DALLAS, Pa. (AP) — His grandmother used to call him "Kevin sent from heaven."
These days, his heartbroken mother uses similar words while still signing his name to family greeting cards. "Kevin in heaven," she writes.
It's been 19 months since little Kevin Miller was instantly ripped out of his family's life by a hit-and-run driver, but the pain is as raw as ever. The 5-year-old, known for his infectious smile, bleach blond hair and bright blue eyes, left his family with precious memories during his short time on earth.
Kevin's tragic death prompted a change in Pennsylvania's hit-and-run law that many felt was long overdue, as a bill named "Kevin's Law" stiffened the penalty for those who flee fatal crashes.
"Obviously, any parent who loses a child, they never want the child to be forgotten. In the beginning, it's your worst fear, people are going to forget," Kevin's mother, attorney Caroline Miller, said last week at the family's home in Dallas. "I now know the public will never forget him and that he didn't die in vain, now that we have 'Kevin's Law.'"
The way Kevin died rallied support for Caroline's crusade to change the law. Caroline hopes the way he lived is remembered as well.
Kevin's life is documented in scrapbooks Caroline has made. It's become a therapeutic exercise. Her beloved young boy even helped make one — or at least create the content.
"After Kevin died, I went through my camera and found all these selfies he took of himself. I could not believe it. I was like, 'Wow, I can't believe he left me this," she said while flipping through the pages.
A lot of the photos depict goofy faces, but that was somewhat typical of Kevin.
Kevin was a twin, but he was very different from his brother, Christopher. First of all, as fraternal twins, they looked different. Kevin actually bore a resemblance to their older brother.
Caroline said Christopher was more serious while Kevin was the "comical" type. Her favorite photo of the two captures that striking difference. Christopher has a stoic look with his lips tightly pursed together. Kevin's mouth is wide open, flashing his teeth and tongue.
"I believe he's in heaven and we're going to see him again one day," Caroline said. "Trying to live life every day without him is a struggle and very hard."
Caroline and her husband, Stephen, a Wilkes-Barre dentist, try to stay strong for Christopher, 7, and their other son, Stevie, 9.
"They are the ones that keep us going," Caroline said.
During a therapy session, Kevin's brothers filled out a form about Kevin's favorite things and the things they liked to do together. Kevin's favorite color was an easy one: yellow. His favorite thing to do was simple as well: swim. In a pool, in the ocean, it didn't matter — the boy liked being in the water.
Both boys agreed Kevin was enthralled by pirates and dinosaurs. Kevin loved pirates and their symbol — a skull and crossbones — so much that the Jolly Roger was etched on his tombstone. His parents and brothers wear bracelets of skulls in his memory.
Kevin and his brothers liked to trek in the woods behind their house and look for frogs, salamanders, worms and mushrooms. The living creatures were captured, but usually spared. The mushrooms, however, were goners.
"We made pretend they were bad guys and we smashed them with sticks," Stevie explained.
Kevin also liked to lead his brothers on an "adventure," or the kindergartner's name for a lap around the outside of their in-ground pool, jumping rock to rock. A few rocks are separated by several feet of grass — dangerous, molten lava, Kevin told his brothers. During a reporter's visit with the Millers, both brothers cleared the grass with ease on several jumps.
Out in the yard, a tree Kevin's classmates tried to grow for him sits in a small pot by the pool. The tiny tree's growth is stunted at maybe a foot — there are no leaves and few limbs. But what has started to grow has amazed the family.
The creeping buttercup, a weed that sprouts pretty yellow flowers, has emerged and is growing rapidly.
His favorite color of yellow has come through.
"It keeps coming," Caroline said.
A family's heartache
At the time of Kevin's death on Dec. 21, 2012, his family was already grieving.
Weeks earlier, Caroline's sister delivered twins following a high-risk pregnancy. One of the twins, Lea, died several days after birth.
"I thought Lea's funeral would be the hardest thing I had to go through in my life — not realizing a month later my son would die," Caroline said.
Kevin was killed while the family was leaving a kid-friendly Christmas party at a friend's house on North Street in Wilkes-Barre. The family of five held hands as they crossed the street with another couple. A speeding car came seemingly out of nowhere as they crossed the street with another couple. Kevin was clipped and knocked from his father's grasp. The driver accelerated and took off, leaving Kevin behind to die.
"How does someone not see seven people crossing the street?" Caroline asked. "It is so senseless. We were crossing a street. We were all holding hands. You live your life thinking, 'How did this happen? What if we left one minute earlier, if we left one minute later?' There's such a fine line between life and death."
Instead of Christmas, the family had a funeral to worry about. They couldn't have it on Christmas. They didn't want to hold it on the 26th, their eldest son's birthday. They didn't want to wait until the 27th.
"We had the funeral on Christmas Eve," Kevin's father, Stephen, 38, said.
Caroline, 39, said she can't even recall the funeral.
"I was in such shock," she said.
The shock lingered for months.
Eventually, the couple sought to do things in Kevin's name. On holidays, they began donating candy and other items to disadvantaged children through the Catherine McAuley House. They still hold a birthday party for Christopher, but ask family and friends to also bring a present for Kevin that will be donated. Caroline also shops for clothes and toys she thinks Kevin would have liked and donates them to needy children.
The couple began the donation campaign after a conversation with a spiritual adviser. Following his last Halloween, Kevin told his parents he wanted to be a skeleton the next year. After he died, Caroline bought a skeleton costume and was going to put it by his grave. The adviser told her that wouldn't help anyone, and suggested she give it to a child in need.
"That's what gave me the idea to donate in his name," she said.
Like Caroline, Stephen is hoping the memory of their child isn't forgotten.
"He touched a lot of people in 5 and a half years," Stephen said.
A teacher's tale
Linda Fritzges, the owner of I'm Big Now Learning Center in Dallas, was Kevin's kindergarten teacher the year he died. Kevin liked school and was "very energetic," she said.
"He'd run in the door and ask, 'Miss Linda, what are we going to do today?'" Fritzges recalled.
When she started giving instructions in class, Kevin usually wanted to sing instead.
"He loved to sing. He'd sing Disney tunes all day long if I didn't stop him. Our eyes would meet and he'd run his fingers across his lips like a zipper," Fritzges said. "I think that's what I missed the most, even after telling him to stop so many times."
Kevin also liked any project that would put his parents' washing machine to the test, she said.
"He loved getting messy," Fritzges said. "The messier the project, the better — whether it was finger paint or Play-Doh."
There were only nine children in Kevin's class, including his twin brother, so the kids knew each other well. Kevin died during Christmas break. Their return was the most difficult time in her teaching career, she said.
All the children made drawings of what they would remember most about Kevin and she hung them together as a "memorial wall" in class. Each morning, Kevin's brother and his good friend, Jack, would meet by the wall and talk about Kevin.
After his death, almost every child created an art project in yellow, in honor of Kevin, she said.
Fritzges and the Miller family have since collaborated to offer an annual scholarship in Kevin's name to I'm Big Now.
"There's been so much focus on the death and trial. His life was so short, but it was full for a little one," Fritzges said. "He meant a lot to a lot of people"
Kevin makes a friend
One of Kevin's best buddies was Jack Leandri, who is 7 years old, like Kevin would have been. They met in Fritzges' kindergarten class.
"He just came up to me and asked if I wanted to be friends," Jack said last week.
When asked what he'll remember about Kevin, Jack was quick to answer.
"His smile. It never stopped," Jack said. "It was funny."
Jack was friends with Kevin and his brother Christopher. They'd often swim in each other's pools. These days, Jack and Christopher remain good friends.
"The biggest gift we could give them is Jack's friendship with Christopher," Jack's mother Michelle Leandri said.
Michelle and Caroline graduated together from Bishop Hoban High School in 1993. They reunited one day while dropping their boys off at kindergarten. The Miller boys soon gravitated to Jack.
"They took him under their wing. They became great friends. I always tell Caroline how grateful I am. They kind of brought Jack out of his shell," Michelle said.
Michelle said Kevin was a memorable youngster that people would have liked to know.
"All people know now is he was a little boy killed four days before Christmas," she said.
She recalls her last conversation with Kevin, as she was arranging a post-Christmas play date for Jack and the Miller boys.
"You don't have to worry about bringing cookies," she recalled him saying. "He wanted to make sure we were coming to his house because he had all the cookies ready for us."
Michelle vowed to do her part so Kevin won't be forgotten.
"I think it's important we talk about him. I think spending time with the Millers will make sure we do," she said. "Since we are still good friends with Christopher, we'll always remember Kevin."
A prosecutor's promise
Former Luzerne County Assistant District Attorney Alexis Falvello, who prosecuted the driver who killed Kevin, was thinking about leaving the district attorney's office in 2014, but wasn't going anywhere until the case was complete.
Falvello made that promise to Kevin's mother.
"I made a commitment to her, to her family and to Kevin to see the case through," Falvello said.
After the driver pleaded guilty, Falvello made arrangements to join her father's law practice in Conyngham Borough following sentencing.
"My last day was the day he was sentenced," Falvello said. "If he would have pulled his plea, I would have stayed at the DA's office."
The driver received two to five years in prison, more than the mandatory minimum one year he faced. Under "Kevin's Law," he would have been sent to jail for a mandatory minimum of three years.
Kevin's case consumed Falvello with emotion and still does. A yellow rose the family gave her on sentencing day remains on her dresser at home.
"I tried a lot of cases. This is one you couldn't leave at your desk when you went home. You are reminded of Kevin all the time," Falvello said. "Certainly, I'm going to remember the case forever and I am going to remember Kevin forever."
Even after leaving the office, Falvello traveled with members of the district attorney's office to Harrisburg to watch "Kevin's Law" become law. She was among the dozens wearing yellow "Kevin's Law" T-shirts.
"That was huge," Falvello said. "That was really important. I wanted to continue to show support to the family."
Kevin and his brothers loved meeting up with their aunt and uncle, Christine and Randy Lisman, who live down the road in Kingston Township.
They also have three children.
"When we'd get together, they kind of all paired up," explained Christine, sister of Kevin's father.
Kevin paired up with their youngest child, Andrew, who was 3 years old at the time of Kevin's death, she said.
"Everyone had a buddy," Christine said. "You didn't have to worry about anybody being left out."
Kevin and Andrew were "inseparable," Christine said.
"It wasn't a cousin to him — that was his best friend," she said.
Now age 5, Andrew struggles to comprehend his best buddy is never coming back.
"Andrew took it the worst. He'd say, 'What do you mean Kevin's gone?' Every day, it was, 'Where is Kevin, when is he coming over?' He asks, 'Is God done with Kevin yet? Could I have him back?,'" Christine said.
Before Andrew turned 5 this year, Christine asked him what he wanted for his birthday.
"He looked at me and said, 'I don't want to turn 5 because good boys die when they turn 5, like Kevin," she said.
Christine called Kevin "a little angel."
"And he is one now," she said.
From baby to boy
In Frances Miller's eyes, in the six months before her grandson's death, Kevin was changing "from a baby to a little boy"
"He was a bright spot in our lives," Frances, 76, said. "He leaves a void in the family."
When Kevin would come to her house in Bear Creek Township, he loved to pick raspberries.
"And he'd eat them as fast as he'd pick them," she joked.
He also loved to spot deer. Frances would make sure they'd visit when Kevin was there — luring them with apple peels.
"He was fascinated by the idea that deer were in my backyard, so I would make sure there were deer in my yard," she said.
Every year for Frances' birthday in December, the Miller family gathered at the Bear Creek Inne for a mini reunion. During the get-together weeks before his death, Kevin ran around with his cousins wearing blinking Christmas necklaces Frances gave to the children.
The family was soon set to follow another tradition: Christmas Eve at the Miller family homestead.
"That was the first time in 45 years we didn't get together, the day we buried him," she said.
A grandmother's love
After Caroline had twins, her mother Theresa Prebola helped out a lot, especially in the first month.
"I had Kevin. She had Christopher, in the evening, to take the burden off her," Theresa recalled.
Theresa said she was very protective of Kevin, the smallest of his brothers.
"But here he came out to be the biggest daredevil of them all, like jumping in the pool," she said.
She misses her little buddy.
The last time he slept over her Kingston residence, he made her a drawing that said, "I love you."
"Things will never be the same, at parties, holidays, you'll always know something is missing," Theresa, 74, said. "It's just something you have to live with. It's a shadow over your head, but you have to go on. If you're a family, you stick together."
Information from: The Citizens' Voice, http://www.citizensvoice.com