Get ready for one helluva love story.
Yesterday, a “newborn” photo shoot went viral — not because of the epic cuteness, but because the “baby” at the center of it all was 21-year-old Clayton Denes.
It took a bunch of confused commenters a hot second to understand what was going on in the pictures. I mean, even I was wondering why the heck a college-aged young man was goofily posing with his parents as if he was just born — and then I read their story.
Photographer Duffi Crowson has known Clayton’s mom, Rebecca Hayes since they were 5 years old. In high school, Hayes dated David Ward for about a year-and-a-half. The relationship ended, and shortly after, Hayes found out she was pregnant.
“I still remember her telling me during history class, and I accused her of lying/joking, and didn’t believe her until she showed me her ultrasound,” Crowson writes.
Both young parents moved on and eventually married other people. Hayes traveled with her son from California to the East Coast, where she had another son with her husband, Paul. Ward had two more children and got married, but despite the couple’s best efforts, their relationship ended.
Ward found love again in his second wife, Courtney. During that time, he also reconnected with Hayes with one single loving intention — stability for their son. In the process, the two couples became fast friends.
That was, until Hayes’ husband passed away in 2013.
Her family moved back to California filled with grief over their loss, while Ward helped them through their heartbreaking experience. What Hayes didn’t know, was that she would be helping Ward through the same painful situation when his wife was diagnosed with a rare cervical cancer in 2014 before losing her battle last year.
Through the immense pain, the two leaned on each other for support. And that support developed into love, which has bonded them ever since.
“That high school romance from 24 years ago rekindled, but has grown into something completely new, completely different. So this… this is scary and wonderful and crazy… but real. It’s life,” Crowson continues.
Since Hayes and Ward were so young when they had Clayton, they never took newborn photographs of him. That’s when Crowson stepped in and helped them achieve their goal … 21 years later.
The post has naturally garnered a ton of support for Hayes family, with over 24K likes and 1K shares. And even Crowson is praising her childhood BFF for the shoot. “She’s handled difficult circumstances with humor and grace, which she has instilled in her boys,” the photographer tells Babble. “I think [it] is evident in the fact that Clay was more than willing to participate in this crazy idea!”
Way to be a team player, Clay!
Hayes initially threw out the idea to Ward and her son as a joke while they were sitting around recounting how their family has surprisingly reunited. “I thought they’d laugh it off, but both of them just jumped at it (which is saying something, since they are both pretty reserved). We all agreed that it absolutely had to happen,” she says.
When asked to describe how reconnecting with Ward felt, Hayes jokingly shares that it’s been a hot mess of mixed emotions. “Just imagine if Jerry Springer and Nicholas Sparks wrote a screenplay and had Lifetime film it,” she playfully tells Babble.
All jokes aside, this love story is bittersweet for both parents. Hayes remarks that while they are tremendously happy to be together, both she and Ward loved their late spouses with their whole hearts.
“Your person is never replaced; you always love the one you lost. Just like the love when you have a second child, your capacity to love just grows. Especially when one loses a spouse, there are no words to adequately describe the hell of losing your partner. So, we widows/widowers deserve to find happiness,” she writes.
For Hayes, reconnecting with Ward over their shared loss was truly cathartic, and it helped them realize how much they needed each other. “We had always been able to tell each other anything, and this new, really horrible reality we both had to deal with gave us a lot of conversation,” she explains. “We laughed and cried and got pissed off at the world together. Compared notes on all the weird things people say to young widowed people.”
It was during one of those moments when they knew they had found a lasting partner in one another. “All of a sudden, it hit us,” Hayes tells Babble. “[It] took my feet out from under me. He said, ‘I’ve loved you since I was a teenager and just didn’t know it.’ I felt the same.”
Now, the two are bravely letting go of any worries about how others will perceive their journey together.
“It’s been freeing. I will always have love for Paul and David will always have love for Courtney. This thing with us is just different. We didn’t plan this — it took us by surprise as much as anyone else. But I’m sure not letting it slip by,” she says.
If you’re wondering where to find me, I’ll just be over here happy crying for the rest of the day. Congrats to this awesome family!