12/13/2013 05:44 EST | Updated 02/12/2014 05:59 EST

I Visited Robben Island, But Could Not Bring Myself to See Madiba's Jail

Only days ago, we learned of the great Mandela's passing; the hurt is still painful, raw, as we mourn his loss, what the world has lost, and indeed, what we all have lost.

Millions of us everywhere feel a deep connection to a man, a hero, a world leader we never met, yet to whom we are so drawn -- because, as one little child explained, "he touched your soul when he smiled and his eyes crinkled".

The same child then asked me what we should be thankful for, and what we should pray for tonight so Mandela can "dream sweet dreams when he sleeps". Another said we should dance because Mandela liked to dance; and he didn't think Madiba would like "all this crying", as it would make him sad. Another child asked if I could find a way to get her favourite teddy bear to Mandela so that he would never be alone.

These children were too small to understand the television clips, too young to ever hear him speak, but they were responding to what we all responded, namely his love; and while he was the father of South Africa, he had become the grandfather of our planet.

Madiba, we say thank you for teaching us the courage to always stand by our principles, even under impossible adversity. You could not have been clearer in your words -- "It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die" -- before you were sentenced to life imprisonment.

I visited Robben Island, but did not want to go into the jail; I could not bring myself to see how you, my hero, had been forced to live.

Our guide, a former inmate and your friend, sensed my reluctance, and took me aside. He explained he could never go back inside, but asked that I did; and to give me strength, he gave me something small, the very gift you had given him decades before.

I now hold your friend's gift close so that you are near, and I am acutely aware that you have left your work in our hands.

Madiba, we say thank you for teaching us determination, which we must now share and pass on to the next generation. My students always loved your words, "The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall."

Thank you for teaching us the real meaning of friendship, and that it requires love, personal sacrifice, and forgiveness. Too often we give up on our families, on relations with our communities, and other countries because it is easier.

You never took the easy route, you understood that great anger and violence can never build a nation, and you united a divided country. It is time Canada learned from you and reached out in friendship, nation to nation, to our First Peoples.

Thank you for teaching us grace. You remain the embodiment of goodwill and loving kindness, and from you we should learn to always lift others up and to celebrate one another's achievements, rather than tear down what we are afraid of, or what threatens our own perceived success.

Thank you for teaching us hope. We must remember that we all have a choice every day, a choice that reflects our fears which too often trigger hatred and division, or our hopes, which can lead to respect and unity. Let our children and grandchildren learn from you, and always keep hope alive.

Thank you for teaching us humanity. While you became one of the most respected leaders of the 20th century, you remain a humble servant of your people, and you worked with your enemy to make peace until he became your partner.

Thank you for teaching us love, the love of family and the love for one's country and one's peoples. Perhaps you understood these loves better than most because you lived so much of your life alone, you sacrificed so much for your beloved South Africa, and you knew too little of the joy of being a father to your own children.

And Madiba, thank you for teaching us peace and strength, and that sometimes we will falter. You struggled with not doing enough to confront AIDS. Perhaps the world's nations will now come together to start a Nelson Mandela AIDS fund to honour your memory, and to finish your work.

My hero and our loving grandfather, you once said, "When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace."

Respected leader, humble servant, and shining light, you have earned your peaceful sleep. It is our turn to pick up the torch, and to always remember your words: "It always seems impossible until it is done."


Nelson Mandela memorial at the FNB Stadium in Soweto