Everybody I broke the news to had to be told twice. The words made no sense the first time. My nephew, Nicholas Francis Cleves, had been murdered in the truck attack in downtown Manhattan. My nephew, Nicholas Francis Cleves, had been murdered.
It made sense that he was down there, on the West Side Highway bike path. Nick grew up downtown on the West Side. Until two days ago, he was still living in the same apartment where his mother, Monica, and his father, Richard, brought him home after his very dangerous birth, 23 years ago. His delivery almost killed Monica, who had the condition called placenta previa, where the placenta lies between the baby and the cervix. Monica had bled uncontrollably during the caesarean section and required gallons of blood infusions to save her life. They couldn’t save her uterus. And so when Nick was born Monica and Richard treasured him in the way that parents do when they know that this baby will be their only one. He was irreplaceable.
I met Nick when he had just turned 1 year old. He was a beautiful round-cheeked baby, like a putti from some Italian Renaissance painting. This was only fitting since Monica was born in Italy and had been an art history major in college. Richard, who grew up in Great Britain, was the older brother of my new boyfriend, Tim. Quite a bit older: six years older than Tim, who was eight years old than me. I was only 19 when I met Nick, nearly as close in age to him as I was to Richard and Monica. It’s not really that surprising that I often preferred hanging out with Nick, during visits to his parents, rather than hanging out with the grown-ups. We would sit together on the floor of their small apartment on the West Side and play with his blocks, or trains, or whatever toys were on rotation in his toy baskets. He had fun toys. He was his parents’ treasure.
I remember when the West Side started to be gentrified. Straight away, Richard and Monica brought him to the redeveloped piers for soccer games and play dates. There were lots of critics of this gentrification process, upset at how the swanky new amenities displaced the queer men, trans kids, and street-workers who crowded the piers in their previous ramshackle state. I had been down to the old piers myself as a teenager, drinking forties I’d bought illegally during the era of Mayor Dinkins. I got the criticism. But I could never get behind it, because I knew how little outdoor play space there was for city kids, and I knew how great the new piers were for Nick. They made the city livable. They still do. Nick should never have died there.
Honestly, Nick was never one for soccer. He was not a team sports guy. But he and Richard loved to bike on the West Side Highway bike trail. As Nick grew older, their bike rides became more and more adventurous. I remember when they started biking all the way north and across the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey. Richard biked everywhere in the city. He never learned to drive, despite growing up in rural England. Neither did Nick. Last time I saw him, a couple of months ago, I was trying to encourage him to learn to drive so that he could go on adventures to places that required a car to navigate. But he was too much his father’s son to learn.
He was so close to his father. I worried Nick would never survive it when Richard killed himself four years ago. Because he treasured his son, he waited until the day after Nick’s 19th birthday to do it. Obviously he wasn’t thinking straight. Richard had struggled with depression on and off since he was a teenager. But, despite the blackness inside, he was a wonderful, playful, nurturing dad. He was the father who built snowmen, the father who waged endless foam-noodle battles in the swimming pool, the father who knew all the latest bands, the father who took his son to concerts. I didn’t know how Nick could survive the loss.
I didn’t know how Monica could survive the loss. She and Richard had been together since they were so young, not just as lovers and parents, but as business partners who started out selling clothes and candlesticks on the streets of downtown in the early ’80s, then eventually founded their own lighting design company. They spent all day, every day, together, as well as all night, every night. How could she keep going without him? Monica survived, and Nick survived, by turning to each other. She was his rock, and he was her reason for living.
Nick also had wonderful friends and a loving girlfriend, Nevon, to help him through this dark time. I am taking such joy in reading all the tributes his friends are writing about him. The picture that comes through is crystal clear. Nick was an incredibly open warm soul. He was a sweetheart who accepted people without prejudice. He made everyone he spoke to feel at ease. He was a bright light. He was gentle. He wasn’t the cool kid. He described himself as a nerd. He majored in astronomy and computer science. When he visited us a few months ago, he was talking about applying to a master’s program in technology and art. I thought it would be a great fit for this Renaissance putti who had grown into a 6-foot-3 man who loved all things technological.
He was just beginning on his life. He was not an old 23. He had barely begun to live yet. He had spent the past four years dealing with the trauma of his father’s suicide, and he was just starting to turn the corner and venture out into the world. When I spoke to Monica yesterday, she talked about all the moments, during the past four years, when she mourned that Richard hadn’t gotten the chance to see Nick grow up. His father never saw him graduate from college. Now his mother will never have the chance to see Nick move beyond 23. Monica will never have the chance to see him learn, mature, maybe one day become a father. There is no more maybe one day for Nick. I will never get over that loss.