The Gifts of Nicholas

updated 10/24/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

AS HIS FAMILY'S MONTH-LONG VACATION to Italy and Switzerland approached, 7-year-old Nicholas Green became increasingly intrigued by the prospect. The rosy-cheeked second-grader devoured books on Roman history. He announced that Julius Caesar was his new hero. And he was enthralled by the Greek and Roman myths his mother, Maggie, read to him—particularly the one about Persephone. She was the young goddess kidnapped by the King of the Underworld but, because of her mother's grief, allowed to return to earth for a few months each year. "The idea of a sad little person below the ground, and the joy of coming back again, he seemed to get the idea of rebirth in an adult way," recalled his father, Reginald.

For Nicholas's family the tale would soon seem bitterly poignant. On Sept. 29, as the Greens, from Bodega Bay, Calif., drove at night along a desolate highway in southern Italy with Nicholas and his little sister, Eleanor, 4, they were overtaken by a small, light-colored car. Two men inside, their faces hidden by black kerchiefs, shouted in Italian and gestured for Reg Green to stop. When Green, fearing for his family, didn't, the men opened fire. Little Nicholas, struck in the head as he lay sleeping on the back seat, died in a hospital two days later.

As a nation, the Italians were horrified by the crime—then deeply moved by the Greens' unexpected response. Rather than reacting with what might have seemed justifiable bitterness, Reg, 65, and Maggie, 33, decided to donate their son's organs to seven Italians. "It wasn't an issue for us," says the British-born Reg. "It was a purely routine decision."

In Italy, however, which has one of the lowest rates of organ donation in Europe, the kindness of these strangers seemed far from routine. Thanks poured in from around the country. At a ceremony in Rome, President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro presented the Greens with a medal of honor. Later they met with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. "As we stood up to go, the prime minister put his arm around me, and as he put his face against mine I felt this tear running down his cheek," says Green. "It was a healing, comforting moment."

There was more comfort waiting back in Bodega Bay—a close-knit seaside community 55 miles north of San Francisco—where the couple, married eight years, have lived since 1988. When the Greens returned on Oct. 4, they found their rustic redwood home—which doubles as an office for the mutual-fund newsletter Reg publishes—overflowing with flowers, food and gifts from neighbors. "They aren't the kind of people who let their emotions spill out," says friend Robin Cooley. "I just told Maggie that I'll still be here when everyone else is gone, and when she's ready, she can get real messy with me."

"I know we have a long time of grief ahead of us," admits Maggie, who stopped working as Reg's assistant to become a full-time mother after Eleanor was born. But for now, she and her husband say, they can't afford the luxury of grief—they have to think about their 4-year-old. "It's too soon to say she's not scarred, but I hope not," says Maggie. "We decided that the more she knows about what happened to Nicholas, the easier it is for her to cope with it," adds Reg, who has two grown children and a 9-month-old grandson from his first marriage.

Already, Eleanor seems to be dealing with the loss of her brother. On the return flight, Maggie says, she "built a little hospital and laid all her animals in it.... She was helping these little dolls to get better. And they did." At home, Eleanor started playing a fantasy game with Cooley's son Michael, 5. Robin heard her ask, "Would you be my older brother and I'll be your sister?"

Eleanor probably learned such games from her real brother, who would spend hours acting out imagined scenes from the lives of Robin Hood and other characters. Interested in everything from tap-dancing classes to history, "he was very secure and didn't have to be the cool kid," says Cooley. "He was into building forts, and imagination." In Switzerland, Nicholas wanted to visit a Roman outpost. When the Greens arrived in Italy on Sept. 27, he was in his element. He was mesmerized by the Colosseum and the Forum during a tour of Rome, then by the ruins of Pompeii a day later.

On Thursday evening while Nicholas, his mother and sister slept, Green began the long drive south from the Naples area to Palermo, Sicily, unaware that the nearly empty highway is notorious for robberies. When the attackers car sped up beside him, just before 11 p.m., Green felt his only hope was to flee. Before he could try, two bullets shattered the windows and a third hit the hood.

By now, Maggie and Eleanor were awake as Green put the gas pedal to the floor. After he drew away, the would-be bandits soon abandoned the chase, but the Greens were afraid to stop until several miles later, when they spotted police cars at the scene of an accident. Nicholas had seemed still to be sleeping, and it was only then that the Greens spotted the blood. "I saw his little body lying there, says Reg, "and I didn't have much hope. My feeling was of senseless wastefulness."

An ambulance at the scene rushed Nicholas to a hospital, but doctors could do nothing: he was in an irreversible coma. On Saturday, soon after doctors told the Greens that their son had no brain activity, they made the decision to remove him from life support and to share his vital organs. "His future was taken away from him," Green explained in one of the interviews that would soon make the family heroes in Italy. "We thought it was very important to give his future to someone who had lost theirs."

For seven very fortunate Italians, the Greens' gift may mean just that. Nicholas's liver went to Maria Pia Pedala, 19, a young Sicilian who doctors say would have died in two days without it. Tino Motta, an 11-year-old Sicilian, received one of Nicholas's kidneys, while the other went to Anna Maria Di Ceglie, 14, of Bari. A 30-year-old Roman woman with diabetes got islet cells from Nicholas's pancreas to help her body produce insulin. But the recipient most in need of a transplant was Andrea Mongiardo, the boy who received Nicholas's heart. Andrea's problems were so severe that at 15 he weighed only 53 pounds.

In the days following Nicholas's death, organ donations in Italy increased by 400 percent. The country's consul general in San Francisco, Giulio Prigioni, told the family later, "You have made a miracle."

Reaction to the tragedy was very much on Reg Green's mind on the day of his son's funeral in Bodega Bay last week as he prepared to say a few words to the mourners. Blinking back tears, he gazed out at uniformed Cub Scouts from Nicholas's pack, at sober-faced friends and neighbors. "Nicholas has struck a spark of love in the hearts of millions of parents and children around the world," he said. "If this isn't immortality, it must surely come close."

PAM LAMBERT
MICHAEL SMALL in Bodega Bay and GABRIELLE SAVERI in Rome

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