Nelson Mandela died yesterday. And I wasn’t going to write anything because, well, everyone else was.
Then I read a tribute written by Bono in Time magazine. It’s called “Bono Honors the Man Who Could Not Cry.” Bono explained that Mandela’s tear ducts stopped working a result of dust damage from working in the prison limestone mine during his 18 years on Robben Island. Bono wrote, “He had surgery in 1994 to put this right. Now, he could cry. Today, we can.”
OK, not only is that great writing — way to go, Bono! — but he described something that touched me. You see, my mom also lost the ability to cry.
In her case, the cause was not prison labor but cancer in her retinal artery. That led her doctors to discover that the cancer had also spread to her brain. I lose count of how many times her original breast cancer metastasized, but I remember that she had radiation in October 2008, and that radiation fried her tear ducts.
That’s when I learned that tear ducts serve a purpose beyond expressing emotion. They help clean out your eyes from impurities — things like dust or pollen or a stray eyelash. Mom used all kinds of drops to moisturize her eyes, but in her condition, they weren’t going to do any unnecessary surgery. Mom wasn’t much of a crier anyway, not unless she was overcome with joyful praise.
I have no clue what Mom thought about Nelson Mandela. We didn’t discuss it, although when I was in fourth grade, a boy moved to Westlake from South Africa. I don’t know why. We kids concocted all sorts of rumors — his parents owned a diamond mine, their lives had been threatened. Who knows. I do know that when we graduated from high school several years later, he and I were placed next to each other by class rank.
Now, my mom and Mandela share space in heaven. I’m sure there’s a long line of people waiting to talk with him, so she might have to wait, although she was always good at making her own way.
I wonder if tear ducts are even necessary where they are. On one hand, I want that body function to be restored, but on the other hand, do they even need it if God’s gonna follow through on the “dry every eye” stuff? Regardless of how it actually works up there, I suspect Merry Nell and Nelson will already know what it’s like to live without tears.