Twenty-four years ago, my daughter, Eleanor Green, 4 years old, was sleeping next to her 7-year-old brother, Nicholas, on the back seat of our rented car on a family vacation in southern Italy when he was shot in an attempted carjacking. The tragedy captured the world’s imagination when my wife, Maggie, and I donated his organs and corneas to seven very sick Italians, four of them teenagers.
On July 14, Eleanor, whose sadness and composure as a child had pierced hearts everywhere, was married at the memorial tower we built for Nicholas and all children who have died. A hundred and forty bells hang from the tower, sent by families who think of their children playing in a safe place with other children like themselves. They came from all over the world, though mostly from Italy, where organ donation rates, until then almost the lowest in Western Europe, have tripled, a rate of increase no other country has come close to.
The centerpiece bell was sent by Pope John Paul II, who was deeply moved by the story, and blessed by him. Some bells were made for the occasion by grieving parents, others had been in families for generations and had at last found their true home.
There were so many bells that the Italian government arranged for an air force transport plane to bring them to Alameda Naval Base. The captain of the plane told me the crew had been to Russia recently to collect the remains of Italian soldiers killed in World War II that the Soviets had held on to for 50 years as a cynical bargaining chip. I thought of those families — wives, children, even a few aged mothers and fathers — waiting at an airfield in Italy for those pathetic body bags and said “Bringing a cargo of bells must seem very bland after all that.”
“No,” he replied, “I have the same feeling of great love and great sorrow I did then.”
The tower, which was designed and built by Bruce Hasson, a San Francisco sculptor, is in Bodega Bay, the village in Northern California where Alfred Hitchcock made “The Birds” and where we lived before moving to La Cañada. Eleanor attended La Cañada High, as did her twin siblings Laura and Martin, and then went on to study economics and government at Pitzer College. She is now a teacher at the Bert Corona High School in Pacoima. Her husband is Matthew Burgette, a sound mixer who works on movies and commercials.
Asked why they had chosen this spot for their wedding, Eleanor replied: “Nicholas has served as an inspiration for so many people around the world, but to me he’s still simply my big brother and I want him there on one of the most meaningful days of my life.”
Reg Green lives in La Cañada Flintridge and regularly writes commentary pieces for the La Cañada Valley Sun. He can be reached via nicholasgreen.org.