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Rebecca Hayes was sitting with her son Clayton Jensvold and his father, David Ward, when she had a crazy idea.
“I said, ‘You know, we never had newborn pictures, maybe we should do some where we are cradling Clay’s feet and caressing his sweet little head,’” Hayes, 38, told TODAY.
The catch? Jensvold is 21.
One half-baked plan and a phone call later, what started as a joke became a hilarious and heartwarming collection of family photos.
“We took them in June, and it was hotter than hell, and we were laughing hysterically the entire time,” Hayes told TODAY.
Some in the collection are regular old family photos of Hayes and sons Jensvold and Gehrig Hayes. But others show 240-pound Jensvold swaddled in a blanket, surrounded by Hayes and Ward, 41.
The family’s delight showed, and the internet noticed.
After photographer Duffi Crowson posted the pictures to her Facebook page, Chaotic Perfection Photography, the post earned more than 300 likes and was shared 40 times.
The photos gained traction in part for their wacky glee, and in part because they celebrate life and love after loss.
Hayes and Ward met in high school in Orange County, California. They shared a short but passionate relationship, and separated shortly before Jensvold’s birth. They went their own ways, married different people and started their own families.
Over the years they reconnected, rekindling a friendship from the embers of their former relationship.
“When David came back into Clay’s life, we jumped right back in where we left off,” Hayes told TODAY. “It was all completely platonic, but it was still this situation where we could talk about anything. We just felt very comfortable with each other.”
Then, the unthinkable happened. Hayes’ husband, Paul Hayes, who had long struggled with addiction, died by suicide in July 2013. Hayes spoke candidly about her late husband’s illness. She said she wants her children to feel comfortable sharing personal struggles and difficult emotions.
“Losing my stepdad at 17 was definitely hard on me,” Jensvold wrote in an email. “It eventually brought us all closer together. After losing someone close it makes you realize how little time you could possibly have, so we definitely talk and spend more time together.”
But that didn’t make the loss any easier — either for Hayes or her sons.
“It was shocking and a little surreal. We were married at that point for a little over 10 years — it felt like my whole life had been with him,” Hayes told TODAY. “I felt like I’d been dropped out in the middle of the ocean.”
At that point, Ward and his wife, Courtney Ward, had become a support system for Hayes. So when Courtney was diagnosed with a rare type of cervical cancer in January 2015, Hayes was there for them.
Courtney passed away less than two years later. Hayes and Ward began to spend more time together, bonding over their respective losses and the difficulties of being a caretaker.
“David went through taking care of Courtney, and her treatments and her sickness. My husband didn't have cancer, but I went through years of taking care of him,” Hayes told TODAY. “You don't really have a chance to be selfish in those instances and just sit down and think, ‘What about me?’”
Their relationship slowly evolved. Hayes said she noticed things were different in Dec. 2016, when she and Ward took Jensvold out to see comedian Patton Oswalt for his 21st birthday. The two just couldn’t keep their eyes off each other. They decided to take it slow.
But fate or coincidence, it seemed, continued to push them together. Hayes' and Ward’s leases ended in the same month, so they took the plunge and moved in together this past June.
“Seeing my biological parents together was definitely weird at first, because my dad and I didn't spend a whole lot of time together when I was a kid,” Jensvold wrote in an email. “Both my parents had different spouses almost all my life, but now it just feels normal.”
Hayes agreed that the relationship feels normal, albeit different than it was in high school. The relationship, she said, feels like a contented warmth, one that has grown out of more than 20 years of friendship and love.
Despite their newfound happiness, neither Hayes nor Ward will ever forget the journey that brought them together.
“We struggle because we both loved our spouses. If given the chance to have them back, we’d much rather have them here,” Hayes told TODAY. “We struggle with being happy to be together, but still knowing that there is a sad reason we are able to be together.”
This article addresses the issue of suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255 anytime.