The Nicholas Green Story
The Nicholas Green Story: Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! – Grief’s Wake Up Call by Gabriel Constans.
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 arise, 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.
Interview with Reggie and Maggie Green
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 helpful, 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.
REGGIE: And we both spend a lot of time with books. It’s through books that I learn about life. They tell you how life was and how it should be; what was foolish and what was effective. Those things get inside you I think and cause the reactions, which become instinctive.
When people say they thought that Nicholas was the brightest star in the sky or they saw him in a grove of trees or as an angel . . . I like to hear that . . . it shows their compassion . . . that they went outside themselves to find the most comforting thing they could think of and wanted to pass it on to us.
Such comments don’t convince me in any way, shape or form about any spiritual realities, however. I have to look for concrete things that continue to do good. For example, organ donations are up in Italy by more than fifty percent. That’s hundreds of people walking around today who would have died by now. There’s a real sense of something good coming out of it . . . real hard physical good.
Life is a complete mystery to me; I’ve got to say. Death is a complete blank. I really don’t know about it or even have a hypothesis. What I’m trying to do in my life then, if you don’t understand death or the purpose of life, is deal with it on the level that I can and I know there are certain things to me that seem to be better than others: kindness is better than cruelty; full stomachs are better than starvation; making a joke is better than hurting someone. Those sorts of things have always struck me as I’ve grown up.
I’ve tried to concentrate on the things I can understand and handle. And this was one of them where one could palpably see good come out of it. We’ve since met all the people who received Nicholas’s organs. The difference in them is quite astonishing. The thought has come to me since “We saved those people from going through the devastation we’ve gone through.” And you know, if you can’t do that then, come on . . . it seemed so obvious at the time.
We go to a lot of organ-donating meetings and I have never met anyone who’s ever said they regretted it. Most people say it’s helped them a lot. In fact, most meetings we go to someone will come up and say, “I wish I’d done that.” Because they sense that somehow we got something back from it.
The worse thing about Nicholas’s death, besides the loss, which is terrible, is that he never reached his potential. To me that’s the most awful thought. It does subside after awhile, though it’s always there. The fact that he never got that chance is the thing that I find most difficult. It’s not just one’s own dreams having been unfulfilled; it’s the fact that his dreams weren’t fulfilled. To me that is the worst thing about it. He never got to live to his potential. But . . . we have all the memories and he was a wonderful little boy and because of that, I think we can deal with it.
As you know I’m a father late in life and I always wondered what would happen . . . that I might not get to see him as an adult or know how he’d turn out in the end.
People that have helped have tried to give what they could. Whatever they’ve done seems to be the best possible. If they’re budding poets, and every Italian turned out to be a poet, they write a poem. Someone wrote music, part of a piano sonata to Nicholas. Somebody else did a full-scale choral work. People reached down inside and found the essence of what they wanted to do. That is very comforting; that it made people feel that way. One man sent us a book about Eskimos written in Italian, of which we don’t speak a word, but that was what was important to him.
And we’ve been very active in all this. Whenever the flame dies down I pour some more gasoline on it. What I didn’t want to happen was have everybody very sympathetic about it for a couple of days and then comes along the next tragedy. I was determined to use whatever resources I could. I was a journalist and dabbled in PR for a time so I had some skills. My idea was to make it stick; to etch it on people’s minds; to not have it forgotten. We’ve written articles by the dozens, traveled all around the country, spoken to all kinds of audiences. The universality of the response was not just from mothers and fathers, but from admirals, writers, police.
I think there are a lot of elements to this response, a sort of mixture that’s made the alchemy . . . an innocent child for one thing. I think we were able to get across a sense of what he was like. We had a photograph of him in my camera and that picture was sent around the world, so right from the beginning people knew what he looked like. And we’d tell stories . . . Maggie would tell stories. People built a picture of him fairly early on. The fact that we were foreigners in their country and they didn’t “protect us”, as it were, also struck a chord.
All those factors came together. And though neither of us is Catholic, the Catholic Church has been hugely supportive. The Pope blessed the central bell that’s in the memorial bell tower. Catholicism itself, at some level, probably has a theory about all this. The official position certainly is very supportive.
MAGGIE: One reason has to be that Reg was a journalist and therefore had no fear of the press. Some people are afraid to talk and don’t know what’s going to happen. We were willing to talk to people right from the beginning. The day after we got back to the states we were on all three morning shows (television). It’s hard to be willing to do that about organ donation because it’s always the result of a loss and some families aren’t up for it. A good part of it is being willing to be in newspapers and on TV. All the stories we’ve encountered talking to other donor families . . . they always have some cruel twist or the child had a lot of promise . . . any of them could have been that sentinel.
Reg was on the phone from the hotel room to the London Times as soon as we found out Nicholas had died. They did a terrible story and got three-quarters of the facts wrong, but he still thought of talking to them like that.
REGGIE: That’s right. Many people will say, “Not now, we need to think about it.” Or, “We’ll get back to you.” The press isn’t like that. They want immediate information and if you haven’t got it the story will get written anyway, so you might as well get it accurate.
I made a conscious decision when we came back, “We can do some good here.” I really made a point of going out and trying to get as many people interested as possible. I saturated the market. As a result, there are very few talk shows or magazines that the story hasn’t been in. Of course, there’s always the feeling when you go on television or in a newspaper, wondering if your doing it for self-advertising. I try to examine myself closely and although the attention is flattering, I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it was doing some good. I can’t get rid of the fact that I’m pleased if Barbara Walters wants to talk to me but I’ve tried to do a rational assessment of whether it will help or not.
And we’ve been on all kinds of shows. Do you know that one called The Other Side? A guy on the day before us was a private detective whose job was to track down vampires. You wonder if this is the right kind of an audience, but on the other hand, perhaps it’s the very people who wouldn’t otherwise consider it. The National Inquirer called and one always has to worry . . . because they do distort the facts . . . tabloids have a tendency to do that. We talked for an hour and a half and a very sober article came out of it. So, a lot of people read this that might never even think of organ donations.
MAGGIE: In a way, it helped too. Those first numb days . . . when we visited the Prime Minister and President of Italy and went on the Italian equivalent of the Jay Leno Show . . . that helped prepare us for the future when we were talking to The Rotarians. There was a sense of, “We did that” and nobody’s looking for the bad in us, so we can deal with it.
REGGIE: It doesn’t bother me if people are looking for the bad and as far as I can tell there isn’t any of that here . . . on this particular topic. As far as this is concerned our motives are clear. Whatever people make of that, that’s fine. And if at the end of the day people decide they wouldn’t want to donate their organs, I for one wouldn’t want to change their minds. People have really strong beliefs. For some people it’s wrong. They should not be forced into it.
I was in Italy last week talking with a journalist and he said, “You know, not everybody sees it like you. My grandmother, for instance, is terrified of donating organs because she thinks she wouldn’t go to heaven.” And a chaplain I met said, “A lot of these splinter groups in Italy, these fundamentalist groups, are against such things.”
I don’t like coercion. I’d like it to come from the heart. The use of coercion just raises the whole tone of society. Being agnostic I can’t rule out the fact that these people may be right. I know it seems ridiculous now but it was a very strong belief at one point. A week before his death we were in a church in Switzerland, with Nicholas, and there was a painting of a man who wouldn’t get into heaven because he was deformed. Of course, that doesn’t occur to me, but if somebody believes that, it would be terrible to try to force that person into something. I much prefer the other method, which I see is working, of information and raising awareness.
All polls in this country show that something like ninety percent believes in organ donation, almost nobody is opposed to it. When it actually happens, of course, the actual decision is much more difficult. The key to it, therefore, is giving information and that approach is much more likely to get results than coercion or pressure.
The bell tower is a part of all this too. It was made as a memorial for Nicholas. It isn’t anything I would have thought up myself. When I first heard about it, it took my breath away. A sculptor in Italy wanted to produce this tower; at first with the idea that there would be only one bell. He was designing a bell for the United Nations Fiftieth Anniversary, which was a private venture and made from melted firearms collected by the police. He said he wanted to design it and wouldn’t charge anything. In addition to that, he put in innumerable hours trying to get the right kind of steel structure, the right stones for the wall. He drove all around California looking for what he needed and just wouldn’t take a penny. Once we mentioned this in Italy and got one of the big magazines to support it, bells started to appear. People would rush into their house and come out with a hundred-year-old bell they’d give us. Sometimes they’d be from people who’d lost a child or some other loved one, but often just people who were touched by the whole idea. There are church bells along with cowbells on it now, and we keep getting them. There are over a hundred and thirty bells and we have no more room. Now we’re having to think about what to do next. There’s a real sense that people have taken to a lovely idea . . . which is the preciousness of life.
The Papal Foundry, which has been making bells for a thousand years, offered a bell. It’s a very big bell. The Pope blessed it before it left Italy, even though neither of us is Catholic.
It’s there for the children and a way to remind people of the power of organ donation . . . that it can save lives. And, on a more spiritual note, it reminds people of the impermanence of life . . . of using life for whatever good you can. You know, I think that’s a thing about both Maggie and I have come to separately . . . even though we don’t believe in any particular cause to go out and say, “You’ve got to do this or that.” We prefer to say, “This is what we believe; what we’ve done.” Maggie leads by example. She doesn’t talk about it much; she’s very diffident about her capabilities. Her example is the thing that struck me when I first met her. I’ve never known such honesty, gentleness, and purpose . . . they sort of transmute themselves.
If you go back to what has influenced me most, it’s the example of people doing their thing; not telling you about it, but doing it. I always knew about death. It wasn’t a strange concept. And if you’ve got a set of beliefs, you should stick to them. Don’t throw out a whole lifetime of thinking or believing just because something happens.
I always knew there was violence in the world. I always knew there were catastrophes . . . but because it then happened to me doesn’t mean that suddenly the whole world is wrong or different than yesterday. Now, it may be a good world or a bad world, but it’s there all the time. If you believed in God before you shouldn’t stop because he’s not being “good” to you in this particular case. Or, if you don’t believe in God, you can’t all of a sudden start inventing one. I never believed in deathbed repentances, especially someone else’s deathbed. Certainly, you’ve got to let events modify what you believe and indeed they may revolutionize it, but it’s not something that ought to be done lightly or wholesale in an emotional state. I don’t know exactly what it is that gives Maggie her strength, but she has continued, as far as I can see, as far as her religious beliefs are concerned, to not be very different than how she was before. I think this is bigger than religion . . . it’s about all life.
I’ve always known there was violence and poverty. There is a random quality to these things . . . if I’d gone left instead of right this might never have happened. I get strength from the belief that people are fundamentally decent. I’ve seen a lot of cruelty as a journalist. I’ve seen miserably self-centered behavior, but I think people in their core are decent and they want to do the right thing. I also think people are very lethargic. They want to do something but never get around to it. In general, though, there’s a wellspring in most people of wanting to stand up tall. I’ve experienced hundreds and hundreds of people who have that human sympathy. They’ll write to us in order to be comforting in some way. The letters have been such an outpouring of compassion and sympathy. A lot of them say, “I’ve never said this before” or “I don’t know how to say this . . .” and then say something with simple eloquence and depth.
I’ve learned a lot going through this about people I already knew. It turns out that a very good friend of mine had lost his brother and family but never spoke about it. And I never knew that before; even though I’d known him for over thirty years! I realized that there is a lot more behind peoples’ faces then we give them credit for. They’re often harboring the memory of some terrible thing that happened. They hide an enormous amount of death. It makes you more sympathetic to life.
Tolstoy said, “To know all is to forgive all.” I always thought that was a really nice idea. To be fair to myself I’d say I knew it before, but Nicholas’s death intensified it. The more you know about yourself . . . I’d say if there’s one key to everything it’s to “know yourself”. Just to understand yourself. If you know your own workings then you understand others much better.
In a sense though Gabriel, what I find is that to give people a “how too” in this kind of thing . . . I don’t see that there’s a kind of recipe you can use. It takes a long, long time to create who you are and how you react to whatever. If I was going to try to preach to anybody it would be on those kinds of lines.
MAGGIE: This is one of those situations where getting information out there helps. I suspect that one reason the donation rate is so low in Italy is that you’re expected to be prostate in grief . . . screaming and shouting. We were forgiven for not acting like that because we were foreigners. They would be made to feel guilty for appearing to be rational enough to make such a choice at a time like that. They now see there are many ways to grieve and choices that can save lives.