I emerged from my doctor’s office into the waiting room as the gray afternoon sky was finally fading away to black. I stopped and dropped my book on to an empty chair, intending to pause only long enough to put on my coat and my gloves. As I dressed for the bitter chill of a suburban December evening, I glanced at the flat screen on the wall next to the reception desk. And there was Nelson Mandela. Even as frail as he was, he looked too vibrant and too monumental for even HDTV to contain. Even as he seemed to nearly crumble under the strain of waving a gaunt, bony hand to the gathered masses, he towered as pillar among them. Even “retired from retirement,” he was a monument to all that is great and right about humanity.
But – even as charmed as I was by his white hair, high cheekbones, and disarmingly winsome smile – a hollow acidity began to gnaw at my belly. I lingered long enough for the anchorwoman to reappear on-screen, although I already knew what she was going to say. Given Mandela’s recent illness, it seemed there was only one story left to be told.
Nelson Mandela had passed on.
I exited the office through a morass of emotions. I drove home with the radio off, sitting in stunned silence amid the distant echoes of my own doleful reminiscence. I wrestled with my confusion as I tried desperately to figure out what it was in that moment that had moved me so much.
I am a white, middle class, middle American suburbanite who’s never left mainland America save for a honeymoon in the Bahamas. I have never been a victim of cruelty or discrimination other than being made fun of for my morbid obesity as a child. And I have never had to face adversity or overcome a major obstacle that wasn’t of my own making.
As a boy, I only knew of Mandela’s existence because of Cliff Huxtable’s twin grandchildren (Winnie and Nelson) on The Cosby Show, and my understanding of Apartheid was limited to what I gleaned from watching Lethal Weapon 2. In 1994, I was a freshman in high school and barely even aware of Bill Clinton’s presidency let alone Mandela’s election in South Africa. I wouldn’t even discover rugby until nearly three years after the Springboks’ impossible victory in the 1995 World Cup. I wouldn’t learn of the legend of Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar until reading John Carlin’s incomparable Playing the Enemy while I waited for the release of the somewhat forgettable Invictus.
So why am I left feeling hopelessly alone and shattered in the wake of Mandela’s death?
Maybe it’s because I live in a country that finally found the courage to elect a non-Caucasian president and that maintained enough faith to reelect him four years later. Maybe it’s because I’m blessed enough to teach in a classroom and coach on two teams that, although sometimes short on diversity, are long on tolerance, acceptance, and comradery. Or maybe it’s because I was lucky enough to have just left the office of a gifted family practitioner – with whom I’ve trusted the health and well-being of my wife, my daughters, and myself – without ever until that moment giving a thought to the fact that she’s an African-American woman.
I know that Mandela made none of these things possible in my life. But he did make them a reality in South Africa, a nation that had been long torn by hate, bigotry, and violence.
So thank you, Nelson Mandela, for the gifts you have given the world. Thank you for your activism, your suffering, and your reconciliation.
Thank you for your thirty-plus years in prison, from which we’ve learned the importance of endurance, perseverance, and – above all – patience.
Thank you for your return to freedom, from which we’ve learned the power of embracing those who were, are, and would be our enemies with warmth, compassion, and forgiveness.
Thank you for your presidency, from which we’ve learned the revitalizing spirit of change and the healing power of compromise.
And thank you, most of all, for leaving this world a better place than you found it. Scores of men and women have spoken and will continue to speak of love, peace, and equality among all people. But from you we learned it can actually happen.
May our heads be unbowed, may our future find us unafraid, and may our fate fulfill your faith in us.