"Erica would be proud to see how far the babies have come," Carlos Morales tells PEOPLE
The day was filled with laughter, friends and family, but it was also a reminder of what has been painfully missing since his four kids were born.
Carlos Jr., identical twins Erica and Paisley and Tracy – were born at 5:51 p.m. on Jan. 15, 2015. Just eight hours after they arrived, Morales’s wife Erica died from hypovolemic shock, an emergency condition involving massive blood loss.
“It’s all very bittersweet,” Morales of Phoenix, Arizona, tells PEOPLE with tears in his eyes. “I’m celebrating their birthday, but I also lost my wife and they lost their mom.”
The Longest Year
Morales is smiling from ear to ear as he and a group of his closest friends and family sing “Happy Birthday” to his babies at a playground near his house on Jan 16.
Some people hold balloons and others take pictures of the proud dad cutting a birthday cake – just one of many firsts he’s had this past year.
Carlos Jr. sits on his lap, but every few minutes he holds another baby, kissing their heads and giving them an equal amount of attention.
“Erica would have loved this,” says Morales, 30, a warehouse supervisor. “It would have been an even bigger party. She really liked this kind of stuff. She was looking forward to it.”
Morales admits that he has had little time to grieve since his wife’s tragic death.
“I’m rarely alone,” he says. “I can’t believe it’s been a year. I just wish Erica was here to see them crawl and see them start to walk. There are going to be so many more firsts she wont be around for.”
About an hour before the party, everyone joined Morales for a 30-minute memorial walk for Erica that Nicole and Christina Todman – her two childhood best friends – organized in her honor.
Morales, pushing the stroller, shared memories of Erica, something he does on a daily basis so his babies “always know how amazing she was.”
Taking It Day by Day
It’s impossible not to notice how crowded Morales’s home is with toys, baby beds, diapers and bottles. But what’s most apparent is the abundance of love.
“They have really grown up,” he says. “It makes me feel good. Hopefully I can keep on trying to do my best every day.”
At his kids’ doctor’s appointment on their first birthday, Morales says he was “proud” to hear about how well they’re doing.
Morales held his babies, who were born between 2 lbs. 10 oz and 3 lbs. 4 oz., as they each received a few shots, and he was told that they now all weigh about 20 lbs.
“News like that makes me feel like I’m doing something right,” he says.
He also admits he couldn’t do it without the support of his family.
His mother-in-law, Sondra Bridges, moved in full time to help Morales, and says she will stay there as long as he will have her.
“It’s quite a challenge because we have different personalities,” Bridges tells PEOPLE. “But we have the babies’ best interests at heart. We still have my daughter and his wife in common and that will always be.”
When Morales leaves for work around 6 a.m., Bridges is with the babies all day. The busy dad spends his short breaks on FaceTime with the babies and when he comes home, he gives them each a kiss and doesn’t leave their side until they all fall asleep.
“I’m handling it the same way the babies are – taking it one day at a time. I’m just thinking about life more now and how you have to enjoy every single minute and moment, especially with your family and friends,” he says while sitting on the floor with Carlos Jr. and Erica. “I enjoy every moment with my babies because life is short.”
Morales met his future wife Erica at a nightclub in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 2006 – and he knew in that moment that he wanted to marry her.
“I didn’t speak any English and she didn’t speak any Spanish,” he says, laughing. “But I asked her to dance and she said yes.”
He wrote his number down for her on a piece of paper, but Morales learned through a mutual friend that she threw it away.
They later reconnected, and after that, they never parted ways.
“It was instant,” he says. “We got married in Las Vegas the next year.”
Morales frequently looks back on what he calls the “best times,” and when he starts to feel down, it’s his babies that give him strength.
“How do I stay strong? I have four big reasons,” he says.
After Erica died, Nicole created a GoFundMe page to help Morales and the couple’s children. It has since raised almost $500,000.
“The financial support has just been a tremendous help,” he says. “Having four babies gets a little expensive. Pretty much every time I go to the grocery store, people look at me and ask, ‘Are you buying this stuff for a daycare?’ When I tell them I have four babies they look at me like I’m a little crazy.”
It’s hard for Morales to think about the future when the past is still hard to process.
“We planned for years to enjoy this together,” he says. “I’m a great father because of her. I can’t let Erica down.”