Speaking with PEOPLE on the farm he once shared with Joey in Pottsville, Tennessee, Rory is opening up in this week’s issue about losing the love of his life and musical partner, who gave birth to the couple’s 2½-year-old daughter, Indiana, months before her cancer diagnosis in 2014. Joey was also the mother figure for Heidi and Hopie, his two daughters from a previous relationship, whom he raised as a single dad.
“When the time came that we realized that Joey was most likely not going to make it through this cancer… one of the hardest things was coming to realize that I was going to be back here again where I was before, but this time raising Indiana,” Rory says in an emotional interview with PEOPLE.
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Together, Joey+Rory scored third place on CMT’s Can You Duet in 2008, kicking off a career that would take them to the top of Billboard‘s country chart. But Rory, 51, says their biggest accomplishment is their blended family.
“[Joey] just couldn’t bear the idea that she was going to leave me a single parent again because I’d already been through it. She told me right on the porch out there,” Rory recalls, fighting back tears. “She said, ‘It’s not fair. You’re not supposed to have to do this again.’ I said, ‘But on the other hand, I’m perfect. I already know how.'”
Today, Heidi, 29, and Hopie, 27, help their father raise Indy, whose home videos with Joey have been edited into Rory’s tribute film, To Joey, With Love, in select cities Sept. 20 and Oct. 6.
“God just keeps showing up,” says Rory of his life now, “and magically making what are our worst fears beautiful.”