When the Hayes family—father Norman, mother Nikki and siblings Norman and Kelsey—were searching for an emblem they could adopt to honor their late daughter and sister Olivia, they chose the butterfly. In many parts of the world, the butterfly has come to represent hope, change and resurrection. For this family, since Olivia’s passing in 2008, the butterfly has become “a symbol of our love for her,” shares Nikki.
The family adorn themselves with butterfly jewelry. A butterfly logo represents the nonprofit foundation Livvy’s Love Inc., founded to provide financial support in the form of scholarships and grant awards to deserving youth in honor of Olivia. And it’s not just the Hayes who have embraced the butterfly as a tribute to Olivia. A local middle school set up a butterfly garden, and this spring, at what would have been her high-school graduation, several of her classmates painted butterflies on their caps.
“She loved making everyone happy. Olivia touched a lot of lives,” adds Nikki—especially the lives of those who knew her the best: her family.
On the morning of August 27, 2008, Norman, as he’d done every day before, drove 10-year-old Olivia around the corner from their home to catch her school bus. Sister Kelsey was already at school and mother Nikki had just dropped off brother Norman at his school. As Olivia walked to the bus, an armored truck driving in the opposite direction slid through an intersection and hit the front of the bus as she was stepping on, ultimately pinning her underneath the truck.
“The accident itself happened so quickly, and trying to take in what I was seeing was overwhelming,” Norman explains. “When you see something like that, it’s hard to imagine this is happening.” Olivia spent five days in the hospital surrounded by friends and family.
“There was an unprecedented number of visitors. The hospital opened up a room just for us. Kids from the elementary school and the high school camped out in prayer in support of our family,” Nikki recalls.
“It’s encouraging, heartwarming, and it brings a smile to my face when I think of the way others saw Olivia, even at a young age, and how much they were touched by her,” says Norman.
The little girl who loved cheerleading, school, basketball and track, and was once so full of life and joy, was unrecognizable lying motionless in the hospital bed. A then 15-year-old Norman II, acting as protective older brother, turned to his family and said, “That wasn’t Olivia on that bed. That’s not her spirit. I want God to do what’s best for her. No matter how hard it hurts, it’s not fair to ask her to hold on.”
And with those poignant words, the Hayes family began the emotional process of letting go of Olivia’s physical self while keeping her memory alive. Life without Olivia’s infectious positive energy seemed unfathomable.
Olivia died of brain damage and failed organs.
Resuming their everyday lives wasn’t easy. It was at times painful and difficult for the Hayeses. But with the support of the community, church, counseling and each other, the impossible became manageable. Instead of focusing on the life lost, they turned their attention to the life lived by Olivia. In time, they learned that the most comforting remedy for their broken hearts was to commemorate Olivia through an exchange of their most cherished memories.
“From the moment Olivia passed away, we promised that we would never let her memory fade. We talk about her all the time,” says Nikki. But for Norman, talking about Olivia continues to be difficult. “More so than anyone else in the family, I struggle with it. We handle it each differently. There are still difficult moments and times,” says Norman.
When it gets too challenging, Norman finds comfort in listening to his family speak about her. “We laugh and bring up funny things she did, ways she acted or funny things she said. We talk about her in a healthy way that makes us smile,” says Nikki.
“My favorite thing about Olivia was her beautiful smile. It wasn’t a perfect smile, but it was beautiful and matched her personality,” shares 15-year-old Kelsey, who was in the third grade at the time of the accident. “You could never stay mad at her when she showed you that smile. I miss her every day.” “I loved her happy and uplifting spirit,” says Norman II, traits Olivia learned from Nikki and Norman.
When Norman first met Nicki back in 1989, they were introduced by a mutual friend. He says he was drawn by her “beauty, smile and uplifting spirit. I was in my junior year at North Carolina ANT State University. I was a laboratory animal science major and Nikki’s first job when she graduated from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill,” says Norman. “I wanted to get to know her better.”
Nikki had spotted him before their formal introduction in the parking lot. “I thought he was very nice looking, honestly. One of my girlfriends who was also a student at the lab knew him and told me, ‘That’s Norman. He is so nice and sweet. You should marry Norman.’ I told her, ‘I don’t even know him.’ ”
When they finally met, Nikki says he “instantly impressed me. He was a very nice and funny individual.” Norman’s easy-going attitude was very attractive to Nikki. They also shared a love of loved gospel music, sang in the choir growing up, and both their families were deeply connected to the church.
“One night we just had dinner at my house and we played Taboo, and he was just hilarious. We had so much fun. I really liked that everything was laid-back. We didn’t have to go out or do anything special; he enjoyed just sitting down and having fun.”
“We shared the same sense of humor. We complemented each other. Nikki is more of the brains of the group; I’m the more active and athletic one. But we both enjoy sports. I’m more social, and she is a little more laid-back on the social scene,” says Norman. Her warmth reminded him of his mother. “I have been told by a lot of Norman’s mom’s friends that I am the younger version of her,” says Nikki.
They dated for close to three years before they got married on December 9, 1992 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Norman was in the navy, and Nikki was a biologist at the Institute of Health when Norman II was born in June 1993. The couple spent their early years living in Maryland adapting to their new roles as newlyweds and new parents.
“It was a lot of trial and error. We had to learn to be married and how to raise children,” says Nikki. Norman grew up in Silver Springs, Maryland, and their new home wasn’t too far from the church he grew up in. “The next Sunday we moved, we went to church. I renewed my membership, and she joined. We found an instant family in our church,” says Norman, who during the early years worked as a hospital coordinate and trained at Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.
“I was 24 when we got married, and at that age, marriage helped me make better decisions career-wise and work towards building a future for our family. The finances were tough living in the D.C. area. I had to take a part-time job when Norman was born. With Nikki’s support we got through this.”
“Marriage means wholeness,” explains Nikki. “It’s completion. Having Norman by my side has really helped me to achieve the goals I have spiritually and in my career. We both worked full-time and went to school part-time. His support means everything to me too.”
Norman Hayes II was born on June 20, 1993. It was Father’s Day, and Norman couldn’t have been more thrilled. They named him Norman Roberts II after his grandfather. “It was very special that our first-born was a child we could name after Dr. Hayes. He was a very influential man in our lives,” says Nikki. Dr. Hayes passed away in 1991.
As it turned out, Norman II doesn’t just bear the same name as his grandfather; he also shares some attributes. “My father was the smartest man I knew and Norman is a close second, I must say. Maybe even a tad bit smarter,” says Norman. As a child, Norman II quickly picked up vocabulary and his pre-school tried to skip him twice, so he could start kindergarten early.
“As a man I try to evaluate it more from an emotional standpoint. I wanted to keep him with his peers but still continue to push him academically,” shares Norman. Education played a pivotal role in both Norman and Nikki’s lives growing up. “My mother was a schoolteacher and then a principal. All of my aunts on my dad’s side were schoolteachers. Norman’s mom and sisters were all educators. We grew up with the expectation you finish high school, you go to college and then you go to graduate school. That’s what we knew,” says Nikki.
Placing a high priority on education was instilled in all three kids. “Academically, I remember coming home from school and they would always check our work and support us. They praised us and it motivated us to do well in school,” shares Norman II, who just recently graduated from Harvard, where he not only excelled in the classroom but also made a name for himself on the Ivy League’s football team.
“Harvard was an awesome experience. It was absolutely incredible playing football at Harvard. It was incredible being surrounded by so many great minds. I cherish that experience,” says Norman II. “I’ve grown to appreciate football tremendously. It’s really a game of life. You go through so much adversity and you grow as a man and learn about yourself and what you are truly capable of. I have applied what I have learned in football to the classroom and other areas of my life.”
Norman II graduated with a psychology degree, and he’s planning on going to law school to pursue a career in legal psychology or public health law. He hasn’t quite decided yet. The end of college may not mean the end of football for the former football captain. He is currently training for the NFL.
“There’s an opportunity open and that’s definitely a blessing. Some of these teams are interested and willing to check me out,” says Norman II, who started playing football when he was 5. Nikki and Norman couldn’t be more excited for the chance to watch their son play for the NFL. “I’m not sure I’m ready for the days of being a parent in the stands watching him play to be over just yet. It’s exciting we may have that opportunity to do it a little while longer. He loves the sport,” says Nikki. “We are so thankful to having been part of his growth into a fine young man and leader,” says Norman.
Watching her big brother’s grueling work ethic and dedication to succeeding is all the motivation Kelsey needs to reach her goals. While she is proud of Norman II’s accomplishments, she doesn’t hesitate to say that everything he does she can do.
“I never feel pressure to match up to Norman. If anything, I want to do better than him. If he can do it, I can. I understand the importance of education, and I credit that to not only my parents, but having a brother who is a star athlete and has the best grades you can imagine. He made it seem like it was possible,” adds Kelsey. “One comforting thought is with each of Kelsey and my accomplishments, we know Olivia is looking down at us with a smile. That’s motivation to keep us going,” reveals Norman II.
Football may be Norman II’s passion outside of the classroom, but for Kelsey, traveling the world is what inspires her. Kelsey has been to Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Ethiopia and Kenya. “They were all life-changing experiences. In fourth grade, I went to visit my aunt in Ethiopia. It was amazing and it was beautiful. We shared moments together as a family I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” says Kelsey.
What’s her favorite part about traveling? Coming home. “Because I know that I learned something new and my view of the world has been broadened and that makes me feel like I’m a better person,” she says.
Raising happy, smart, kind, humble children is the true marker of success for Nikki and Norman. “There is so much to fear for your children out in the world today,” says Nikki. “We are so grateful and blessed. We take none of it for granted. Every day we live for Olivia.”
The Coolest Black Family in America is an EBONY.com original series: an ongoing look at the intricacies, layers and compelling beauty of African-American family life. Of course, The Coolest Black Family is not one family but many. In fact, we’ve found that there are as many Coolest Black Families as there are versions of cool. Also consider: family doesn't always mean mother + father + kids. What defines family is connected hearts and supported souls. Ride with us weekly as we crisscross the country in search of kinfolk whose cool is so palpable and real, it comes second only to their love. Think your cool fam qualifies? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org (with Coolest Black Family in the subject line)!
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she's not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she's writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and magazines. Check out her work and blog at AlexandraPhanor.com.