Annabel Karmel opens up about love, loss and legacy
Best-selling children’s cookery author, Annabel Karmel, shares a heartfelt letter to her firstborn Natasha, disclosing the depth of the grief she endured 32 years ago, and the legacy that her baby girl left behind
Please be aware this article contains details that some readers may find distressing.
I’ll never forget the day I discovered I was pregnant. I was 29 and had waited two years for that news. No one knew why it took me so long to conceive – sometimes it just takes time – but I excitedly fell straight into preparing for your arrival. I created a nursery at our little mews house in St John’s Wood, north London, and decorated it with blue and pink florals, and curtains with big bows.
My pregnancy was blissful, and when you arrived on 3 August, 1987, weighing 6lb 2oz – little but healthy – the joy I felt as a first time mum was indescribable. You were so, so wanted, and I was over the moon. Life was perfect.
You were three months old when, one evening, I checked on you in your nursery and spotted your little hand twitching, then saw your eyes roll back. I rushed to see an out-of-hours GP who lectured me on how first-time mothers worry unnecessarily, so I returned home, feeling guilty for disturbing him. If only I’d listened to my instincts.
The following morning, I knew something wasn’t right. Your father had already left for work, so I bundled you into a blanket and drove you to another doctor who, after examining you, confirmed something was very wrong.
I sensed you were sick but never dreamed it would be so serious that you would need immediate treatment at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington for various tests and an emergency CT scan.
The doctor’s voice was deadpan as he delivered the news: “Your child might die. If she doesn’t, she will never be the same again.” He explained you had contracted encephalitis, an uncommon but serious viral infection, most likely caused by a kiss from somebody with a cold sore. It had spread to the brain, causing irreversible swelling.
I could hear my heart thumping in my chest. Nothing made sense. I thought: “They’ve put men on the moon, surely they can find a way to save you.” I felt powerless and scared.
An ambulance rushed you to Great Ormond Street Hospital where, overnight, you deteriorated and were moved to intensive care to be attached to a ventilator. Day and night, I never left your side. I remember living in hope, praying, and trying to stay optimistic, because what’s the alternative until you’re told the worst?
That day came on day five. The doctor explained that the thinking part of your brain was gone, and a decision was made to take you off the ventilator. The machine was disconnected from your tiny body, you were put into a little dress, then handed to me. Every time I heard you take a breath, I clung to the hope that maybe – just maybe – the doctors had it wrong, that you would live. Yet my hopes were short-lived. After four hours, you died in my arms, and as I cradled your body everything felt very final. At that moment, my future felt obliterated. It was the worst pain of my life.
Returning home, where all your things were exactly as I’d left them, walking through your nursery where I could still smell you on the bedding and the baby clothes, was heartbreaking. Soon after, your grandmother would remove those belongings, fearing that keeping them would be too much of a painful reminder. I guess a mother never stops trying to protect her child.
The day after you died, a massive storm caused trees to fall and plants to become uprooted, and I remember looking out the window, thinking how the world outside matched how I felt inside – completely discombobulated. In the same breath, I couldn’t believe life was carrying on.
I only had you for three months, but you were my greatest gift
In the weeks and months that followed, I slipped into a black hole. I never dreamed about you or sensed you were there. You were very much gone, and the grief I felt was like nothing I’d ever experienced, as though a load was weighing on top of my head, physically pushing me down.
I found it impossible to motivate myself, I felt so physically sick with grief that my appetite disappeared, and I struggled to sleep. Whenever I did achieve rest, I’d wake and relive the shock of your death as though I was experiencing it for the first time.
People often don’t know what to say to those grieving a loved one, let alone a mother who has lost her newborn daughter. Consequently, I felt very isolated and alone, so I stayed at home a lot. When I did venture out, people who didn’t realise what had happened would innocently ask: ‘How’s your little one?’ prompting my tears to well up.
Going outside to exercise made me feel a little bit more normal, and three months after you died I was on a tennis holiday when I missed my period, took a pregnancy test and it read positive. Suddenly I had hope. Of course, no baby could ever replace you, but the idea of becoming a mother again, to get back the future I’d lost when you died, kept me going. Knowing a baby was coming made a huge difference to my mental health, and when Nicholas arrived on 6 August, 1988 – one year and three days after you were born – slowly my sanity returned.
Of course, I worried the same thing would happen to Nicholas as you, but once he passed the age of three months, I relaxed more. But while he was a healthy child, Nicholas was difficult. He wouldn’t sleep and was a bad eater.
My career as a harpist had ended after you left, when I could no longer play music. I realised I wanted to work with children, and opening a playschool was my next dream – to help other little ones.
To give Nicholas the nutritional reserves he’d need should he ever fall ill, I began formulating my own recipes. I shared a few with mums at the playgroup, who all responded with hugely positive feedback, and some even suggested I write a cookbook – which made me laugh, but I soon realised that a book to help mums nourish their children would be a superb legacy to you. So I began to write, and teamed up with the chief nutritionist from the Institute of Child Health to ensure all the recipes were based on nutritional research.
That book, which I dedicated to you, eventually became a best-seller, and sold more than 5 million copies worldwide. After that, 46 more books followed, and you’ve been the driving force behind every single one.
Natasha, I would never have done any of this if I hadn’t loved and lost you. You were only with me for three months, but you made such a deep impression on my life. I’m so grateful to you for what you’ve given me – a gift of love and passion for my career. When you died, I could only see badness and negativity, I didn’t believe any good could come from it, but it did. You’ve helped millions of parents to feed their children, and keep those children healthy. What a gift.
Since you, I’ve been lucky to have three lovely, healthy children – Nicholas, 32, Lara, 30, and Scarlett, 28 – who have all been my saviours. When I look at Lara and Scarlett I sometimes wonder what you would be like as a young woman, and imagine the family dynamic with a girl – you – as the eldest sibling.
You never know what happens after death, so I do believe that, one day, I might see you again. For now, though, you’ll live on in my memory and – my first child – will always have a special place in my heart. Love Mummy x
‘Weaning Made Simple’ by Annabel Karmel is out now (Bluebird, £16.99)