It's a precious moment: the age-old ritual of a couple welcoming a new baby into the family. Monica Stark gently rocks her new-born to sleep then carefully puts her back in her pram while dad, Joshua, looks on lovingly.
But for the Starks, Anastasia’s homecoming is also a reminder of their traumatic loss. It’s been less than two years since a different baby lay sleeping in the same pram.
Isabella, the couple’s firstborn, would have been nearly two years old now, a toddler tearing around the house and demanding her parents’ attention. Instead, the only child sounds in the guesthouse in Ermelo, where the family live, are the snuffles and cries of a new-born.
Isabella was 14 months old when she choked on nuts and died in September last year. At the time Monica was six months pregnant with Anastasia. She tells us it was tough trying to come to terms with her loss while expecting another baby.
“It was extremely hard,” she says, gazing at her infant daughter.
She’s still battling the guilt even though she knows Isabella’s death was an accident.
“But I hadn’t made her sit down to eat like I usually did,” she says softly.
Monica (22) didn’t want her grief to get the better of her and so, at the end of her pregnancy, she got a prescription for tranquilisers to prevent depression taking hold. Joshua (31), sitting next to his wife on the couch, talks about the different stages of grief.
“It starts with you blaming yourself,” he says.
“Then you go through a stage where you don’t know how you can go on living – you don’t know how you’ll manage to keep going. You get to a point where you feel like you don’t have to be on Earth anymore, so you ask yourself, ‘Why am I still here?’ Some nights I wake up and just cry about what happened.”
The couple are taking it day by day and supporting each other through the grieving and healing process.
“There are days when Monica struggles and I have to step up. Then there are days when I’m grieving and Monica is my shoulder to cry on,” Joshua says.
The young mom will never forget that fateful day as long as she lives. She’d given Isabella some pecan nuts – a snack the little girl had had many times before. Isabella was playing in her parents’ bedroom when she fell over.
“She hit her head and started crying. “She inhaled deeply as she cried and that’s how the nuts got into her lungs,” Joshua explains.
Monica was there and called for help as Isabella’s face started turning blue. Joshua’s parents, Athol and Melinda Stark, own the guesthouse where the family lives and came to help. Joshua rushed home from work.
“It took me about two minutes to do a drive that usually takes 15 minutes,” he says.
The couple take turns to explain the chain of events. They estimate seven minutes passed from when Isabella started choking to when Joshua carried her into the emergency unit of the Ermelo Provincial Hospital. On the way there, he’d given his daughter mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while Melinda drove the car.
“I kept going until we got to the hospital,” he says. “Then three doctors took over and told me to go and wait while they worked on her.”
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He joined Melinda and Monica, who was still barefoot and in her pyjamas, in the waiting room.
The day rapidly went from bad to nightmarish. Isabella didn’t respond to treatment and doctors told the family the toddler had suffered brain damage as a result of lack of oxygen. Monica and Joshua kept hoping against hope that they’d still be able to take her home – that things weren’t as bad as they seemed.
Later that day, Isabella was flown by helicopter to Johannesburg’s Netcare Garden City Hospital, where she was admitted to the paediatric intensive care unit. Her parents got in their car and drove from Ermelo to the hospital.
“We didn’t even know where we’d be sleeping,” Monica says.
The nuts were removed from Isabella’s lungs and she was placed in a coma for a week. She was given adrenalin because her heart had nearly stopped. Because of Covid-19 regulations, the couple had to take turns seeing her for just an hour a day. By the following Monday, a week after the accident, doctors summoned the parents.
“They told us in very nice and fancy words that it was all over,” Joshua recalls. “I don’t even remember how they explained it to us, but the bottom line was there was nothing more they could do.”
On 20 September Isabella was officially declared braindead and all medical treatment was stopped.
Monica admits it’s hard not to be “paranoid” now that Anastasia is here. “I get such a fright every time she gasps for air,” she says.
Joshua says it’s going to take time for them to stop over-reacting. “Every time her breathing just sounds a little funny, we both freak out.”
But if their responses mean they can keep their baby girl safe, they’ll keep doing it, he adds.
They’re holding onto the good memories they have of Isabella’s short life.
“We took her to uShaka Marine World to see the fishies,” her dad says.
They spent the weekend before the accident in the Kruger National Park – which will now forever be the last lovely memory they have of her. She loved animals. Monica and Joshua laugh as they recall how Isabella used to wipe the family dog’s muzzle with a cloth.
“I’ll never forget that sight,” Joshua says.
They no longer sleep in the room where Isabella’s accident happened – the memory of the tragedy is too painful. But their new bedroom, in another part of the guesthouse, is decorated with pictures of their beloved little girl.
They’ve made a small memorial to her. A little pink urn holds her ashes and there’s a candle and a small angel figurine standing guard over her.
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It’s good to have a baby’s voice in the house again after five deathly quiet months, the Starks say, and the daily routine of feeding, sleeping and bathing is a precious way to regain their family bond.
“Anastasia has given us purpose again,” Joshua says.
When the baby starts fretting, Monica gently picks her up and comforts her. Anastasia is wearing one of Isabella’s old onesies.
“There are pictures of Isabella all over our rooms,” Monica says. “Anastasia must know she has a sister who looks down on her from heaven every day and keeps her safe.”