Goodnight, Father Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela-2008 cropped

Nelson Mandela
July 18, 1918 – December 5, 2013

As Nelson Mandela dies, I think about my mother, Lisette.

Even in my saddest goodbyes, how often do I think about someone I love!

How can we explain this, the lessons we carry with us from another’s last breath?

For months, I’ve had a clipping of Ellen Goodman‘s column, “What are Mandela’s end-of-life wishes?” on top of the little bureau in my living room.

“Is this what they mean by a death watch?” she wrote, back in July.

“The father of his country, a moral icon to the world, lies in a hospital bed as cameras wait outside and newspaper headlines offer a daily prognosis: ‘Mandela on Life Support.’ ‘South Africans Asked to Pray for Mandela.’  ‘Mandela Remains Critical, Responds to Treatment.’ ‘It’s Time to Let Him Go.””

“The only voice we do not hear in this cacophony,” Goodman writes, “is Nelson Mandela’s. What does this man want as he approaches his 95th birthday on Thursday? Can he say? How would he have scripted the end of his life?”

Goodman’s point, as South Africa‘s first black president neared the end of his life, is that we all will die. We could all benefit from conversations about the dying process with loved ones and care providers.

I’ve started having those conversations with my husband, though I confess I haven’t spoken to my son Edward about death yet. After all, it’s an especially touchy subject. His father, my former husband John Barton, died instantly in a car accident when Edward was only eight years old.

But really, in these months since I read Goodman’s column, I’ve been thinking about Nelson Mandela not as the father of his country, or even as the father of his family, but as a very old man sleeping in his bed. A 95-year-old man. Small, brown-skinned, wrinkled perhaps, perhaps frail, perhaps needing to be tended and turned from side to side in the middle of the night. A man waking, perhaps, when his care-tenders reach under his shoulders and hips, this slack weight in their arms, these basins and warm wash cloths exhaling moisture into the air around the bed. A man waking, perhaps, and hearing his care-tenders singing, softly, the sweet songs of their freedom.

Last night, I drove home from my last caregiving assignment of the day, listening to tributes to Nelson Mandela on the radio. I listened to South Africans singing and telling their stories of love for this very old, very great, man. And I remembered how much I love my mother, Lisette, who woke and sang with me, the last time I saw her, the carol “Silent Night.”

Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace!

Goodnight, Father Nelson Mandela. Goodnight, Mother Lisette. May you rest. May your memories live in peace. May you be blessed.

Image credit:  Nelson Mandela, color photograph, 2008. By Nelson_Mandela-2008_(edit).jpg: South Africa The Good News derivative work: Archibald Tuttle [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.


One thought on “Goodnight, Father Nelson Mandela

  1. I saw the title of the post, and my immediate inclination was to add that my experience with “death” is that I have learned so much from THAT, but from the life that preceded it. That said, I have so far not been there when a human passed from “there” to “not there”; I have only witnessed that, with a bird that had been shot. And I did not know the bird prior to that. Perhaps the future might bring a different perspective therefore. In any case, it is incumbent in us, the survivors, to figure out what to do with the memory; for my part, I offer life to those gone before, by mentioning the things they did, said, and thought, to the younger ones, such that this memory might also outlive me.


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