Since the day their daughter died at birth, country star Walker Hayes and his wife Laney have been intent on keeping the baby’s memory alive. But if not for two strangers who came to the hospital that grim day, the couple may not have had any memories at all of the little girl they named Oakleigh Klover.
The baby died on June 6 as the result of a uterine rupture — a rare and catastrophic event that almost claimed Laney’s life, as well. As a surgical team was working to stop her bleeding and stabilize her, two volunteers were summoned to the Nashville, Tennessee-area hospital to help the family.
One, the mother of a newborn who had died four years prior, found Hayes in a waiting area and talked to him about the importance of spending time with the deceased infant, a practice that has become increasingly common among parents in similar situations.
“I didn’t know what was morbid, I didn’t know what was normal,” says Hayes, 38, in this week’s issue of PEOPLE. “She began just walking me through the process. … It is a miracle she was there.”
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Once Laney, 39, was out of danger and conscious, the couple made the decision to spend the rest of the day with Oakleigh’s body.
The second volunteer arrived to perform another crucial task: taking professional-quality photographs of Oakleigh. The family now has precious images not only of the baby’s details — her face, her tiny hands and feet — but also of Hayes and Laney holding her.
Joining them in the hospital room for the experience were their 12-year-old daughter Lela, the oldest of their six surviving children, and close friends Craig and Laura Cooper. (Cooper is the inspiration for “Craig,” Hayes’ latest single.)
“I’m sure that people who have never experienced this are thinking, ‘You want a picture of your dead baby?’ ” Hayes says. “But I promise, if you look at the photos, she looks like she’s asleep. I mean, she’s so cute and just perfect.”
Says Laney, “If I had not had that photographer show up and do pictures, I would be devastated that I had nothing. We didn’t get moments with her living. … All we have are those moments of holding her and the pictures.”
Today, those photos are the couple’s most tangible evidence that Oakleigh existed. “I look at them every day,” Hayes reveals. “I sit and stare at them. On the [tour] bus, I’ll call Laney and ask her, ‘What are you doing?’ She’s looking at pictures. We would be so lost without those.”
In his grief, Hayes also decided to create another visible reminder of his daughter: a tattoo on the inside of his left forearm that features the baby’s first and middle names and her footprint.
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The tattoo was actually Laney’s idea. “He’d always wanted to do a tattoo, but there was nothing that ever felt important enough,” she explains. “This was the first time there was really something that was important enough.”
Hayes confesses he has a fear of needles, and that he actually passed out after the first four letters were inked. Once he came to, he recalls, “Laney was scared that they were just going to do ‘Oakleigh,’ but I was like, no, I’ve got to get the whole thing.”
The session ended up being “such a happy night,” Hayes says. His first tattoo also “will be my last — because Laney won’t let me get another one,” he jokes with a smile. “But I love it.”
Hayes and Laney’s six children have come up with their own ways to remember their baby sister. All of them have painted rocks that they’ve since left at Oakleigh’s grave nearby. Their 11-year-old son Chapel — who otherwise “shows absolutely zero emotion,” says Hayes — built a virtual memorial for Oakleigh in his Minecraft video game.
“Which, of course, devastated us,” Hayes says. As his wife recalls, “He wrote, ‘Oakleigh, I never knew you, but I will always love you.’ “
For more about Walker and Laney Hayes’ heartbreaking story, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
Nine-year-old Baylor, she says, has been more talkative about his sadness while Beckett, who’s 6, is “too young to verbalize as well as the others, but he’s too old to just accept the facts. I feel like that’s been probably the hardest age.”
Sisters Everly, 3, and Loxley, 5, “talk about her a lot,” Laney adds. “They get that it’s final. They say, ‘She’s with Jesus’ and, ‘She’s in heaven.’ “
Lela, the oldest, has written a rap poem about the day Oakleigh died. “It takes you through the level of excitement, where she was so happy, to when she saw me and I told her what had happened and then her seeing her mom,” Hayes says.
Hayes is known for his autobiographical lyrics, and says he’d like to record a song about Oakleigh — just not yet. “I have written some things,” he says, “but honestly, right now the song would be five pages long.”
One recent day, he was playing with a couple of the lines at the piano when Loxley and Everly joined him and started dancing. Inspired, Hayes improvised. “I wrote, ‘Speaking of your sisters, I think they like your song, because they’re dancing along to it while I’m writing it.’ “
The work in progress will be finished someday, he vows. “I will definitely sit down when the right stuff falls out that I think comes even close to doing my daughter justice, and it’s beautiful enough to share with the world about her and about this experience. … That song will come one day, but only when it’s supposed to.”
A national nonprofit organization, called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, is dedicated to giving parents a no-cost photographic record of their dying or deceased infant. For more information, visit its website.