that weekend back when? What did he say?” I like that. I play with those old memories.
MAGGIE: In some ways I’m quite childish about it. On important occasions I sometimes credit Nicholas with arranging the weather . . . that he would be delighted with such. Like when it rained after the drought or when we had perfect weather for the dedication of the bell tower (a memorial for Nicholas) after worrying about it for several days. I kind of indulge myself in not being rational about it.
There are some things I feel I ought to do, like put together some photographs and write down memories for me and for Eleanor, which I still plan to do.
In a way we’ve been given a gift by being able to talk about Nicholas to a lot of people. With Reg giving speeches to groups or people like you, we get a lot of opportunities. People say, “I’m sorry to intrude”, but really it’s an opportunity for us to speak about him. Everyone likes to talk about their children and I think everybody whose lost a child would love to, but some people don’t get a chance or don’t know that it would be good . . . how helpful it would be.
REGGIE: It was thrust on us. As soon as Nicholas was shot the hotel was crowded with journalists from Rome, from all over Italy, to ask about the story. It was the lead story on the television for a number of days. It was even bigger news when we decided to donate the organs, which we thought was a purely personal decision. After the first days of questioning about what we might have done to be unsafe or draw the robbers to us, etc., the only question then was, “Where have you donated the organs?” From the time it took us to drive back from the hospital to the hotel they had already heard about the donation. They also asked, “Don’t you hate Italians?” Or, “Does this mean you forgive the killers?”
It was obvious to us over the first few days that this was a major thing for Italy and it could have major effects. We were seen by the Prime Minister. Everybody we met said something about it, particularly in that part of Italy. It was quite clear that we were seen as a symbol for change . . . certainly in Italy. When we came back to this country there was a mass of people at the airport as well, with the same questions. It wasn’t just an Italian issue, it was worldwide and it was obvious that we were in a position to do a lot about it.
Every year five thousand families donate organs in this country, even though it’s far less than needed. A lot of people have gone through what we have.
We simply thought, “He’s gone, there’s no way of bringing him back. Anything we do can’t possibly hurt him, but it can help other people.” To donate just seemed so obvious. We didn’t even have a discussion about it. One of us just turned to the other and said, more or less, what I just said and we both agreed.
There’s a sizable minority of people that donate, but it is difficult. People tell me that parents come into the hospital distraught or angry. A lot of them are angry at whoever “did it” or at the hospital for not somehow “saving them”, or at their husband, wife or self, for not having prevented it. Anger is often a powerful deterrent. People kind of lose their minds on occasion. They can’t cope with it.
We had a couple days to get used to it. Nicholas was in a coma for two days. We didn’t give up hope, but he was obviously not going to live. In fact, as soon as I saw the bullet wound I thought, “This is very, very serious.”
Our overwhelming feeling was of sadness, not anger. I was just so sad for the world . . . that it could do something like this to such an Innocent child. Nicholas had never hurt anybody in his life. He had no malice in him. It seemed like such a sad thing to have happen. That was my emotion throughout. I don’t ever remember getting angry about it . . . not even at the trial.
The reason I reacted this way must have been due to the influences of my childhood . . . mothers . . . fathers. I was an only child and had the right kind of books and lessons. My mother was very strong and sympathetic. She didn’t like to blame other people or look around for a scapegoat. School . . . all the books one read . . . everything gave me messages about the person I wanted to be. I always regarded railing at fate as being a weak sort of response. I’ve never believed that fate singled me out for blame or praise. I always had a happy life.
MAGGIE: I always thought that Reg was very intellectual about virtue and those things. I don’t know how he’s done it, being agnostic, but he seems to have done so very thoughtfully and established a code of behavior for himself . . . of some deep truth. It struck me when I first met him that he was one of the most virtuous people I knew. And luckily, we didn’t have all the religious talk. So, I don’t know if he used the power of intellect at that time to deal with it or not, but he already had a strong foundation.
I was raised as a Presbyterian but have always been quite casual about it. But I found at that time that it was quite necessary to pray and I found that being in a Catholic country . . . with all the trappings of faith around . . . was very comforting. (She mentioned later during lunch that she repeated the Lord’s Prayer when he was killed, as well as, “Do unto others and forgive them their trespasses.”) It didn’t send me back to church, but the comfort and support . . . of what lay beyond and what hope there might be.
My father died when I was eight, so I expect my mother was quite an example of dealing with that. The strength of raising a family by yourself and being very poor. And I suppose it was kind of a shock to find out that things can go wrong. I’ve always expected the worst. I find that a help really. Reg can be out for a walk and I’ll start to wonder if I can hear ambulances. That’s just the way I am.