The Life of Death: Mandela, Aunt Sheila, and Me

South Africa The Good News / [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
South Africa The Good News / [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Three years ago my family and I received word that my Aunt Sheila had passed away. It was Sunday, December 5th, my 26th birthday. We had just returned home from a fun birthday dinner at a local restaurant. It was the first time in years that my parents were able to celebrate my birthday with me. It was also the first time I had seen my dad cry.

Her death did not come as a surprise. Years of drinking and smoking had taken its toll on her body, and it was shutting down. Cancer had taken over. It was only a matter of time. Her time of departure, my birthday, was what was surprising.

It was late at night when we received the information. I hugged my dad, gave my condolences, and went to my room. I don’t recall crying, but I do remember being angry. I wasn’t angry because I felt God had taken her away too soon. I didn’t know her well enough for that. Fond memories of my aunt, I didn’t have those. My memories were just facts with all emotion removed: she was inebriated most of the times I came in contact with her and she didn’t treat my mother very nicely. No dislike. No bitterness. Those were just the facts. In that moment of anger I made a promise to myself in the form of a letter:

December 5, 2010 marked the second time within a year that a relative had died…before the age of 70, lying on a bed unable to speak, eat, or even open their eyes. It was also my 26th birthday. In my family the idea of a “great” lineage is lost to us, it’s foreign. For my two relatives – an aunt and uncle – years of smoking and drinking were the culprits. Cancer was the killer. I refuse to go out like this!! I cannot and I will not allow bad habits to steal my life away from me. I deserve better. 

I ended the letter with my signature.

Although her life hadn’t inspired me much, her death that day, on my birthday convicted me.

There is something about the death of a person who has died in such a way that my aunt did that makes one take inventory of life and the daily decisions that are made that either push you further from life and closer to death and vice versa. It is like a call to action. Daring you to make better, sound decisions.

Exactly three years later, on my birthday, death called me to task once again.

I’ve never met Nelson Mandela or whom his people affectionately refer to as, Mandiba. To be honest, before he died the story of his remarkable life had rarely come up in any of my everyday conversations. To be even more honest, if he hadn’t died the day he did, his death probably would not have received as much attention from me as it did. Yes, I recognized and understood the significance of the work he did and the sacrifices he made for the freedom of his people. But when going about one’s own life, it takes something out of the ordinary to really shake you out of the selfishness of the intricacies of your personal life.

The day Mandela died, it was a special day for me. I was celebrating the first day of my last year in my 20s. I was at work closely watching the time on my computer monitor as it slowly inched closer to 5:00 pm. I was excited to dash home, both to see what goodies awaited me at the front door and to prepare for my birthday dinner later that evening. My teacup had been cleaned minutes earlier, my purse was packed and sitting on my desk ready to be retrieved as I walked out of the office; I was just waiting for the time to strike 5 pm to approve my departure. As I waited, my phone vibrated twice alerting me that I had received a text message. Grabbing my phone from my desk, I looked at the screen. There it was. As I retrieved and read the full message after punching in my phone’s passcode, I smiled. He was finally at peace. This man who had fought so hard, for so long, had faced hardships many can’t even fathom, and who had left a legacy that will be forever part of history, was finally resting.

Driving home, I listened as NPR covered the extraordinary life of Mandela. They played parts of the 3-hour speech he made minutes before he would receive his sentence of life in prison. He was: Calm. Peaceful. Steadfast. Resilient. All the things a man of lesser stature wouldn’t dare be when facing the possibility of death. As I listened, I felt convicted. There is something about the death of a person who has lived such a life as Mandela’s that slaps the mediocrity of your life smack dab in the face. It is like a call to action, daring you to be more. It had come at a time when I needed it the most.

When I was younger, my parents, teachers, and some times even strangers fed me the idea that I could do just about anything. “You Can” – was pretty much the order of the day. I believed them. I did. I fully believed that anything was possible. Then I graduated from college, and it seemed like just as quickly as I had walked across the stage to receive my diploma, the story had changed. Those old “Yes, you cans” were now:

No, in fact, you actually can’t.

It can’t be done.

Wait, and then wait some more.

Let’s just do it the way it’s always been done.

After hearing this for some time, I started to believe the pessimism. Instead of seeing my glass half full with possibility, I saw it running over with doubt and uncertainty. At one point, I even became angry by what I now believed were the lies of hope I had been fed during my youth. How could anything be possible when it seemed like everywhere I turned a “No” was waiting just around the corner?

That day. On my birthday. On the day Mandela died. As I listened to people retell stories of his life, I was reminded about something that seemed so odd of me to forget, as it was something that had been so natural to me in the past. All those people who had told me absolutely anything was possible, they were right.

I had forgotten that sometimes the “You Can” is only possible with a little push, some back and forth, you may have to get a little dirty and a little loud, controversy may ensue, dramatics may be necessary, and at some point you may have to wage an all out war. I had forgotten that to claim anything of value some sweat and sometimes a few tears had to be behind it.

Mandela. My Aunt Sheila. In life they shared no similarities. But in death, they gave a birthday girl some much needed inspiration.

May they rest in peace.

Photo Credit: South Africa The Good News / [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Tags from the story
More from Nicole E. Jackson

Black People and Airbnb – There’s a “thing” (maybe)

The moment NPR's David Brancaccio of Market Place previewed a future segment...
Read More