28 Dec Hill Family Christmas in California
If you are just coming to the blog for the first time – I would like to warn you that this is an unusual post… It’s not the typical happy wedding or engagement session, but a longer post still full of love and meaning.
On Saturday before Christmas, I had just finished photographing a proposal in Atlanta and got a call from Rachel Hill. For those of you who have followed the blog, you might remember the family photos sessions I did for the Hill Family in front of the HOPE letters in Atlanta. The last session took place hours before Kevin’s flight took off for California for some last treatment options for his stage 4 melanoma cancer. When I heard from Rachel, she let me know that Kevin’s liver was failing and they had called in hospice. My heart broke.
She asked if I would be willing to fly out to California to take their last family photos together at Christmas. As a friend and photographer, without hesitation, I asked when she wanted me to leave. After talking through options, the decision was that Candace (another close friend of ours from our church) and I would leave the very next day on Sunday afternoon. Then, Monday we would have Christmas together and people would come to visit throughout the day. When we arrived, we went shopping with Rachel for some awesome Christmas jammies for the kids. That was an adventure in itself! The lines were jaw-droppingly long but we tag-teamed and managed to find some great options for the next morning.
When we arrived to the house, it was pretty late. We were happy to meet Eric, a close friend of Kevin, who had been watching over Kevin while Rachel came to get us. He has been a huge support to Rachel and Kevin and we were so thankful for him and the rest of their friends and family who have stepped up to help throughout their journey. After we unloaded our stuff, Candace and Rachel drove over to her sister’s house while I stayed at the house with Eric, a dear friend of Kevin’s, to try to get some editing done. When they came back, we tried to get some sleep knowing the next day was going to be a full day. We were hopeful that Kevin would be able to interact with people. It was a mix of emotions for the last Hill Family Christmas together as a family of four.
The morning came with much anticipation. Since the kids got a late start and weren’t at the house when I woke up, I finished editing the Chickfila Christmas event so I could focus the rest of the day. The kids arrived and wrapped their little arms around their mommy’s neck and would’ve stayed there had they not been completely distracted by the huge mound of presents under the tree (which had been provided by many friends and strangers from around the world). They immediately started shouting with joy and ran around the house with excitement. We promised the y could open presents after taking a few family photos together in the bedroom with their Daddy.
Jude, their son, made it a game to hide from me when I had the camera. With the help of Grandpa, we were able to lure him with some doughnut holes, ha! Kevin was awake and alert, which we were so thankful for. He was able to wrap his arms around his kids and love them as they snuggled up next to him. We got some great family photos all together, but I am going to give those to Rachel and let her share them as she feels ready, if ever. This blog post is to share the kids experiencing Christmas and everyone who came to visit that day. It’s to share the joy and love that was had during the Hill Family Christmas. Sure, tears were shed because we knew it was going to be the last, but we have hope and have always had hope.
Two of Kevin’s friends were able to help move him from the bed to the living room recliner so he could be present as his children unwrapped all of the gifts. The sound of tearing paper, shouts of joy, little feet running around with excitement, laughter, and the sound of the people he loves most filling his ears had to be the best gift ever for Kevin. Whenever he was able to be awake, his eyes followed Rachel and tracked her as she moved across the room. His love for her was astounding.
The kids would run up and show their daddy their gifts and then go run to open the next one. So many people donated money, bought gifts and showered this family with love. I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart if you are reading this. I can’t tell you how amazing it was to experience Christmas with them. You helped make it complete. Watching the kids faces light up was priceless. Jude loves his legos and airplanes! Evie got some chocolate makeup and thoroughly enjoyed it along with many other wonderful gifts! Rachel was surprised with a Patagonia jacket and Kevin got a new soft blanket, but the biggest surprise of all was for the kids… Their present from Daddy was a new bike for each of them!
Kevin was looking pretty tired, so Rachel tried to stand him up to help him move back to the bed. Kevin was able to wrap his arms around her and give her one last squeeze. I believe all of his strength went into that hug. He couldn’t stand much longer and sat back in the chair. Two of his guy friends helped move him back to the bed and he was able to rest. Rachel sat in the recliner with the kids on her lap to reveal their surprise. They saw the bikes being rolled in and leaped off Rachel’s lap with squeals of happiness! They ran into their Daddy’s room and thanked him for the bikes and then ran back out to give them a test run. Evie even got her biker boots on, but Jude ran out the door in his jammies because he couldn’t wait!
For the rest of the day, friends came over to visit, sing songs, shed tears, and love on Kevin, Rachel, and the kids. The kids were happy – playing with toys, having tickle fights, and comforting their mommy.
After the crowds left, Eric and some other friends and family stayed to care for Kevin while Rachel, Candace and I went out to dinner for a break. Rachel wanted to take us to Hollywood since they are so close. I am pretty sure we embarrassed Rachel as we both were screaming the names we saw on the Hollywood stars and taking pictures like the tourists that we were. We were able to share some laughs and find joy in the midst of suffering. We knew it was going to be a tough night. Candace and I have both suffered much loss in our lives and were honored to be there for Rachel.
As we returned, we knew it wouldn’t long before saying our final goodbye to Kevin. He was awake when we got home and Candace and I told him how silly we were in Hollywood and how we would take good care of Rachel. We gave him some pain medicine, washed his face, and played the worship & prayer CD from our church, Trinity Anglican Mission, which was extremely peaceful and calming. Kevin seemed to relax almost instantly and was able to rest. As the hours passed, we prayed, we cried, we waited. We begged God for Mercy as Kevin’s breaths became more strained and Rachel held him close. At 2 AM, Kevin’s good friend Andy showed up to join us in prayer and held Kevin’s hand. We felt God near.
At 3 AM on Christmas Eve, Kevin took his final breath and his suffering was over. Candace and I held Rachel as we mourned the loss of Kevin together.
I was so thankful that he was able to have a full day of friends, family, love and joy before leaving this world. I am honored to have captured his last day with his family and give these pictures to Rachel so that her 4 year old and 3 year old remember their last moments with their Daddy and how much he loved them. I am grateful for the gift of photography and the ability to freeze time and capture memories that will last a lifetime for people to cherish.
Coming home, I held my husband a little tighter. I hope this story and these photos also cause you to hold your loved ones closer and realize that life is short. Kevin was 37 years old. You only get one chance.
I hope you enjoy seeing the joy and love the Hill Family shared on their last full day together… May peace and comfort fill those who knew and loved Kevin as they mourn losing him.
Thank you Rachel and Hill family for allowing me to capture these intimate moments with you. I was so honored to be a part of this. I am glad that this post marks the 100th post on the Shutter Sweet blog, because I don’t think there is another one that is any more special than this one. Kevin was an incredible man and will be dearly missed by many.
Thank you for reading and sharing the Hill’s story – please keep them in your thoughts as we start a new year. May your 2014 be filled with peace, comfort and hope!