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 and cross-country drive from California to Maryland, my wife got a phone call that forever changed the lives of our entire family.
It started out in the most incredible way. Ava was exploring her new cul-de-sac, playing with neighborhood kids, a hint of a cool, fall breeze was in the air and Jen had somehow managed to find her box containing her scarves and boots. She had broken them out and was walking out back to meet the mom who lived next door. A neighbor had actually come outside with a plate of cookies to offer, the mailman appeared and let the small kids help deliver the mail.
It was an oddly quintessential Norman Rockwell moment which solidified that our decision to move back east and raise our family here has been a good one. I’ll never forget those few hours.
They were the last in which our lives were completely perfect.
Of course, everyone has different definitions of perfection – but I can tell you with personal assurance that if your kids are healthy and you have a roof over your head, your life is perfect. Because all it takes is one glimpse into tragedy and pain, like my family would experience that Saturday night, to make you realize just how great things truly are – even when they may not seem that way.
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 in Baltimore, about to drive over and meet us. Jen’s phone rang, it was her Mom.
‘Oh 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. 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 and car-trip paraphernalia strewn throughout our new home, we decided it was best to split up. Jen and newborn Charlie would fly to Atlanta immediately, and Ava, the dog and I would drive down the following day.
I drove Jen and Charlie (8 weeks old) 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. There was an air of absolute devastation amongst all of them – we prayed that this accident might have somehow been exaggerated. We hoped it wouldn’t be the unimaginable.
Everyone raced to get home, in an effort to be with Brooke, Brad and the kids, and to see Olivia.
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. My wife said that her mom crumpled to the ground, that she and her brother were in shock, and my father-in-law tried his best to be a pillar of strength for everyone in spite of the devastation around him.
It’s a moment you rarely think about, and likely never imagine will happen to you and to those you hold dear.
I don’t know that I’ll ever forget the phone call I received from my panicked wife.
‘Adrian, Jesus, Olivia died. Please put Ava in the car and come down here as soon as possible. Just go get her and lay next to her, keep her near you.’
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 in 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 surrounding her death.
On the evening before the funeral, 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 fence at the park, which had become a memorial wall.
Stone showed us picture after picture of Liv on his iPad… 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. We were overwhelmed by all of the toys, stuffed animals and balloons decorating Liv’s memorial on the fence.
That night, one of the witnesses to the accident organized what she originally thought was going to be an intimate gathering for family and friends, a candlelight vigil at the park, in her honor.
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 empty parking lot, where Olivia was taken from us, the community filled in around us. Hundreds and hundreds of people deep…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… symbolic of her journey to heaven, and that we were all right there beside her.
As Jen and I lit our lantern, I felt connected to a moment. It’s not a moment that any of us had 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!’ 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, our own lost princess, to see.
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 attended 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 all the time how Brooke and Brad are coping.
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.’
I don’t know. There aren’t words strong enough to express what they’ve experienced and how it has re-shaped their lives. They lost their daughter. It’s something that most people can’t begin to comprehend. And Brooke witnessed it, which takes the heartache and grief process and compounds it like you cannot believe.
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.
And it is with this in mind that I ask all of you to SLOW DOWN and LOOK AROUND. STOP BEING IN A HURRY.
Enjoy the time you have with your loved ones. Cherish every moment and tonight, before bed, hug your kids a little tighter.
We will never forget you, Olivia. You are a beautiful scar on our hearts.
I’m glad we got to share this moment with you, Liv…
We miss your hugs and life will never be the same without you. Hopefully YOUR story can save another child’s life.
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. 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