WHEN someone you have known or loved – or both – dies, there seems to occur a great tearing in the fabric of the world.
A weird emptiness opens for a moment and then the impatient air rushes quickly in to fill the momentary vacuum, the empty shape where that person once stood. Soon life picks up its rhythms again and you learn to live with sad absence.
What if that tearing is not directly personal? Not one's immediate own.
What if the great absence is felt by everybody in the world as seemingly personal, as everyone's own?
What if the hole left behind cannot be filled?
What if the shape of the person is too huge and necessary, so needed by us all, so important to our sense of what it is to be correctly human?
That is where we now stand with Nelson Mandela's death.
History stops, kneels and bows its head. His like is rare in all of human history. There will be others but not for a long, long time and certainly not in our lifetimes.
But we did live with him. We did live in his times. We could see what humans could be even if we failed so utterly to live up to his impossible example.
We have indeed been privileged to have known such a man.
Unbelievably for me – the irreverent, unschooled, pop singing boy from Dun Laoghaire – I did know this giant. Possibly he was a friend. I think so. The world will go to the funeral but I don't want to. I will stay at home here and look at my pictures of Madiba with the children or the band or making me listen to something that I should know and something that was always worth listening to.
He was a complete man. He adored children. They played around him. He'd scoop them up, plonk them on his knee, make them laugh with that unmistakable deep, kind voice. He'd be in heaven and they'd be shouting and laughing with him. I have pictures of that with my kids. Can you imagine!
He was a dandy. He loved his clothes and particularly those mad Mandela shirts that no one else on the planet could get away with wearing but looked great on him.
He loved women. He was quite definitely, overtly and obviously a ladies man.
He flirted, followed them with his eyes, made them laugh; but his manners were that of the impeccable Edwardian gentleman that he was.
He was ever elegant and never vulgar or presumptuous. He understood and treated women as equals and engaged in as meaningful conversation with women as he did with men.
Conversation was fluent. Deep political analysis and discussion backed by a penetrating psychological curiosity of the personalities behind the political decisions. He would listen intently as much as he talked. He would argue strenuously for his views and once, when I would not give way, said sarcastically – and with a touch of irritation – "I will bow to your greater knowledge in this area."
As we happened to be talking about events in Ireland that occurred while he was imprisoned and I was actually living it, I agreed that he should. He was obsessed by sport – being a boxer amongst other things. He had a razor sharp mind – being Africa's, not South Africa but Africa's first black lawyer.
He was beyond courageous. A revolutionary, someone whose principles were so intense and focused that he was prepared to die for what he believed in.
"Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart," Yeats reminds us in his great poem 'Easter 1916'.
The true miracle of Mandela was that it did not: 27 years incarceration in appalling conditions of labour and psychological torture, through the destruction of his family and his country, he did not break; and, most remarkably of all, his soul did not harden. Rather, his great intellectual discipline sought to understand the mind of his tormentor.
He learned his language. Studied his history and even came to appreciate and engage in his literature, writing poetry in Afrikaans himself. In that small cell on Robben Island, he and his fellows endured the slights, derision, insults and humiliations of 27 long years. But now he knew his enemy. And as he endured, they withered.
Churchill preached "magnanimity in victory" but who could have imagined the humility, the graciousness, the dignity, the generosity and forgiveness that Mandela displayed to his oppressors upon his final total success?
In private he pitied them. He knew precisely what he was doing. One visitor said: "Mr President you have given great dignity to the black people". Madiba replied instantly (and you can hear the inimitable cadence in his reply): "No, young man you are wrong. I have given dignity to the white man. There is no dignity in the oppressor."