NEW PORT RICHEY — Halloween at the Azzue house had always been special. Every year, the close-knit family gathered a few days early to carve pumpkins and place them on steps leading to the front door. Nick, the youngest and most artistic, took charge of designs.
He loved trick-or-treating, but this year he turned 14 and figured he might be a bit old. He had a few other priorities on his mind, like the homecoming dance coming up on Saturday. He had just picked out a new suit. He had a date.
But then at the last minute, he decided not to waste the costume he had created earlier. He called it "Doomsday Prepper,'' a gas mask and painter's suit altered to resemble something an emergency worker might wear during a nuclear plant meltdown.
His gated Crescent Forest neighborhood with sidewalks and 59 stately homes was perfect for this cool, clear night. Everybody had candy, the good stuff. Chocolate bars, peanut butter cups. Nick filled his bag. His parents, Vinny and Deana, walked with him but then fell behind, chatting with friends.
Nick went home and joined his older brother Vincent and a friend watching the Miami-Cincinnati football game on TV. They playfully tossed candy at each other. Nick popped a miniature Snickers in his mouth. About the same time, his parents came home.
"He rushed toward me pointing to his throat,'' recalled his father, an optometrist.
Vinny, 6-feet-2 and 240 pounds, scooped up his child, 5-feet-1, 82 pounds.
"He didn't make a sound. I turned him around and tried to dislodge whatever was stuck. I put my finger down his throat. I pushed on him so hard it almost felt like my hand was going to go through his body. He went limp in my arms.''
Vincent, 17, called 911 and stood by his mother, horrified as Nick turned blue. Both parents are certified in CPR, and Vinny's constant chest compressions seemed to be getting at least some air into his son's lungs. But the candy in his throat wouldn't budge. It had melted into a gooey blob.
Paramedics arrived and took over trying to save Nick. They cleared his throat and loaded him into an ambulance. His father peered through the window. Nick's heart had stopped and medics frantically worked to revive him. They took him to the nearest hospital, Morton Plant North Bay, which quickly had him flown to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.
Vinny prepared to follow, but first he called his sister in Clearwater. It was about 9 p.m. and Toni Anne Tyrian had settled in to watch Grey's Anatomy when the phone rang. Vinny's voice broke as he tried to speak: "I couldn't get it out. I couldn't get it out.''
• • •
Word spread quickly the next day through Nick's school, Solid Rock Community in East Lake. His parents enrolled him there once he hit middle school because he was quiet and so much smaller than his peers. They feared he might get lost in a large public school, and he thrived at Solid Rock. He even made the football team and proudly wore No. 24.
On Friday, students prepared get-well cards for the popular seventh-grader. At the homecoming game, many of them painted "24'' on their faces. At the dance the next night, they posed for a group picture to send Nick. They were certain it would lift his spirits once he came out of the coma.
His parents, high school sweethearts in Middletown, N.Y., before they married 21 years ago, discussed the physical therapy he might require once they got him home.
But by Sunday, doctors said Nick would not recover. The Azzues made arrangements for LifeLink to harvest his lungs, liver, pancreas, kidneys and corneas. His heart would go to a scientific research center.
The family headed back to their home in New Port Richey. Friends had arranged for it to be cleaned and had specifically ordered that all candy be removed. When Deana and Vinny stepped from the car, they noticed something on the driveway. Somebody had dropped a miniature Snickers.
"I took it as a sign,'' Deana said later. "A sign from Nick.''
• • •
On Nov. 6, fragile and stunned, Vinny and Deana stood at the front of Faupel Funeral Home for four hours to greet mourners. The next day, 600 people crowded into St. James the Apostle Catholic Church — Nick's former teachers at Longleaf Elementary, staff and parents at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church where "Miss Deana'' teachers preschoolers. Seven priests attended.
Fellow doctors stepped in to keep Vinny's optometry clinic open. The family was overwhelmed by the kindness of friends and strangers who heard about the tragedy. Stassi's Italian restaurant sent over enough food for an army. Flowers replaced the jack-o-lanterns on the steps.
Last week, the Azzues accepted an invitation to talk to the Times. Still reeling, they felt compelled to share memories of their son, thank the hundreds who prayed for him and celebrate the lives of those who received his organs. They also sought to warn others about the dangers of children choking on candy, a fairly common occurrence though rarely fatal.
Nick loved fishing and camping and skateboarding. He was fearless on horseback. He enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together, including remote control cars that chased the family dogs, a soft-coated Wheaten terrier named Mea and Louie the chihuahua. Good exercise for them, he'd say.
He adopted the New York Giants, mainly so he could joust with his dad, a lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan. They had planned to visit Dallas for a game at Thanksgiving. He looked forward to hanging out with his big brother, a senior at Mitchell High School. They shared a room together long after they could have had their own separate rooms.
He had a wicked sense of humor. Once recently he stopped the family with a serious look on his face. They thought something must be wrong.
"I have an important announcement to make,'' he said. "I farted.''
Typical teenage boy. Even through all the tears last week, that memory sparked a much-needed laugh.
From early childhood, he and his mother exchanged this greeting:
"How much does Mommy love you?''
"To the moon and back,'' he answered.
Nick was buried at Trinity Memorial Gardens. Etched on his stone: "To the moon and back.''
"He was a gift,'' said his mother. "That's what I hold on to. God wanted him back. Knowing that helps me get through every day.''