Monday, November 20, 2017
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After 1-year-old drowned, grieving family finds ways to cope

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SPRING HILL

At the start of each day, Magda Martin watches her husband kiss a picture on the wall.

"Good morning," Frank Martin says before heading into the kitchen.

It's a routine that has replaced waking up and fixing breakfast for their daughter, Magda said. Her husband rises and kisses the baby's frozen smile, captured weeks before her first birthday and blown up now to life-size.

Mikaela was the Martins' first child together. She turned 1 in May. Weeks later, she drowned in the family pool.

Now, the couple and Magda's two daughters from her first marriage struggle to cope with the grief that won't go away.

To Magda, it's all too familiar. Ten years ago, in 2003, her first husband also drowned.

She took up knitting after Mikaela died, she said, "so my mind doesn't wander. When it wanders, I cannot stand it."

Magda, 35, who works as a procurement assistant for a small Spring Hill company, met Frank, 63, a retired stagehand, through the popular Facebook game Farmville. That was six years after her husband died. Therapy had helped her finally move on from the loss, she said.

Magda was living in her native South Africa, where her first husband, Awie Steenkamp, 32, had gone fishing near their home in Ermelo and fallen into the frigid water. He died of a heart attack. She was 25, the mother of a 4-year-old and an infant.

She began working long hours for her husband's former boss and his company of 3,000 employees transporting the region's abundant coal. One of three people managing payroll, she put in long hours, sometimes working overnight. The exhaustion helped numb her pain, she said.

Her boss finally pushed her to seek therapy.

Magda said the therapist "explained things that in this instance are helping me."

After their first encounter on Farmville, Magda and Frank talked online and eventually met in person that year, 2008, in Hawaii. They moved into the house on Belmont Road two years later. Frank, a Pennsylvanian, was tired of shoveling snow. In August 2010, they were married. Magda became a permanent U.S. resident in 2011.

Mikaela was unplanned, a miracle, said Magda.

Then, a year after she came, Mikaela was gone.

On May 31, she slipped through the sliding-glass door overlooking the family's backyard pool while Magda was cooking dinner. Magda found her minutes later lying face-up in the water. She was pronounced dead at Oak Hill Hospital.

"I still see her — when I found her," said Magda. "I see the image a lot. It's one of the hardest things to get out of my head. There's a general feeling that you failed as a parent. Why didn't I hear the door open? Why didn't I find her sooner? Why didn't the CPR work?"

Magda gave CPR to Mikaela while paramedics were on the way. Her neighbor yelled that Magda must push harder, but Magda — who covers her face, her hands shaking, as she remembers the scene — was afraid she would hurt Mikaela's tiny rib cage.

Racked by the memory, Magda immediately accepted help making appointments with therapists when the guidance counselor at Deltona Elementary School, where Magda's daughter Chantel is in third grade, called in June with suggestions. Magda's 13-year-old daughter, Monique, showed no interest, but Chantel, who had been sulking and angry, agreed to see someone on the same days that Magda went to therapy.

"(Chantel) refused to eat breakfast every morning," said Magda. "All of the sudden, she didn't like the cereal. We realized that breakfast, she used to eat with Mikaela. She would eat while she played with Mikaela. That was their thing."

Neither of the girls swim in the pool anymore.

Frank, mostly closed-lipped about the tragedy, has declined therapy, but he'll go eventually, said Magda.

"When he's ready," she said.

Every Wednesday, Magda and Chantel attend sessions at HPH Hospice on Cortez Boulevard. Magda's boss usually allows her to take the rest of the day off, and she's thankful for that because she can't stop crying once the tears start in therapy.

"I always say, when you lose someone, you lose your past, but when you lose a child, you lose your future," said Edna Emerson, the bereavement counselor who works with Magda at HPH. "You always look forward to what they're going to do, what they're going to become — and then they're gone, and all of that becomes impossible."

Knowing the problems caused by going years without help after a loss, Magda said she consciously chose to see a therapist right away this time. She's been able to carry on with her life, even attending services at Spring Hill United Church of Christ, she said, though she cries there. Mikaela liked to talk over the pastor, Magda remembers.

The family's house is full of memories, too, though Mikaela's toys and clothes were packed and moved to the shed after her memorial service. Mikaela smiles out of dozens of pictures that her parents mounted on the walls after she died: Mikaela at Cocoa Beach, Mikaela covered in spaghetti sauce, Mikaela wearing her favorite hat backward.

"We need her to still be here," said Magda.

Last Sunday, Frank and Magda swam in the pool for the first time. The afternoon was hot, and the entire family sprayed each other with the garden hose.

It was just time, Magda said.

"We both cried," said Frank. "We had the feeling that getting in was the hardest part. The next time might be a little easier."

Alison Barnwell can be reached at (352) 754-6114 or [email protected] Follow @alison_barnwell on Twitter.

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