It is 2.30 am and I feel compelled to write. Not just on any ordinary subject, but on a family that I truly find remarkable and inspiring.
I am on another continent and time zone, so it is only these typed words I can find, besides my prayers and good thoughts towards them, to offer any consolation at this difficult time in their lives.
Last week, the Bell family lost their 28-year-old daughter, Meagan Bell, in a car accident in Haiti as they drove to the airport to head back to the US after a volunteering holiday that had lasted a few weeks. Meagan’s mum, Beverley, had daily posted photo updates of their holidays, so it came to me as a shock one morning when I awoke to a post that talked about how happy Meagan’s last day on earth had been.
Last day? How was that possible when all I had seen were smiling faces on a beach; happy people enjoying life? Had she been ill, I wondered? Was the holiday a planned trip for her to enjoy her last days on earth?
An accident had claimed her life; and other lives in fact, for Meagan had died along with a friend Amanda Mundt, and Amanda’s aunt. A cruel twist of fate, it had been a project for young Haitian children that Amanda had started that both the Mundt and Bell families had gone to visit and help out with. I did not know Amanda personally but at age 22, she was helping other children enjoy the privilege of access to education, which is a sign of a great person.
These were two young women serving a mission to help improve other people’s lives; and they died in the process.
I am compelled to share my thoughts on the Bells because in the few months that I spent with them, I believe their family taught me lessons that we could all borrow from in our journey to becoming better human beings.
First lesson was that of great hospitality and welcoming. The first time I visited their house, they were hosting a dinner for people around the Pioneer Valley area of Massachusetts. Originally from South Africa, the Bells still maintain a strong connection to home and made some traditional South African meals, including a delicious slow-cooking lamb stew which we all savoured. The US can be a hard place to adapt to and the Bells, knowing this, always make space and time for people going through the process of integration.
I remember stealing away into their yard that evening to take pictures of their bright coloured kayaks which had caught my eye. That was my first interaction with Meagan who followed me outside to see what I was doing, as well as to talk.
After an exchange of a few words, I was a bit taken aback by her child-like enthusiasm and hyperactivity, though I found her quite friendly and warm. She explained the kayaks to me and how the family enjoyed using them in the summer. How she enjoyed a range of outdoor activities and had friends she took pleasure in doing them with. This was the fall and brightly coloured leaves scattered all across the lawn and yard. We watched a beautiful magenta sun set beyond the houses in the area and together returned into the house where Bev explained to me a bit about Meagan’s condition.
Meagan had contracted meningitis as a child which had affected her brain development, meaning that while she was in every way ‘normal’ (I hate to use that word because I don’t believe in normality!), she had a child’s cognitive abilities.
That evening, Meagan took us around the house, showing us the pool area and all of her father’s cherished souvenirs from rugby, baseball and all other sports. She was the quintessential daddy’s girl. Something about her glowed when she spoke of her father.
Overfed and happy, we returned to our homes with lunchboxes of left overs packed lovingly by Bev.
The second lesson I have learnt from the Bells is that of resilience. From what I know of their lives, they left South Africa to seek the best life for their daughter as a child with special needs. In everything they have done, they have put Meagan at the forefront of their lives.
I can’t imagine that adapting to a different world is easy, but yet they did so overcoming all challenges placed in their way.
And if I was ever in doubt of their resilience, I have seen it for myself this past week. Bev, who sustained minor injuries from the crash has had to deal with the death of her daughter and the critical condition of her husband – who suffered head and spinal injuries – and yet has somehow managed to keep strong and keep friends all over the world posted about what is happening.
I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult it must be to think rationally in a foreign country with a deceased child and critically injured husband to tend to. But yet all friends were kept abreast of developments through those trying hours as the family waited to be airlifted back to the US to receive further help.
I will never fully comprehend how she did this. But is a testament to the fighting spirit I grow to admire more and more in the Bells.
Thankfully, Dave is on the mend now and back home with Bev and their younger son, Brad.
The third lesson I learn from the Bells is that of life, living and loving.
The last time I saw Meagan, she was with her dad at home (Bev was in Pakistan). She had recently started going to the gym and Dave was accompanying her to her sessions, joking about how he had to stay downstairs and busy himself with other things so as not to disconcert the all-female members.
Father and daughter were making beer bread that morning and Meagan was showing me photos – on her new iPad, a Christmas gift – of her teacher who had just passed away after a fight with cancer.
“It’s so sad,” she kept repeating as she showed me pictures of the woman’s family. Her levels of empathy were deep and poignant, and I could tell that she was hurt by the loss of one she loved dearly.
At that time, it was becoming more and more obvious that Thandi, their much loved dog of many years, was getting frailer and that death was drawing nearer for her. No one could ever have guessed though that within a few months of Thandi dying, another member of the family would follow.
If love were a fragrance, I would say the Bells’ home smells quite sweetly of it. Meagan loved her family and in turn, they loved her back deeply. I feel blessed to know these people, to have met and become friends with Meagan and to learn so many important lessons from them all.
It still hurts to think of their loss. Dear sweet Meagan. No longer alive and smiling with us. It hurts me to imagine the silence that rests uneasily upon their home in these trying days. It hurts because it is tragic and unexpected and cruel.
The comfort I gather, the lesson I take away from this – along with all the others – is to die living. Meagan was always in the moment. The one before or after did not matter. Now was the only time she lived in.
And she sure died living, giving, helping, receiving love.
Famba zvakanaka Meagan. Go well Meagan.