It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Somehow always ahead of us and behind us urging us on, Nelson Mandela's greatest gifts were his strength and his bravery and his empathy, the depth and the breadth of his understanding. His capacity for change. For growth. And his unwavering faith in the rest of us. He is forever the example he set, the symbol of the light that comes from darkness, of a love that overwhelms hate. If, in the 20th century Mr. Gandhi was our great soul, Mr. Mandela was our inextinguishable spirit.
Nelson Mandela has gone ahead of us. He leads us still.
My legs were wrapped in a blanket, but my knees still shook. The tips of my fingers were wrinkled and numb. The chill wrapped around my bones like an uncompromising vine.
Only two things kept me from becoming a human Popsicle that night three years ago in suburban Johannesburg -- the rapid, anxious beating of my heart, and my imagination.
There were so many rumors that day about whether Nelson Mandela would officially stamp South Africa's historic hosting of the 2010 World Cup with an appearance at the final at Soccer City, the 89,000-seat stadium that served as the pulse of the World Cup.
Had Mandela opted not to appear, everyone would have understood. His 13-year-old great-granddaughter had died in a car accident following a World Cup concert before the opening ceremonies, which Mandela understandably chose not to attend.
Selfishly, I wanted to see him. This was the reason I came to South Africa. All I needed was a glimpse of one of the most brilliant men who ever lived. As much as I'd succumbed to the charismatic spell of the country, my trip would have felt incomplete had I not seen Mandela.
There is something surreal and frankly, unnerving, about being in the presence of someone who is an icon – and not in the way Jay-Z is an icon. I fantasized about what it might be like to be in the same room as someone who changed humanity. For the generation that preceded mine, this is what it must have been like to live at the same time as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I'd read several books about South Africa in preparation for my trip. I wanted to understand its history, its flaws, its culture, its maturation, and the connective tissue that binds its beautiful citizens together.
One of the books I read was Mandela's 1994 autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," which covered his 27 years in prison for being a member of the outlawed African National Congress party, and his vigilant fight against oppression and apartheid – racial segregation that was enforced by South African law from 1948 to 1994.
I certainly was familiar with Mandela's inspirational story before I read his autobiography, but understanding Mandela's private thoughts and emotions made my entire experience in South Africa more vivid and powerful. I was seeing the country through his eyes, as well as my own.
So on this cold night in Soccer City stadium, seeing Mandela in person easily became the most priceless moment of my life.