I took to bed uncharacteristically early on the night of Thursday 5th December. At 8.50 pm, when Mandela took his final breath, I was on my way back from picking up a family member from the airport. At 9.30 pm, when President Zuma announced his passing on national TV, I was in the shower. By 10pm, when twitter started buzzing with the news, I was in bed. I slept deeply and peacefully, while most of the world mourned.
I arose at 5.30 am, as I am wont to, put on the kettle for my morning cup of tea, and went outside to get the morning newspaper, which is tossed over my fence each day before dawn. I worked the rubber band off the end of the tightly rolled newsprint as I walked, and opened it up as I approached the kitchen counter. The kettle whistled.
His face filled the entire front page, and I knew.
WE WERE WARNED
Nelson Mandela’s death shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, but it was. ‘Critical but stable’ for the past five months, it seemed as if he might even have the power to escape death’s jailer. Nelson Mandela, character of the liberation struggle, character in my novel, was gone.
I responded in the way I always do to bad news, quickly closing down the highway from my head to my heart. Tea forgotten, I scanned the pages that followed, seeing the words but barely registering their meaning as they bounced around in their bottled-up space. My wife was still sleeping, and so I did the only thing I could to relieve the mental pressure:
I took to Twitter:
#NelsonMandelaRIP We were privileged to live in the time of Mandela. People in the future will envy us.
#NelsonMandelaRIP We are all ‘Proudly South African’ thanks to one man!
#NelsonMandelaRIP Self awareness is the hallmark of great people. They are so sure of who they are, they cannot be compromised
#NelsonMandelaRIP The quality of selflessness portrayed in a human life, and celebrated by humans, tells me more than evolution ever can.
#NelsonMandelaRIP O Afrika, Mother of the nations, see what you have given to the world: not technology, but humanity. Teach us how to love.
#NelsonMandelaRIP From henceforth the SA calendar shall be re-set to: BM and AM. Before Mandela and After Mandela. 2013 is the year of M.
#NelsonMandelaRIP What to say at the end of such a day? I am humbled to be a part of one of the greatest days in the history of our planet.
And so on.
I immersed myself in the frenzy of online emotion, interspersed with bouts of TV news updates. I tweeted, retweeted, favourited and Googled, until at lunch time, and still in my pyjamas, I could take no more. I was mentally drained, but satisfied. I had honoured Mandela the character, and in his death had participated vigorously in the celebration of his life.
I made my self-satisfied way to the bathroom, disrobed, turned on the shower, and stepped in.
As the warm water hit my head, and streamed down my face, I felt a stirring in my chest. It was my heart, reminding me that it too wanted to participate in the experience of Mandela’s death. And, like Mandela’s death, it surprised me, but it shouldn’t have.
Nelson Mandela, the character, had been in my head for three years. Nelson Mandela, the deceased character, had been in my head for the past five hours. And now Nelson Mandela, the person, was standing at the barrier to my heart:
Yes, he knew that I respected and revered him.
Yes, he knew that he was the central character in my book and trilogy.
Yes, he knew that I knew a lot about his life.
But what he really wanted to know, was, did I love him?
As he loved me.
And as I stood in the shower, baptised by water and tears, I gave him my answer:
“I love you, Nelson Mandela. I don’t know why, and I don’t know how, for I have never met you. But I know that I love you. As you loved me, a stranger, first.”
This, I realised, was his final and greatest gift to me: that I could love him.
I shall carry you in my heart, Tata. Farewell. And thank you.
A final tweet:
John Mountford @johnmountford