Mandela on life-support: the final chapter

2013-06-28 04:32

I can understand the delay in switching off the life support machines. Although the decision may be linked to ensuring a smooth visit for Barack Obama, there might be other reasons too that keep loved ones holding on tight to Mandela.

As my mother lay dying of cancer, she begged us to release her.  She wrung her hands, she pleaded through the pain, ‘Help me, please, let me go.’ We responded by giving her more morphine. Among the family members, we talked about helping her die. In retrospect it would have been easy. As we kept vigil at her bedside for many days, it would simply have been a matter of pressing the morphine syringe a little deeper, a little more regularly, to escalate her final departure.

The truth is I did not want her to leave me. I feared that I’d fall apart. I knew my life would be irrevocably different. Even sitting alongside what was increasingly became her shell, as she languished at the Hospice, I could still talk to her, and hope that perhaps she could hear me. I could still hold her hand, stroke her then tissue-paper thin skin. She was cold, growing colder, her hands and feet looked bruised due to lack of blood circulation, but she was alive, breathing. I could not let go.

Even as death is inevitable in old age, the leave taking upsets those left behind. We don’t trust ourselves to cope in that moment breathing stops and the body no longer functions. ‘Ma,’ I whispered in her ear, ‘not tonight, please, maybe tomorrow. But I can’t bear to say goodbye tonight.’ I honestly thought I might collapse, that her death might be the catalyst for a river of pain which once released would overwhelm me.

And how would I cope with the practicalities? I’d have to tell her friends, help to organise a farewell, a funeral. I loved her so much, was so attached to her that I could not face the reality of being without her.

Of course, my mother died, as is the natural course of things. She died on a night we weren’t expecting it. My father, weary and sad to the bone, went home to rest; my sister went home to look after her children. I lay on a bed, in the same room as Mom, under a crocheted blanket, listening to her laboured breathing. I wondered about the people who’d lain in the same bed I was now stretched out on, under the same blanket, people who had come here to die. In the Hospice, I accepted death as the inevitable outcome.

I knew the moment that I woke – it was around three in the morning - that she was gone. I didn’t panic. I didn’t fall apart. I lay quietly in the peace of the room. I pulled the blanket under my chin and dozed a little while longer. She had a chosen a time to go when the family who’d been fussing about her, me included, were focussed on their own needs. I didn’t cry.  I felt relief that she was no longer in pain.

For whatever reasons we revere Mandela  -whether for his shrewd tactics at holding South Africa together at a time when civil war could so easily have erupted, or whether we remember his spontaneous smile as he celebrated every connection with rock stars, politicians or ordinary people, or whether we revere him as a man of courage who role modelled endurance, perseverance, and forgiveness -   it’s difficult to say goodbye, even as we accept that his death comes after a life so well lived.

It’s the prospect of loss which scares us. It’s our fear really, that keeps us holding on, to Mandela, to our dying parents, to any person we’re ‘afraid’ to lose whom we know make our lives so much richer. We’re afraid to lose someone who gives our life meaning. So when it comes to Madiba, I understand that need to eke out the last few days, to want more of the story, to delay the ending. What happens after the loved one’s death, we wonder? It’s uncharted territory!

Life goes on, that’s what happens.

I miss my mother.  My mother and Madiba share a birthday. We never toasted her without toasting Mandela too, what a gentleman! I will miss Mandela’s face in the news, his messages, his guest appearance at special events; I will miss his physical fatherly presence.

Contemporary philosopher A.C. Grayling consoles with two facts – ‘that the dead once lived; and that one loved them and mourned their loss –  which are inexpungeably part of the world’s history.’ In other words, he explains, ‘the presence of those who lived cannot be removed from time, so there is a kind of eternity after all.’ Mandela, a gentleman and a gentle man, will not be lost to us.

And surely as Mandela passes – the process now almost complete - our collective grief, a great sadness at the loss, which we have in common, can inspire us to keep in mind all Mandela stood for and to ensure that his legacy lives on.


AB praises selfless skipper

2010-11-21 18:15

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