Fifth Place Writing – Features

Stetson Payne

Fifth Place
Oklahoma State University
$1,000 Scholarship

The Last Smile: Remembering Nash Lucas

By Stetson Payne

The parade moved along one vehicle after another. Niki Strauch held onto her son’s stroller at Hall of Fame Avenue and Main Street. She reached down to get 2-year-old Nash Lucas to turn around.

“Nash, look at me! Smile!” she said, trying to take the picture before the toddler turned back around to watch.

Nash looked up with a joyful grin. He had seen a parade in Weatherford and had been waiting for weeks to go to the homecoming parade in Stillwater. He didn’t want to miss a second. Pictures could wait.

It was the last time Niki saw Nash smile.

Minutes later, Niki screamed so loud she couldn’t hear the squadron of helicopters descending on the intersection, so terrified she thought the nightmare wouldn’t end, so beside herself she couldn’t feel the rotor wash whipping her hair and blood-stained clothes as the helicopter carried her son away forever.

Leaving Home

Josh Lucas didn’t know what to do when he learned he would be a father. Fatherhood frightened him, barely out of high school and suddenly responsible for another human being.

Niki and Josh were young and in love. But Niki’s pregnancy eventually ended their relationship. It wasn’t ideal, but both of them were excited to be parents.
Josh’s fear and anxiety turned to anticipation. On April 24, 2013, Josh saw Nash for the first time.

“That human right there is someone me and her made,” Josh said. “I’d never thought about being a dad. It hadn’t really hit me until that moment. That was our son.”

At first, Josh didn’t fully take on fatherhood. He was fine seeing his son every other weekend. Nash was too young to do much more than waddle around in his onesies, anyway. He couldn’t play catch or sit on Josh’s shoulders, yet.

Soon Nash’s personality broke through, showing the same qualities, facial expressions and mannerisms as his father. Josh wanted to be dad, to be involved with his son’s life, so Nash could have a better one.

“He was my mini-me,” Josh said. “There was a sense of pride in that, too. That was my son, and I could see myself in him early.”

At that point, Niki was about to move to Stillwater for classes. Josh went out of his way putting interstate miles on his car to see his son. It wasn’t easy, but they made it work.

On Oct. 23, 2015, Josh woke up early to get Nash some McDonald’s for breakfast in Weatherford, where Nash was visiting Josh’s family. It was the standard order: a sausage biscuit and a hash brown. Nash didn’t care for the biscuit, but he loved the sausage patty in the middle.

Father and son sat on the couch watching TV at Josh’s parents’ house. They usually hung out until one or both of them fell asleep. Nash played his favorite video games with his dad on Josh’s phone. Sometimes they played outside or traveled the neighborhood on foot and, in Nash’s case, his own little car.

Josh didn’t know yet whether he would take Nash back to his mom that Friday night. Niki wanted them to go as a family to the Sea of Orange Parade, but that meant Josh had to wake up at 6 a.m. to make it to Stillwater with Nash on time.

Instead of waiting for Saturday morning, Josh loaded his 2007 Acura TL. His parents came to the driveway to hug Nash and say goodbye, knowing they would see him again the next weekend.

With his sunglasses on, a banana in his hand and a smile on his face, Nash saw Weatherford drift from the car mirrors behind him one last time.

On the road, they talked back and forth. Nash never liked his dad’s taste in music and preferred the “Barney & Friends” soundtrack on repeat to anything on the radio or Josh’s phone. They sang along with every track.

When Josh did get a break from “Barney,” he drummed along to his music on the steering wheel. Josh watched in his mirror as Nash mimicked him, drumming on his legs and car seat to keep up.

Nash slapped his car seat to his dad’s cadence down the highway, eventually falling out of the song or losing track when Josh sped up and didn’t play fair.
Each time Nash lost track, he giggled and laughed himself silly in the backseat.

Josh pulled the Acura into the Mathis Brothers Furniture parking lot in Oklahoma City. Niki and her mother, Carie Strauch, weren’t there yet, so Josh decided to hang out in the parking lot and wait. He unbuckled Nash from his car seat and let him sit up front with his dad in the parking lot.

“Dad, I want to drive your car,” Nash said. His red hair was barely visible over the Acura’s dashboard, but as with his grandpa’s tractor, he wanted to drive.

“All right, sit on my lap,” Josh said, pulling his son over and letting him grip the wheel. The empty parking lot felt like Nash’s personal test track. He used all his strength to crank the wheel left and right.

To Nash, it was the Indy 500. It became Josh’s happiest memory with his son.

Soon, Josh buckled Nash in the backseat of Niki’s truck as the sun started setting in the west.

“I love you,” Josh said as he waved and pushed the truck door closed.

Standing in the lot, Josh put his face against the tinted glass to peer inside the truck. His mini-me beamed back at him with a wide smile.

Josh waved goodbye to Niki and Carie before the truck pulled away to Stillwater. He went home to his apartment in downtown Oklahoma City, a few blocks down the road from OU Children’s Hospital.

He had seen Nash smile for the last time.

“I just miss being his dad,” Josh said in an interview at Niki’s home in Weatherford. “Just having that bond. You can build relationships and friendships or whatever, but that’s the strongest bond I’ve ever had with anybody.

“You can’t get that back now.”

The Knucklehead

Carie knew Niki was pregnant well before her daughter told her. She had worked as a nurse and raised three girls; she teaches in the nursing school at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford.

For nine months, Niki, only 17, and her family got more and more excited. Nash made the first of many dramatic appearances when he was born.

“My god he was huge,” Carie said. “And he’s got red hair!”

The red hair came from Carie’s side of the family. Nash was born with a broken collar bone, and for the first few months, he cried frequently. Niki lived with her parents then and started her freshman year, studying biology, at SWOSU when Nash was 4 months old.

For Niki’s parents, Nash was the son they never raised. He grew up in their house outside Weatherford, and he grew up fast.

Although Nash didn’t learn to walk until he was 15 months old, he said “Momma” early on. “No” came soon after, and at his second birthday, he was making sentences and holding conversations about tractors with anyone who would listen. At his second Thanksgiving, he stood on a stool and helped Carie make pumpkin pie.

“He had this little kitchen and he was always cooking in his little kitchen,” Carie said. “He would cook us food, and he’d bring it to us. It was so funny. He was real little, and he would pretend like that.”

Nash loved his kitchen, but tractors were his favorite thing to play with, see and drive. Grandpa Chuck had two riding lawn mowers, a John Deere and a Craftsman. The first time Nash saw the bright John Deere green, he wanted to drive it.

Each time Nash clambered up on top of the mower to sit in front of Carie or Chuck, he pushed with his arms to keep their hands off the wheel so he could drive.

“No, I do it!” Nash said, trying with all he could to turn the wheel.

The mower went every direction except a straight line. Trying to drive made Nash light up more than anything. In the evenings, he ran back and forth between his grandparents.

“You’re a knucklehead,” Chuck said, looking down at his grandson.

“I’m not a knuckle-ee-head!” Nash said, rushing over to Carie to support his argument. “Grandma, am I a knuckle-ee-head?”

“No, sweetie, you’re precious,” Carie said every time. Nash always had to make a point; it was in his personality to go back and prove Grandpa wrong.

“See? I’m precious,” Nash said.

After two years at SWOSU, Niki decided she wanted to change majors to chemical engineering. That meant transferring to Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, two hours and 136 miles from her family in Weatherford.

Carie and Chuck didn’t like it, but they felt they had to let their daughter go. Having Nash didn’t change her hopes and dreams, the life she wanted to have for him.

Nash discovered his favorite restaurant in Stillwater early on, and each time Niki picked him up from daycare he asked the same question.

“Momma, can we go to Eskimo Joe’s?” Nash said.

The first time Nash saw life-sized Eskimo Joe and Buffy, he was hooked. But after the first visit, Nash enjoyed the mascots from only a distance. He thought they were a little scary up close.

“He always wanted to go and see them,” Niki said. “And he would talk about it for days after he went there.”

Niki loved Stillwater; a small town by national standards, it was a metropolis compared to Weatherford. There were places to go, things to do and plenty of friends made in college.

Each morning Niki woke up with Nash in her arms. He went to daycare while she went to class and worked for OSU Parking and Transportation Services, making a living one parking ticket at a time.

After school, Nash played in Couch Park. Tucked behind the Stillwater Senior Center and deep in the trees off 12th Avenue, he tired himself out at the playground before they went home.

These used to be the happy places, where Niki took her son to see his biggest smiles and loudest laughs.

Now they’re reminders of something lost and taken from Niki and her family.

Breaking Down

In Weatherford on Oct. 24, 2015, Stephanie Lucas was already grabbing a pacifier, blankets, some snacks and other things she anticipated Nash would need in the hospital. She never unpacked that bag. On the other end of the phone line, she heard her son’s fear, his terror in each breath.

“I’ll never forget the panic in his voice when I called him,” Stephanie said.

Before Josh left his apartment, Carie told him Nash was being flown to The Children’s Hospital at OU Medical Center. He sped down the road in downtown Oklahoma City to find an empty waiting room. No one was there yet, not even Nash. Josh paced, trying to tell himself the feelings were wrong. Everything would be all right today.

None of it made any sense: not the why, nor the how or what. More family members of the wounded filtered in, and by then, Josh’s family arrived.

A doctor emerged.

“Who’s with Nash?” he asked the waiting room.

“I’m his dad,” Josh said.

“I’ve got him back here.” The doctor took him aside from the crowd. “He’s not doing very good, but he’s moving his arms and legs. That’s a good sign right now.

“But he’s lost a lot of blood, and we’re not sure why or what we can do to stop it.”

Josh had no words. He couldn’t stand. His muscles failed him. Behind the swinging doors to intensive care, his son, his best friend, his mini-me, was dying.

Niki and Carie hadn’t made it to Oklahoma City yet. Niki had been released at Stillwater Medical Center, and Carie refused treatment until she got to Weatherford that night. It took time to get to Oklahoma City, time they didn’t have.

Josh took out his phone and tried not to cry. He started deleting every game he had ever played with Nash. It was too much for him to see. He didn’t want the reminders of the suffering boy on the other side of those heavy doors. A painful hour later, the nurse walked in.

“We need to see Nash’s closest relatives,” the nurse said.

Niki’s sister, Vanessa, and Josh stepped inside the doors with the nurse. The chatter, the white noise and the blur of the hospital faded to nothing.
“We can’t fix the damage that’s done. We’re losing him,” a nurse said. “We can go up there so he can be with only you two, or we can bring him down to another room so he can be with his whole family.”

Josh felt helpless. He and Vanessa decided to try to move Nash, but they wouldn’t have the time.

In the ICU, Nash’s condition plummeted. If they wanted to get him to his family, they’d have to rush him down the next few floors. Josh couldn’t do it; he couldn’t will himself to walk. He couldn’t control his last moments with his son, and he wasn’t going to force them.

“I just stayed in the room until I could stand up,” Josh said. “When I walked out, that’s when the doctor and nurse told my whole family, so I heard every reaction.”

Niki and Carie arrived soon after. No feelings, no thoughts, no reality registered with Josh. It didn’t make sense.

After some time, Josh walked into the room they had put Nash in. Niki and Carie stood over him crying before Josh walked over. His emotions changed. He had held it together until now, until it was only he and his son.

The memories, watching TV, the long car rides singing “Barney” songs, all of them came rushing back in that moment. The time he didn’t have, the days he didn’t get to see his son, the memories he could have made. The sadness slipped to anger, and anger turned to rage.

But in that moment, everything fell away.

The Sad, Empty Silence

A year later, Stephanie walks across the living room and grabs the thick, black three-ring binder full of photos. She grabs another stack of developed pictures next to the binder, careful to keep from spilling them all over the floor.

“When this happened I printed out every photo of him I had on my phone so I wouldn’t lose them,” Stephanie said, putting the collection on the ottoman to examine.

It’s a beautiful October Friday outside, eerily similar to that day a year ago when Stephanie and her husband, Brandon Lucas, said goodbye to Nash for the last time in their driveway.

The house is painfully quiet; any minute now, the front door should swing open to their first grandson making an entrance in his tiny cowboy boots and messy red hair.

But that front door stays shut.

Stephanie and Brandon flip through the pages and sort the hard copies into stacks. Most of them are portraits from Stephanie’s phone, documenting her grandson’s short life. Each page brings a sniffle or sigh, memories brought back to life if for only a fleeting moment.

Soon they find a picture of Nash with his parents, his first Halloween at only 6 months old. Nash wore his lion costume with big ears and a mane, his smile wide and looking toward the camera from his dad’s arms.

“Is this his first Halloween?” Brandon said.

“Yeah, I remember that year,” Stephanie said.

“I thought he was Bob the Builder that year,” Brandon said.

Stephanie paused.

“He was supposed to be Bob the Builder last Halloween,” Stephanie said, tearing up. “That costume wasn’t easy to find because that show isn’t as popular anymore, but he loved it so much.”

Stephanie grimaces on the sofa where Nash watched “PAW Patrol,” “Barney” and “Bob the Builder” over and over. The TV sits dark and empty. Nash’s toy chest is in the corner, up against the railing to the basement stairs Nash was always afraid of.

Josh sat in front of the TV for several weeks after Nash’s death. He was angry, frustrated and lost, contained in the room where he had spent the most time with his son in his short life.

After those weeks, Josh and Niki grew closer. Although they hadn’t been together since before Nash was born, they knew him best, and only they knew each other’s pain.

The evening drive from Oklahoma City to Weatherford is long, growing darker as the metro’s lights fade in the rearview mirror. In all directions, the blinking radio towers, twinkling red windmill lights and the bright pillars from oil rigs turn the horizon into an endless skyline.

That October night after the crash, the watercolor orange sunset dimmed to black, leaving empty darkness on the road to Weatherford. Niki was headed home in shock without her son, unable to comprehend the past few hours.

Normal is never coming back for Niki and her family. Normal doesn’t account for the silence each morning and each night. No one to read “The Goodnight Moon” to. No smiling child in pajamas to wake up next to before class.

Niki comes back to Stillwater every so often to see friends and go to Adacia Chambers’ court dates. Chambers is awaiting trial for charges of second-degree murder after she crashed into the crowd at the 2015 Sea of Orange Parade.

The town Niki once loved is bittersweet. There are memories of happier times: sitting at Eskimo Joe’s, the shaded playground at Couch Park, the ducks at Theta Pond.

It’s not only what remains that reminds her of Nash. It’s also the things that are gone.

The day Niki moved home to Weatherford floored her. For the first time in two years, she wasn’t carrying boxes of toddler-sized clothes. There wasn’t a playroom to setup or a racecar bed to build.

She was alone again.

“He had a room in every other place we’d been at,” Niki said. “He doesn’t have that at my house because he’s not there anymore.”

At Carie and Chuck’s house, Nash’s bathtub toys are still in the bathroom, a pair of his shoes in the closet and his dusty fingerprint on the TV stand. None of them will move again if Carie has it her way.

Niki keeps a full schedule. She switched back to biology at SWOSU and works in the physics department as a secretary during the day. She also takes evening shifts at Weatherford Regional Hospital as a nursing assistant. She wants to eventually become a pediatrician, to fix children when they’re hurt or sick.

“There’s always going to be those emotions, sadness and grief,” Niki said. “Not keeping myself busy would push me into a place I don’t want to be.

“And I know he wouldn’t want me to be in that place, either.”

There’s a part of Stillwater that Niki avoids, an intersection she won’t go near.

Each time, the haunting nightmare plays out the same as it did that October Saturday. She remembers the roar of an engine, a silver Hyundai charging at her and barely having time to gasp for air before she blacked out.

Niki came to in a sea of chaos; people, first responders and debris covered the asphalt. She struggled to her feet in a panic, frantically looking for her son in the intersection.

The lucid and chilling details roll on tape in her mind. Each time she snaps awake, alone in the darkness of her bedroom.

The sad, empty silence lingers in her singlewide trailer, taunting her one more time.