I learned of Nelson Mandela's passing, Tata, or father, as he is called in South Africa, from an emergency text on my phone:
"Use caution when driving near the South African Embassy -- there will be mourners gathering in the area."
It took a minute for me to grasp what had happened. And then it registered. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had died.
I searched desperately for the news on my smartphone, and I saw that it was so.
I remember reports over the summer of his rapidly declining health. I remember the relief that I felt learning even the slightest encouraging news of improvement.
I could not accept that Tata could leave us.
Thanks to such organizations as Trans Africa, the South Africa Project of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Congressional Black Caucus, and colleagues and friends steeped in political developments in Africa, I was well initiated in the struggle to end Apartheid.
Nelson Mandela became my hero.
I struggle to capture what was truly great about this man. Clearly he was a political genius, but there was more. Was it his smile? It was a smile shared generously with allies, former detractors and even persecutors. It was not a thoughtless, careless or nervous smile. It was a smile that remembered and took the measure of a person. It was offered to the person you might be now as well as to the person you might grow to be.
Was it those eyes that joined in their own echo of the smile? Those eyes just as often focused and held an audience, until a critical point had been made. Those same eyes, unguarded, told a story of sadness, loss, equanimity and finally determination.
Was it that he had the gift of making each of us feel seen and heard whether he was confined in a cell on Robben Island, or meeting with world leaders across the globe or at home in Johannesburg?
He made us feel that we mattered, and that we had a stake in what happened to millions of brothers and sisters we might never meet. His faith in us helped us believe in our own agency and power to set right even the most intractable wrongs.
When I think of a world without our beloved Mandela, I imagine how empty it will feel without his great intellect and incredible gift.
And then I remember what he taught patiently by his example:
However great the array of legal, financial, political and military force amassed against you; plant your feet firmly and focus your resolve on justice. That focus and resolve will be rewarded.
And, if we practice his gift, to really see the person before us, smile with intent to find agreement and engage with a clear purpose to bring unity, we might still be blessed by the warmth of his great spirit standing near us again.
Farewell Tata. You will be missed -- but never forgotten.