July 11, 2012 12:00 PM

Standing in the nursery of their Tyler, Texas, home, Joe and Heather Nichols share a quiet chuckle. It’s been two weeks since they welcomed their daughter Dylan River, but until a visit from a PEOPLE COUNTRY photographer, Dylan hadn’t yet lain in her crib-her parents just can’t put her down. “She looked pretty sweet in there,” teases Nichols, who placed a fussy Dylan in her bed for a few photos. Since they brought Dylan home from the hospital, Heather has put herself, Nichols and her mom on rotating three-hour shifts holding the baby. Which is all right with proud papa. “We’re so much enjoying the miracle of her,” he gushes, “we don’t want to miss a single second.”

But the pair, both 35, have a more somber reason for their round-the-clock vigil as well. The birth of Dylan on April 17 came after nearly five years of trying and five heartbreaking miscarriages. Born two weeks early and delivered via cesarean section, Dylan clocked in at a healthy 7 lbs. 5 oz. and arrived with 10 perfect fingers and toes and a dark thatch of hair just like her daddy’s. Still, “after everything we went through, I haven’t been able to turn the fear down,” admits Heather. Holding his daughter for the first time after five years of waiting and praying “was one of the most humbling and remarkable experiences,” says Nichols. “I’m just so thankful our little girl is here.”

The moment was a long time coming. Five years ago, when the pair wed in a small ceremony in Savannah, they intended to get pregnant “right away,” says Heather, a former pharmaceutical rep who met Nichols when they were both 18 “We were both 30, we had known each other so long, and we were ready.” Two months after their wedding, around Christmas 2007, Heather conceived. But within nine weeks she had miscarried. “We had no idea that the first miscarriage was going to be the start of a huge struggle,” says Nichols, who also has an older daughter, Ashelyn, 13, from a prior relationship.

In the summer of 2008, when Heather was seven weeks pregnant, a second baby died. With Nichols on the road, she fielded the call from her doctor solo and nearly came apart with the news. “It was crushing,” she says. “I was hurting so badly for her,” says Nichols. “It made her feel hopeless and me feel helpless. It’s terrible when you’re so far away from someone and you just want to hold them.” In 2010, after doctors discovered Heather had a clotting disorder, polycystic ovary syndrome, and other conditions impairing her fertility, they decided to try IVF. But the treatments couldn’t prevent miscarriages, and they lost three more babies within a year.

Heartbroken, they began to wonder if their dream would ever come true. “I told her mom that I just didn’t know if I could watch her go through it anymore,” recalls Joe. “It was beginning to dawn on us this might never happen.” Clutching her husband’s hand, Heather’s eyes suddenly brim with tears; she pauses for a long moment before continuing on. “There was a terrible guilt to it, a shame,” she says finally. “When you can’t give your husband a child, you feel like you’ve failed.” For Nichols, who in 2008 successfully completed a second stay in rehab for alcohol abuse, the ordeal tested both his sobriety and his faith. “Sobriety is a challenge no matter what,” he says. “I shook my fist at God. I felt like we had been abandoned.”

But their luck changed last summer, when a scheduled sonogram of Heather’s ovaries revealed she had produced a highly viable egg. With Nichols away, Heather underwent intrauterine insemination with a sample of his stored sperm. She conceived, and as her belly grew, “it was exciting but scary,” she says. “I was seeing a little person, and my body was beginning to change for the first time. But in the back of my mind, I was still feeling like it could all be gone in a minute.” At 16 weeks, they learned they were having a girl “and allowed ourselves to get a little excited,” she says. “Every visit to the doctor, we felt a little stronger,” adds Nichols. “We’d see the baby move and we’d cry.”

When at long last Dylan arrived, witnessing her birth “was amazing,” says Nichols. “The minute that baby cried, I looked at Heather, and I have never seen that kind of joy on anyone’s face, ever. I’ll never forget it.” They had her name ready: Dylan, for a close friend of Heather’s who passed away when they were younger, and River, after the opening lyrics from Nichols’s “That Would Be Her,” which he sang to Heather at their wedding: “Have you ever seen a river ragin’ in the spring.”

These days, rocking Dylan in the nursery of their elegant brick home, Nichols is the picture of fatherly bliss-sleep deprivation notwithstanding. The room is filled with touches that recall the long, difficult journey that brought them to this joyful moment, like a hand-painted wooden cross with the Bible verse, “For this child, I have prayed.” A pretty frame next to it holds Dylan’s first portrait-a sonogram-with the inscription, “Love at first sight.” As proud as they are of the child they’ve created, the couple are equally proud of each other. “He was my rock,” says Heather. Adds Nichols: “She’s the toughest, most beautiful girl I know.” One thing’s for certain: There will be no shortage of love in this house for that swaddled, sleeping babe. “She’s our life now,” says Nichols. “We’re happier than we have ever been.”

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