Thank You, Nicky

We lost a special friend this fall. Nicky Garoffalo was 64 years old and lived in Utrera, Spain, south of Sevilla, with his sister Maria and her husband Pepe. Nicky had Downs Syndrome and lived a full and rich life, touching many lives and leaving us all the better for knowing him. If you know others with Downs Syndrome, this will probably have special meaning for you; if not, I hope that it will open your eyes to what you are missing!

Nicky was born in Albuquerque, which is where my husband Roberto met him. They became fast friends and hung out together, two guys in their 20s, cruising Albuquerque in whatever pickup Roberto had at the time. One of the bonuses for me when I met Roberto was gaining Nicky’s friendship, too.

There were challenges, of course, for Nicky and his family. Albuquerque was not able (or willing?) to provide meaningful support for them. Nicky was robbed at a bus stop, taken advantage of by some drug dealers, and had no real way to contribute to society. Widowed, his mother moved to Spain, believing that the culture and society were better equipped to accept and support her and her son. She was right. It was a great move for Nicky.

They lived in an ancient house in the Albayzin neighborhood of Granada. Nicky took his curiosity and gregariousness to the narrow, cobblestoned streets and made many friends in local bars, cafes, and shops. He had an amazing ability to read people – I guess we would call it emotional intelligence – and he used that talent to connect and make relationships. He knew who was uncomfortable or fearful in his presence, and knew when to let someone alone and when to offer a big smile and kind word.

Nicky in Granada with his camera.

Nicky was fascinated with the tourists, particularly the Japanese, who came with cameras around their necks in the early 2000’s to Granada and snapped pictures of everything. He desperately wanted a camera, and when his sister found one for him (minus film) he spent his days, roaming the neighborhood “taking pictures,” especially of people. He never seemed to wonder where the actual picture was. For him, it was a natural way of being in the world and making friends.

After his mother died, he moved to Utrera to live with his sister’s family. There he had a wonderful “school” down the street that provided day care and activities for mentally challenged of all ages. We visited Nicky there and were blown away by the happiness and kindness that filled the place. My memory is of bright sunshine inside and outside, although in reality it may have been a dark and rainy day. The staff were loving and were loved in return. The “students” had all kinds of activities, including music, dance and art. They wove scarves and placemats which they sold. We received a picture one year of Nicky and his friends, all beaming, in Roman attire – togas, wreaths, etc. – celebrating the Ides of March.

Nicky walked to and from school, about six blocks, by himself, and on the way home he stopped at his favorite bars for a coke and a tapa or two. He was always greeted warmly, given a seat at the bar with the other guys, and included in the conversation. (Nicky was bi-lingual.) Finally, Maria had to ask the barkeeps along his route to cut down on the tapas – he was putting on too much weight!

Nicky with Roberto and our cat Fluffy, whom he called Muffy….and so did we.

We were in Spain in October and stopped to see Maria and Pepe. It was a sad time, full of tears, but also laughter and lots of memories. Maria remembered a time in Albuquerque when she had to take Nicky to the courthouse to have the judge re-certify his disability. They exited the elevator on the third floor and faced a prisoner in handcuffs with a policeman on each arm, waiting to get on. Not missing a beat, Nicky put his arms around the shackled prisoner in a warm embrace, and said he was so sorry he was having a hard time. The police, Maria laughed at the memory, were dumbfounded, looking at her and Nicky, wondering if this was some kind of escape plot. No plot, just uncontrollable compassion.

Roberto and I treasured Nicky’s friendship. Roberto is particularly grateful for Nicky’s lessons about living life with gusto and with appreciation. Nicky had an awareness of his relationship not just with people, but with all things, natural and human-made. He acknowledged whatever kindness was done for him with a heartfelt “thank you.” And he often expressed gratitude to things around him, a beautiful sunset, a delicate flower, a comfy chair. I have seen him pick up the salt shaker, shake salt on his eggs, hold the shaker in his hand and, gazing at it fondly, say “Thank you, salt!” before replacing it carefully on the table. And he meant it. The world was a joyful place for him and he appreciated everything it had to offer. What a lesson. Thank you, Nicky!

 

18 thoughts on “Thank You, Nicky”

  1. Lucy,
    So appreciate this story about Nicky. I intend to share it with another friend whose son, with Downs died a year ago. If you have not seen the film, Far from the Tree, it is a delight. It has already been in Santa Fe, but think you can find it on Netfliks.
    Best,

  2. Thank you for sharing such a heartwarming story. Nicky left his loving imprint in all who knew him! Sounds like he had a great life! It also sounds like Spain had their finger on the pulse on how to help bring out the best in their disabled persons.

  3. Lucy. I have a friend who lives in Wales. She and her husband have two sons that are autistic. They have run into all kinds of problems, especially with the police, who are entirely less than understanding, and don’t care. So, trying to protect her children, she has thought of moving, and in particular to Spain, which is a country they all love and have spent time in (hoping that things will be kinder, more intelligent about disabilities etc.)I sent my friend your post. This is what she wrote back:

    “What a beautiful person and story and i loved the part about the salt .. thank you salt .. i shall do this from now on .. and we love Spain so it was so amazing he could have a good life there with the endless tapas and many cafes..
    Thanks for sharing his life with me Myv…
    He sounded like a great refreshing person to be around.”

    It is, indeed, a lovely story about Nicky. Myv..

    1. Thank you so much, Myv, for passing this on. I hope that your friend finds a kind community that will appreciate the whole family in all its beauty!

  4. Thanks Lucy and Roberto for sharing your late friend Nicky. My favorite part of your story was the “uncontrollable compassion” Nicky shared with the shackled prisoner. Wow! An embrace like Nicky’s is what we as individuals, communities, and as a society should consider trying each day. Thanks. Abrazos.

  5. Dear Lucy,

    I am a cousin from Vincent’s line. He was my mother’s first cousin. And so Nicky was my first cousin, once removed, as it is said.

    Sometimes families carry a legacy. My own is either faint or definitely obscured by intergenerational pain. It wasn’t until the mid 90s that I met my ABQ cousins for the first time, including Nicky. His skepticism of me and my young children made sense. Who were we? Since we weren’t around for long, I’m certain no impression was made on Nicky yet he made his loving mark on us.

    Ditto in the early 2000s.

    And then several years later my family spent some time with the family in Utrera. I can’t say Nicky fully took me in. But there was the Sunday morning when I joined him and Maria in going to mass. Along the way, Nicky made it known we were a few minutes late. In his beautiful, calculating mind he made a judgement call to a) accept me long enough to get to church sooner by b) holding my hand and then c) quickening our pace. We arrived at the steps to the church and the congregation had already started singing alleluia. My hand was dropped instantly and Nicky raced inside, all the while catching up singing, “alleluia.”

    I further made the mistake of thinking I would follow him to the pew. “No-no,” Maria whispered. “He sits with his own friends.”

    I witnessed and learned several more of Nicky’s ways in my few days. What prevailed was how Nicky and his family enacted neighborhood wherever they lived. How much of it was the soul and spirit of the people of the community themselves? I do not know. Your story about the person in handcuffs getting an all-encompassing Nicky hug tells me that while we might all have a capacity to connect, one to another, Nicky had the gift of love in action. So rare. So very rare.

    We can imagine how many people have been touched by Nicky’s friendship. It’s the stuff of angels.

    1. Thank you so much for responding to the tribute to Nicky. Your experiences with him and his family add to the picture, making it richer.

    1. Thank you so much, Joaquin. It is wonderful to hear from you. I wanted to do Nicky justice — a tall order! He was a remarkable person and a dear friend, and I know he loved his nieces and nephews so much.

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