That’s the amount of time we had with my niece. Her name is Olivia.
The day after we finished our 2,690 mile move/drive from California to Maryland, my wife got a phone call that forever changed the lives of our entire family.
My parents and in-laws were both in DC, to help us with the move-in process. The in-laws were finishing up a convention, about to drive over and meet us. Jen’s phone rang, it was her Mom.
‘My God, there’s been an accident. Olivia’s been hit by a car and she’s not going to make it, we have to get back to Atlanta right now. Oh, my God, this is my worst nightmare!’ No one had any specific details, except that the situation was dire and it was necessary for everyone to get home immediately.
Given how disoriented we were at the time, living out of suitcases, having boxes strewn throughout our new home, we decided it was best to split up.
I drove Jen and Charlie to the Baltimore airport where we met up with her parents and brother Max, all of them responding to the desperation of Brooke and her husband, Brad, ready to board the next available flight. We prayed that this accident might have somehow been exaggerated. We hoped it wouldn’t be the unimaginable.
A few hours later, as I packed Ava’s bag in DC and got us ready to go, Jen and her family landed in Georgia. They were greeted by Jen’s Uncle Bill, who had the unbearable task of telling everyone that their 13-month old granddaughter and niece, had died.
I don’t know that I’ll ever forget the phone call I received from my wife.
‘Jesus, Olivia died. Please put Ava in the car and come down here as soon as possible.’
She was asleep, my parents had retired to their hotel and I stepped to the balcony for a moment by myself. How could this happen to someone so young? WHY?
1 year. 1 month. 1 day.
As evening turned into early morning, the details became more clear.
Brooke, Brad, their twins Stone and Addie, along with Olivia, were at a little league field waiting for their oldest son Max’s football game to kick-off. With just a few minutes left in the previous game, Brad and the twins headed to the bleachers to claim seats and Brooke took Liv, buckled in her stroller, back to the car for her sippy cup.
Brooke looked left, then right, and proceeded to enter the parking lot on the crosswalk. For an unknown reason a car that had already gone past, had stopped and reversed in the wrong lane, without warning. The car hit Brooke and Olivia.
Brooke was thrown to the ground and the stroller, with Olivia inside, was knocked over.
Brooke heard Olivia crying, as she lay on the ground. While she struggled to get up from the pavement and help her baby, the driver reversed again, rolling over Olivia. The car then pulled ahead, running over her a second time, just as Brooke was about to reach her.
Olivia was taken by ambulance to Egleston Children’s hospital in Atlanta, where doctors worked tirelessly on her.
It was too late. Liv was gone.
As a father and an uncle, I am devastated. My heart is broken.
To imagine the amount of pain and loss that Brooke, Brad, Max, Stone and Addie are experiencing is gut-wrenching. The loss we feel as a family is compounded by the tragic and preventable nature of the circumstances.
On the evening before the funeral, family and friends held a candlelight vigil in her honor. As our family huddled in the kitchen at Brooke and Brad’s house discussing final arrangements and details, I sat with the kids in the garage, helping them make signs for the memorial fence.
Addie told us over and over that her sister had died, that she ‘didn’t have a sister anymore’. My wife reassured her that she will ALWAYS have a sister, it’s just that she’s in heaven.
This is the fence at Lenora Park, the football fields near the site of the accident. Ava was overwhelmed by all of the toys, stuffed animals and balloons decorating Liv’s makeshift memorial on the fence.
We arrived at the park just before dusk, and were greeted by several police cars blocking the road, indicating our point of entry. As we gathered in the parking lot, where Olivia was taken from us, the community filled in around us. With the sun setting on the horizon, candles were lit and we sang songs while holding hands.
During a chorus of ‘Amazing Grace’, we lit 150 lanterns, sending them off into the summer night, meant to be a smile and hello from us to her.
As Jen and I lit our lantern, I felt connected to a moment. It’s not a moment that any of us had asked for or ever wanted, yet, we were all part of it. As our lantern lifted into the night, I focused the camera towards Liv’s siblings, Max, Stone, and Addie.
With everyone holding hands and launching lights into the darkness for my niece, I locked up.
In that moment, we were one, hundreds of people watching the lanterns float into the night sky to the tune of bagpipes. This is Olivia’s brother, Stone, watching the amazing sight.
Sometimes a picture says a thousand words.
As Ava and I watched, she said, ‘Daddy, it’s Tangled!’ in my ear. I knew what she meant. She was talking about her favorite Disney movie, where the King and Queen, who had their daughter stolen from them, launched lanterns into the night, every year, on the same day, her birthday. They were meant for Rapunzel to see, and in our case, for Liv to see.
I told Ava that Olivia was our lost princess. I struggled, knowing that her cousin was gone.
Friends from all over, who couldn’t attend, sent us pictures and shared their own real-time candles with us via email and Facebook.
The next day, there was a service at the Grayson United Methodist Church, where the twins attend preschool. ‘Jesus Love the Little Children’ played on the organ as we filed into the sanctuary. We moved past the congregation towards the front pews. Reverend Scott delivered a moving service.
Olivia’s father, Brad, stepped up to the pulpit and spoke. His strength and composure during the delivery of the tribute to his daughter is something I can’t explain. It was one of the most moving and powerful speeches I’ve ever heard. I don’t know how he did it.
After he finished, Brad returned to the pew directly in front of me and fell into Brooke’s arms, breaking into tears. As long as I live, I’ll never forget that moment.
After the service, we proceeded outside, everyone holding a balloon with a note attached for Olivia. We congregated in the parking lot and released them into the air, hoping that maybe she would see them.
People ask me how Brooke and Brad are coping.
I don’t know. There aren’t words strong enough to express what they’re experiencing. They lost their daughter. It’s something that most people can’t begin to comprehend. Brooke is continuing to recover from her own physical injuries, a constant reminder of that painful Saturday afternoon.
Right now they take life, not day by day, but hour by hour.
We will never forget you Olivia. You are a beautiful scar on our hearts. My father-in-law said it best at the vigil – ‘The chain of my perfect family has forever been broken… and all I want is to fix it.’
We miss your hugs and life will never be the same without you.
SLOW DOWN AND LOOK AROUND. STOP BEING IN A HURRY.
Is it really worth the cost of someone’s life? Enjoy the time you have with your loved ones. Cherish every moment and tonight, before bed, hug your kids a little tighter.
The pictures and videos that follow are my documentation of the precious little time we had with this sweet angel. She was, and remains the most amazing little girl, with her massive bear hugs, beaming blue eyes, bouncing her body every time she heard music.
This shot of Brooke and Ava was taken when we visited her in the hospital, flying from Los Angeles to Atlanta a day after Olivia’s birth.
Liv was just getting warmed up.
A few months later, we spent Christmas together, her first and only.
Here are Stone, Olivia, Ava and Addie with Santa.
This past summer, just before her death, Brooke and Jen’s youngest sister, Lindsey, got married. Ava was a flower girl with her cousin Addie. We took this picture at the rehearsal. Two cousins hugging it out.
Here are Liv, Stone, Ava and Addie, huddled together in a plastic wagon. I love this, one of my favorites.
A month before this all happened, I sat across from my niece on her first birthday. Not seeing her for a few months had no effect, as she approached me with an enormous hug. Olivia was an old soul, wise beyond her years, with her radiant blue eyes drawing you in.
This is video I shot from across the table at her birthday dinner. I’m so grateful we got to share this moment.
Uncle Bill designed Olivia’s first birthday invitation. It was amazing – a booklet invite.
If you have an image of Olivia, a message for the family, or a moment you would like to share, this blog post will remain open indefinitely. Simply comment below or email me at email@example.com and I’ll add it to my thread. You can also visit the foundation established in Olivia’s name on Facebook.
Second, a trust has been established in Olivia’s memory. Donations can be made by mail and it’s goal is to help raise awareness of pedestrian safety. Please stop by, say hello and support this worthy endeavor.
The Olivia Anne Hellwig Foundation
P.O. Box 542
Grayson, GA 30017