As Nelson Mandela lingers in a hospital, yet another remarkable moment is helping to seal his legacy: Millions of people around the world, united by respect and gratitude, are preparing for this beloved man to die.
The preparations take many forms: Prayers and vigils, pictures and candles, headlines and YouTube videos. All are measurements of his legend, and yet as the 94-year-old Mandela’s hospitalization continues, the anticipation has left many caught in an awkward limbo, sharing on a global scale what is usually a private scenario.
There is no one in the world like Mandela – a victim who both governed and forgave his tormentors, a figure so universally admired that his countless honors include both America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Soviet Union’s Order of Lenin.
So as the days have passed since his hospitalization on June 8 – the slow decline of a giant broadcast everywhere with the speed, detail and distortion that are hallmarks of the Internet age – his vigil, too, has been unique.
The world is waiting to honor the man who proved the power of unity and forgiveness, said Lori Brown, a sociology professor at Meredith College in North Carolina.
“It is possible to honor him while he is alive, but the massive funeral, the media focus on his entire life, the showing of video clips of his speeches, the reading of his writings, these are all part of what we sociologists call rites of passage,” she said.
“His death will allow for not only global grieving of his passing but a global celebration of his life,” she said. “The world will own his memory, while right now his illness and life are more private and ‘owned’ by his family.”
Everywhere, families know this type of personal experience. They grapple with the belief that the end is near and with reluctance to speak of it. They measure their respect for life against the desire for an incapacitated loved one to be freed from it.
Now this struggle is playing out for members of the world family who treasure Mandela’s story.
“There’s something very uncomfortable about the waiting,” said Robert Kraft, a psychology professor at Otterbein University in Ohio and author of an upcoming book on South Africa.
Even thinking about “closure” at a moment like this, he said, “is extremely uncomfortable for someone we love.”
Actor Dennis Haysbert, who portrayed Mandela in the film “Goodbye Bafana,” has felt deep emotions since Mandela entered the hospital with what the South African government said was a lung infection.
“I am not waiting for his death. I am celebrating him as he lives,” Haysbert said.
Still, it’s hard to discuss. “We’re still talking about a living, breathing human being, talking in anticipation of his demise, of his passing. That’s hard, but I understand it. I understand the need to do it. It’s a matter of preparation.”
“I would imagine he’s preparing himself,” Haysbert continued. “And I think that everyone who loves him, who respects him, who truly honors him are preparing themselves for it.”
Those preparations are most difficult and visible in South Africa, where Mandela led a peaceful transition from racist white rule to a democratically elected government, which he headed. There have been nationwide prayers, tokens of support left in makeshift shrines — and throngs upon throngs of media.
Said Makaziwe Mandela, one of Mandela’s daughters, of the media glare: “It’s like truly vultures waiting when a lion has devoured a buffalo, waiting there for the last carcasses. That’s the image that we have, as a family.”
Later, Mandela’s ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, said: “If we sometimes sound bitter, it is because we are dealing with a very difficult situation. You can understand our emotions.”
The intense interest in Mandela’s decline is due to his resonance around the world.
In Britain, the Archbishop of York issued a special prayer for Mandela.
A YouTube “Pledge for Peace: I Am Nelson Mandela” campaign inspired videos from Japan, Mexico, Russia, Australia, Italy, and India.
In Bangladesh, the popular actor Hasan Masood wrote on Facebook: “Nelson Mandela, please get well soon. May God give you the strength to come back.”
A headline in a Malaysian newspaper read: “Everyone’s Hero.”
“I am very angry,” said Mariana Alves in Madrid, who believes Mandela’s illness stems from harsh treatment during his 27 years in prison. “But you have to admire that he was able to forgive those who treated him so badly and finally condemned him to die this way, breathless.”
In Australia and the Netherlands, there were false reports of Mandela’s death — the latter prompting an Amsterdam neighborhood council to observe a minute of silence in his honor.
“I think we just have to leave him peacefully,” said Ramesh Pasupuleti, parking his car in north London’s Mandela Street, one of several so named. “If the time comes, the time comes. We are all grateful for what he has done.”
People feel as if they know Mandela, said Kraft, the psychologist.
“He was not secretive. When he experienced joy he smiled, he danced, he hugged, he embraced. He put himself and his emotions out in public. We also saw his struggles,” he said.
“I think he is one of the truly great people of the last 100 years. It’s not as if a somewhat lesser person is dying, or a beloved celebrity is dying. We are aware that greatness is going to be gone,” Kraft continued. “It’s a little different than someone else who is simply well known and accomplished.”
And when the end does come, whenever that may be, it too will be different.
“I don’t think you can really prepare for it,” said Haysbert, the actor. “What does that mean, you’re not going to feel the emotion of it?”
“You’re thinking that you prepared yourself for it until it happens,” he said. “Then it just sort of smacks you.”
Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. He is reachable at http://www.twitter.com/jessewashington and firstname.lastname@example.org.
AP Writers Julhas Alam contributed from Dhaka, Bangladesh; Harold Heckle in Madrid; Jill Lawless from London; and Eileen Ng from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.