Jenn Hallam holds a portrait of her daughter, Hailey, as she stands in the Parrish Park playground, where neighbors dedicated a plaque to the memory of the young girl who died in a car accident.
By Amy McConnell Schaarsmith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Jenn Hallam will never hold her daughter, Hailey, again. She won't get to watch her start kindergarten or go to birthday parties or get married or have children of her own.
But the toddler, who died in a car accident along with her father in August 2011, is never far from her mother. Their separation is only temporary, and the day will come when they see each other again in heaven, said Mrs. Hallam, who was a passenger in the car but survived the accident.
"I remember being devastated, but I remember from the first moment of hearing my daughter was in Jesus' arms that I was trying to find something positive out of it, some way to survive," Mrs. Hallam said, looking out at yellow maple leaves blowing through a sunny afternoon at Parrish Park in Rosslyn Farms, where she used to bring Hailey to play.
"People ask me all the time, 'Are you mad at God?' I never felt that. To me, the most important thing was that he provided me a way to see them again."
On the day of the accident, Mrs. Hallam said, she and her husband, 34-year-old Troy, and 22-month-old daughter were driving up Interstate 79 to Presque Isle, where they planned to look for beachglass and relax together for the weekend. They had been busy renovating their new home on Edgecliff Road in Rosslyn Farms, where they had lived for about six weeks, and wanted a quick break.
"Hailey loved to play with rocks and she loved things that were sparkly and shiny," said Mrs. Hallam, 31. "We were trying to get away as a family."
Mrs. Hallam remembers nothing about the accident or even the hours that preceded it, but police said at the time that her husband appeared to be changing lanes just north of Grove City when their car collided with another vehicle, veered off the road and went over an embankment.
Mr. Hallam and his daughter, who was restrained in a car seat behind her mother, died at the scene. Mrs. Hallam suffered a concussion and other injuries and was hospitalized overnight at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Youngstown, Ohio, healing completely within six weeks.
When she woke up in the hospital the next day, and her parents told her that her husband and daughter had died, Mrs. Hallam said she didn't know how she would go on. A stay-at-home mom for the most part, her whole purpose in life had been taking care of her family, she said.
Already a person of strong faith who prayed daily, her loss strengthened her faith further and forced her to focus her thoughts on her belief in God.
"It put me in a really good relationship with God and it was a type of relationship I had never experienced before," Mrs. Hallam said. "That's what I cling to, honestly, and my faith is the No. 1 thing that has gotten me through this -- without God and without Jesus, I don't know what else I have in life."
Within a week, she began to write a book -- her husband had always wanted her to write one -- as a way to keep her family close. It felt like something she could still do for her family, and she worked on it almost every day.
"When my daughter and husband were taken away, I didn't know how to live without my life," she said. "This was a way for me to still live and be Hailey's mom."
The words, written from Hailey's point of view, came spilling out, all the little daily details of family life and Hailey's toddler joys and achievements.
Her mother stroking her silky strawberry-blond hair while she slept. Learning to crawl and take her first steps. Her bedtime ritual of pajamas and prayer and story time. Playing with her grandparents and cousins. How while she was playing, she often sent her family "a hug through the air," hugging herself and making an "mmm" sound, then extending her arms toward the person she loved. And then, how she was taken to heaven.
"For me, it was very sudden, you know./But Heaven needed an angel/with a special kind of glow./So while I'm home, I'll wait/and look lovingly there/To you, where I send/A Hug Through the Air," the book reads. "To my family and friends/and all that I love,/I'm so happy here/in my home up above./So if that pull in your heart/becomes too much to bear,/know that I'm sending/A Hug Through the Air."
She finished the book's text in about six to eight months. The target audience was children approximately Hailey's age, or what it would have been if she had lived, and Mrs. Hallam said she is hearing that many preschool-age and other young children are enjoying and finding comfort from the book.
One autistic boy who didn't like to be touched, even to be hugged, learned a new way to love and be loved from the book.
"Now he walks around giving hugs through the air," Mrs. Hallam said.
Hailey's "hug through the air" became the book's title and it was released on Oct. 9, Hailey's birthday. The book is available on Amazon.com and HaileyHugs.com, in several groceries in her hometown of East Liverpool, Ohio, and in the gift shop of Ohio Valley General Hospital in Kennedy. On Nov. 1, it will become available in six local Giant Eagle stores: Shaler, Chippewa, Donaldsons Crossroads and Waterworks supermarkets, and the Market District stores in Shadyside and at Settlers Ridge.
Mrs. Hallam said she wrote and published the book partly to help others remember that separation, whether because of travel, military service or the loss of a loved one, is temporary.
"I try to close my eyes and see what memories I can bring up," she said. "My daughter is alive on the pages of the book and she is alive every time I get to talk about her and that has helped me more than anything."
Mrs. Hallam moved back to East Liverpool after the accident. A former newspaper reporter for the Butler Eagle, she is working again, promoting her father's chain of Sparkle supermarkets in East Liverpool and doing voiceovers for the Moon-based country radio station Froggy 104.3.
She never returned to the house on Edgecliff that she had shared with her family and has only been back to the neighborhood three times, the first of which was for the dedication ceremony in April 2012 of a plaque and a slide that former neighbors erected at Parrish Park in Hailey's memory. It is difficult to return to a place that was supposed to have been home, she said.
"It's hard because every time I drive up that hill, it's a weight," Mrs. Hallam said. "It was a life I had planned with my family but never got to live."
Losing the family was difficult for the neighbors, many of whom remember and miss the Hallams, in particular Hailey.
"We all think about them all the time -- it's sad," said Donna McNamara, who lives down the street from the home the Hallams lived in together for little more than a month. "I think about her all the time."
For her part, Mrs. Hallam is planning a new book about Hailey, her daughter's beloved yellow rain boots and all the places those boots could take her. And she is open to the idea of remarrying and starting another family someday.
"I loved being a mom," she said of starting a new family. "It doesn't scare me. It's something I'd like in my future -- I'd like to see the past and present combine."
Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1719.