12/09/2013 08:33 am ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

A Lantern Floats in Brooklyn: A Mandela Tribute My Kids Will Never Forget

Just a few hours before I heard the news of Mandela's passing, I was struggling to write about a contentious, emotionally-charged charter school co-location hearing that took place recently in my Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene. I'm not especially prone to frustrated outbursts, but the writing was going badly, and at a certain point I got so overwhelmed by the swarm of voices duking it out in my head over charter school policy, local politics, teacher assessment, social justice, gentrification and school reform, that the next thing I knew I was slamming my laptop shut, shoving myself back from my desk and yelling -- out loud to no one, like a crazy person -- "I'm not doing this! This is IMPOSSIBLE!"

Not a great note to end a writing session on, but it had gotten late and it was time to quit anyway. I needed to snap back into mom-mode and get home to make dinner, wrestle my three small kids into their pajamas, and get the bedtime launch sequence started. I gathered up my stuff and checked my phone, and only then did I see that Mandela had passed away.

There's a quote of his on a ragged Post-it note taped to the inside of my favorite notebook that reads, "It always seems impossible until it's done." Those seven words have talked me down off many a ledge, and now they cycled in my head on repeat as I made my way up Adelphi toward DeKalb Avenue where we live.

I was walking fast with my eyes on my feet as they kept rhythm with the words, so I almost missed the lanterns. But crossing Myrtle, I happened to glance up and there they were: a swarm of glowing paper ovals drifting up into the sky. I immediately knew where they were coming from.

Last summer, my family and I joined a jubilant crowd outside of Madiba, a popular South African restaurant and bar a few blocks from our house, to sing and light lanterns in honor of Mandela's 95th birthday. Our daughter, who was four and a half at the time, was electrified, mostly because the lanterns reminded her of the ones in the animated movie Tangled. But some of the details of the scene outside of the bar must have actually sunk in and stayed with her, because now when I come home and announce that they're lighting lanterns at Madiba for Mandela, she jumps up and asks if it's his birthday again. I explain that this time they're not celebrating the beginning of his life but the end of it. My two-and-a-half-year-old son is unimpressed by poetic explanations; he just screams, "Want see lanterns!" and slides down from his high chair to make a bee-line for his coat. The baby bounces in his exersaucer and lets out a high-pitched squeal.

If the idea of dragging three very young children out into the foggy street for a nighttime vigil seems mildly impractical, the prospect of doing it solo -- our babysitter is heading home and my husband is at the Nets game -- strikes me as fundamentally ill-advised. But then I reconsider. This is something they should see. It's happening now and will never happen again. And then that quote rolls in my head again, and let's face it: compared to the real-life challenges Mandela was dealing with when he wrote those words, the logistics of getting some kids out the door to pay him a quick tribute are really no big deal.

So I make three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pull rain boots over the two big kids' footie pajamas, strap the baby into his carrier and we're down the stoop, inching along DeKalb in a sticky, unwieldy caravan toward Madiba. The kids are excited. I'm excited. What better way to celebrate Mandela's life?

There's only one problem. By the time we arrive the crowd is much smaller than before, the singing has stopped -- or at least paused for a while -- and, here's the kicker: there are no lanterns to be seen. The kids are crestfallen.

I bend down to explain to them that the lanterns are done, but we can still pause for a minute and send some good thoughts out to Nelson Mandela. My daughter makes a stammering, heartbreaking attempt to explain to her little brothers why Mandela was so special ("He made it so white people and black people can be friends with each other," she says, "but then the policeman came and put him in time-out for like a really long time.") I can tell she's trying hard not to show how devastated she is to have missed the lanterns. We turn to go.

But just as we're mobilizing, a woman comes out of Madiba -- clearly drawn by the spectacle of the crazy lady with the baby strapped to her kneeling outside the bar at night with a couple of PB&J-streaked preschoolers. I explain that we'd seen the lanterns over the summer and that the kids wanted to see them again. The lady smiles and says she thinks there might still be one lantern left in the back. The kids jump up and down. I tell them not to get their hopes up.

We wait and after a little while the lady emerges with something behind her back. She pulls her hand around and reveals a single folded lantern. The kids are elated, but when she unfolds the lantern we see that it's been badly burned on two sides. Someone had tried to light it earlier but it must have caught fire and was blown out and discarded.

"I'm so sorry," she says.

For the second time, we turn to go.

But then the guy to her left calls out, "Hey, wait a minute. Come back. Let's try to light it again anyway. You never know. It might still work."

So a little crowd gathers around as the woman holds the flimsy paper open and the man touches the base with a match. The flame catches and the lantern inflates a little, but the hot air escapes through the holes in the sides and it keeps collapsing. The woman holds it higher and the man tries again, fanning the flames this time so they flare up larger, illuminating the white paper with a shaky yellow glow. Little by little the lantern expands, wobbling as the woman tentatively lets go, one hand at a time. The lantern hangs in the air for a moment, barely buoyant, and then, imperceptibly it begins to lift. Someone whoops. The thing slants upwards, a gust of wind knocks it sideways against the high brick wall of the restaurant and there is a gasp from the crowd when the lantern disappears over the rooftop and we all assume it's crash-landed, about to set Madiba on fire. But then it floats back into view and we see that it's stable and fully inflated. There is a collective sigh of relief and a small scattering of applause as we watch it rise steadily into the air.

I look down at the kids. They are stomping their boots on the sidewalk and clapping, grinning like maniacs. Then I look out across the street. Next to the empty playground is the school where the co-location I'd been struggling to write about is slated to take place. Underneath the happy chatter of the crowd on the sidewalk, I can almost hear the echo of the angry voices at the hearing. I remember the sting of standing up to speak, fighting to hold onto nuance in a room full of vitriol, and being booed at by the grandmother in the second row, who -- at the end of the day -- I know was just fighting in her own way for what any of us wants: what we think is best for our children. Standing there watching the lantern float out of sight, I realize I'm as conflicted and full of angst and sorrow and struggle as ever.

Only one thing is different. Tomorrow, I know, I'll open up the laptop again. And I'll keep trying to write. Because it feels impossible. Until it's done.