Six days ago the world learned that Nelson Mandela had finally passed away after a long illness associated with his respiratory situation. Though the news came as something of a shock, I knew he’d been close to death since the summer. Then, purely for sentimental reasons, I’d hoped he’d reach his 95th birthday on July 18th – which he did – but having him with us much longer seemed tentative from that point on.
Since his death, there has been an astonishing out-pouring of coverage including many celebrations and remembrances of his life and countless stories of people’s encounters with him. In the midst of all this rich recounting and re-telling, I’ve found myself grieving. His passing has hit me hard, somewhat unexpectedly. At the same time, I’ve countered few around me who seem to have been affected by his life or his death, or if they are, they’re saying little to nothing about it. For instance, on Friday as I crawled through the day, sleep-deprived and struggling to stay focused, the heaviness I felt was eclipsed by others’ curiosity and exuberance about the just announced World Cup drawings for Brazil 2014. I didn’t share that interest in football in those moments, but the irony wasn’t lost on me: The last time Mandela was seen in public was at the finals of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Seated beside his loving wife Graca Machel, the couple spun around the stadium in a golf cart, bundled up in thick coats, he in a Russian-looking hat. It was bitterly cold, he looked frail, and they didn’t stay out there for more than a few moments. That appearance was Mandela’s final goodbye. I wonder how many who were there knew what they were witnessing.
My brother Ian was at that match so he can confidently claim he is among those who saw Mandela with their own eyes. I never had that privilege. I think in my own way, I’ve tried to make up for that by gorging on Mandela movies, reading his books, and pouring over his speeches.
Mandela’s role in bringing down apartheid hits particularly close for me. In my early teens, I recall learning about this country in southern Africa where a white minority ruled a black majority banishing blacks to homelands, forcing them to carry pass-books, limiting who they could marry. I was both perplexed by this and horrified. Our family would have been illegal under apartheid. My parents would’ve had to live in separate homes – who knows what would have happened to us children? It seems unthinkable and yet countless South Africans suffered these and other kinds of indignities, for years.
As I’ve contemplated Mandela’s life and legacy anew in the past week, I’ve been struck by how isolating grief can be, what a lonely, sad road it is. Surrounded by throngs of crowds and mourners and journalists from across the globe, I can only wonder how Mandela’s immediate family is coping – not able to grieve in private, nor able to have space to process the depth and complexity of losing their husband and father whom they share with a nation. I pray once Mandela is laid to rest, the glare of the limelight will turn off,we’ll return to our own ordinary, every day lives and the Madiba clan will be granted the courtesy to mourn in their own unique ways.
So long Mandela, so long.