Saturday, May 19, 2012


Right about now, Nick Johnson is floating in the ethos. He's in Canterbury and he's in Rome. He's in Cornwall and here in Virginia and he's also in Sydney, Australia and in lots of other places too, I'm sure.

It's that time of the year.  Our families were particularly close in Rome, from 2004-08.  We celebrated Christmas at the school concert and walked down Via del Corso for pizza afterwards. We shared Easter lunch, met up at school fetes, and at our apartment in Monte Mario, and we also visited the Johnsons at their summer home in Biarritz.   On May Day 2008, we picnicked in the Borghese Gardens and sat together underneath the trees. "And even though we are moving back to the States," I said, as I raised my glass, "we will be friends for life." 

"Absolutely," Nick replied. His eyes shone as we all clinked glasses.  We knew our friendship would last forever.  But this would be our last time together as families.  Our youngest sons - Elliot and Fergus, ran off to rent bikes; Ben and Nick walked together under the trees, talking together and smoking while me and Noreen lazed on the grass, talking as we always did in our easy eternal way, watching shadows pass across the day.
It was May 1, 2008.  On the last day of May, we buried him.

 Here is Ben, Noreen and Nick in Biarritz.

Nick was the principal of St Georges British International School, which our sons Alex and Elliot attended for four of the most important years in their young lives.  Alex graduated from St Georges with a Baccalaureate, and his choice of university and onward pursuits, were guided and informed by Nick.  When he realized we were moving back to Virginia, Nick assured me that Elliot would be fine, because I worried he wouldn't find his niche, being unusual.

"Oh, he will have something special to give," Nick assured me. "Because he'll have had this experience abroad. And they'll pick up on it."  Nick had a way of drawing in his breath and nodding when he spoke, as if to underscore the sincerity of his endorsements.

In Biarritz, Nick and Noreen, Ben and I walked down to the ocean, sat together on the sand, swam and discussed our children and our lives, prepared dinners, lingered in the market square over coffee. We stayed up late into the nights, drinking and singing, while Nick playing his guitar - his son Bardan (our son Alex's dear friend) accompanying him on  violin.  Nick had always been a tearaway, a busker in his youth - traveling across Australia together with Noreen. His free spirit informed his wisdom as a mentor and, along with his intellect, made a deep impression on our sons.

On May 15, 2008, I was driving down the Cassia to St Georges School, when Noreen's friend Rosie phoned.  "Are you driving, Amanda, " she asked.  I said I was and she asked me to call her back as soon as I could.

I parked at the foot of St Georges campus and called.  I looked out at the olive trees, the hills and the pure blue sky. Rosie told me Nick had died.  "He had a heart attack on the way to school," she said. "And they couldn't save him."

It's too painful to recount in detail the days that followed. Sitting with Noreen on the balcony of their apartment, smoking the last of Nick's cigarettes. His shirts were still in the washer.  Noreen wondered if she should put them in the drier, whether she should take his pajamas out from under the pillow of their bed.  I telephoned the British Embassy.  Nick was an important person, and they had to be informed.  Soon Noreen's brothers and sisters flooded in from Ireland.  We sat together, made cups of tea, tried to pretend that life could go on.

Later in Canterbury, we attended his funeral and burial.  I stayed beside Noreen.  Alex joined Nick's brothers and Bardan, all playing music on Joan's lawn.  Joan, Nick's mother, was amazing.  She showed us how to do the impossible: How to outlive a beloved son.

Fast forward, past our later visits to Biarritz and our rendezvous in Edinburgh, past Noreen and Fergus's visit to DC, to the dedication of 'Nick's bench' in Oxford.

We met up for dinner in Oxford the night before.  Bardan was thinner  by now and Ant, Nick's brother was fatter, and both of them had bigger beards.  And then there was an old friend called Doin at the table, and Sue who spoke of her own widowhood. Fergus had grown into himself, and become very handsome.  But all our boys immediately picked up exactly where they'd left off.

I noticed how in conversation, Nick's brother Ant had the same slightly lazy articulation to his words as Nick.  It touched me.  I was thrilled to see Noreen. We sat together like school girls, catching up on our lives.

 The following day was the dedication. We assembled in the Brasenose courtyard. Nick's mother Joan was now 85.   It was a hot morning. My shoes pinched my feet and the sun beat down. People gave long speeches on the grass.

At the designated time, Joan went forward, for her son. "I declare this bench open!" she said.

Afterwards, the college served a wonderful lunch.  In a hall surrounded  by the cloisters of Brasenose, we drank and ate and talked.  Noreen was beautiful with her blue silk dress and now silver hair.  She'd be going off to Zambia to work at an orphanage in a few weeks time. It was hard to believe that the last time I had seen so many of  these people was at Nick's funeral in Canterbury.

His influence continues.  Tonight, Alex telephoned on Skype from Sydney, Australia. "I was just thinking of Nick," he said. "I don't know why but he came to mind. What a lot of wonderful people we've known." 
This is the Johnson family, and a few others, sitting on the bench dedicate to Nick at Brasenose College, Oxford.

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