For months following that tragic day they cried themselves to sleep every night, tortured by the loss of their two beautiful boys.
But even in their darkest hours they would try to comfort each other, telling themselves there would be light in their lives again.
And now there is – a gorgeous little girl to ease the ache in their hearts and fill their home with activity and laughter again.
“Alexandra is very special to me,” Johan Porter says. “She’s her daddy’s queen. I’d do anything for her.”
Johan and his wife, Carmen, call their 10-month-old daughter their Covid baby because she was born in the midst of the pandemic. But she’s a lot more than that: she’s the child they’ve been blessed with after unimaginable loss.
The Porters, who emigrated from Pretoria to Morayfield near Brisbane in Australia 17 years ago, were shattered when their young sons, Michael (2) and Josh (16 months), drowned in the family swimming pool in March 2019.
Johan (54), a mechanic, still can’t talk about his boys without breaking down. “They went everywhere I went,” he says.
Carmen (43), who’s a teacher, is elsewhere in the house tending to little Alexandra while Johan talks to us via video call. But she won’t be joining us, he says – she took the death of the boys too hard to relive that terrible day or talk about her journey following the tragedy.
“I try to be strong for my wife. She’s still in counselling. I can’t afford to cry in front of her – I want to be there to support her.”
He admits he was worried when Carmen was pregnant with Alexandra. “I was terrified she would reject the baby. She asked how she could love a new child after what happened to the boys. She blamed herself.”
But Carmen fell in love the moment she set eyes on her daughter and she now has reason to get out of bed in the morning again.
Carmen chose the name Alexandra while Johan chose the baby’s second name, Faith, “because that’s what she gives me – solid faith”.
“Make no mistake, I still miss my boys terribly. I pray every day that all this would just be a nightmare. But it is what it is.”
The Porters are no strangers to loss.
Their firstborn, a little girl they called Hannah, was born at just 26 weeks in 2014 and didn’t survive.
“We spent 127 days in the hospital with Hannah – most of them on our knees,” Johan says.
Five years later, they again found themselves grieving, this time for both the babies who had helped heal the pain of Hannah’s death.
Carmen had been at home with the boys that afternoon when Johan called, saying he was on his way back from work.
While they were talking, their two sons slipped out of the house unnoticed. “It hadn’t even been two minutes,” Johan says.
After she hung up, Carmen went looking for the children and spotted Michael in the pool. She dived in and retrieved him, then saw Josh floating in the water too. Screaming for help, she dragged him out of the pool too and started applying CPR. An ambulance arrived and the boys were rushed to hospital but it was too late to save them. They were declared brain-dead and died a few days apart.
And there was yet another blow to come. Johan’s mom, Lenie, travelled from South Africa to Australia to be with her son and daughter-in-law and attend her grandsons’ memorial service.
A few days later she too was gone, killed by a blood clot in her lungs that travelled to her heart.
In the midst of all the sorrow, there was something that gave the Porters a measure of comfort: the couple had agreed for Michael and Josh’s organs to be donated and 12 young children’s lives were saved in the process.
“We recently attended the birthday party of a little boy who received Josh’s liver,” Johan says.
Alexandra hadn’t been a planned. She was “a gift from above”, her dad says, a miracle arising from the tormented months the Porters blamed themselves for what had happened.
When Carmen was 37 weeks pregnant, there was another scare: the baby had stopped growing and needed to be born immediately via C-section.
Johan didn’t leave Carmen’s side and had the privilege of watching his daughter emerge into the world. “It was so special,” he says.
After everything they’ve been through, Johan and Carmen are understandably very protective of their little girl.
“She only has to start crying for me to rush over and ask what’s wrong,” Johan says.
There are many reminders of her brothers in little Alexandra – the way she crawls, the faces she pulls and her infectious giggles. “When I look at her, I see my boys.”
Johan swipes at his tears. “I still cry myself to sleep many nights,” he admits.
He credits his faith with getting him through the past two years. “Unfortunately, we can’t always understand why these things happen. I’ve learnt not to ask God why – He knows best.”
One day he’ll tell Alexandra everything about her two brothers. “I’ll show her pictures of the boys and me mowing the lawn, fishing and working on the cars and the boat.”
He also looks forward to bringing Alexandra to South Africa someday – something he never had the chance to do with the boys. “I want to show her where her roots are, from Cape Point to Namibia.”
Many friends and family members worried that the Porters’ marriage wouldn’t survive the tragedy but Johan was determined that he and Carmen would stick together. “I made her a promise that I’d always be there for her.”
He believes parents who’ve lost children need to give each other the space to grieve and work through their emotions.
“When I disappear to potter around in the garage, she knows. Just like I know to leave her alone when she disappears to iron.
“But when she wants to talk, I let her. I don’t interrupt her,” he says.
“My advice to other parents is simple: live every day as if it’s your last with your children. You can’t know if you’ll never see them again.”