There is no shortage of material to write about out there, but something kept nagging at the back of my head, and it’d been there all day, and for some of the previous night.
I was on Twitter when I heard what had befallen wee Oscar, and for about an hour or so I sat there feeling lost, until I gave up trying to fake normalcy, and I went to bed. Yesterday morning I found out a family friend was in hospital, and that was the focus of some of my attention, aside from being busy with other things, but every now and again, on Facebook, or on Twitter or on CQN or elsewhere I was reminded of a wee boy going through terrible pain and a family enduring a torment so dark my imagination can’t even begin to wrap around it, let alone comprehend how complete and black it must be.
The day was filled with wee contemplative moments, wee periods of drift, where I couldn’t help but think of that poor wee lad, and what he and his loved ones must be going through. I am certain I wasn’t alone.
The tributes and good wishes were coming in all day.
So last night, with all this still going on in my head, I decided I would leave the writing for a while. I decided to watch a movie.
I was going through my film collection for something that would distract me until it was time to go to bed again when I came across one I’ve only seen once before, a movie that wasn’t exactly cheerful, but hopeful.
It was Invictus, the movie about Nelson Mandela and the Springboks, and how a rugby World Cup brought South Africa together. It’s not a movie you’d take your girlfriend to see, or one you’d watch with popcorn and a beer. It’s a film with some depth, an emotional film.
Maybe I was just in an emotional mood.
The poem from which the title is taken is definitely emotional though. I’ve always loved it. Mandela used to read it to himself, and to the other prisoners, at Robben Island, on those days and nights when things seemed at their worst. It got them through, as it has sustained others in their own difficult times. It may not mean much to the parents of wee Oscar, because although they are going through their own enormous emotional upheaval, the poem is of a different nature than that, about the struggle against personal adversity and how to overcome it, but it does apply to them.
Yet, the poem is really for him, for the wee man himself, although he is too young to understand it. Hearing it last night, read by the magnificent Morgan Freeman, I had a lump in my throat thinking that if wee Oscar could grasp what it meant he might draw strength from its words.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
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.
They are beautiful words, inspiring words, words so uplifting it fills me with amazement that another human being ever wrote them. They seem magical, as though their source was of a higher kind than a mere man. I think of Mandela, in that terribly small room, looking onto the yard where he broke rocks for the 18 long years he was on Robben Island, the man who fate decreed would one day be the President of his country, and I think of that wee lad who’s early life has been pain, and suffering, and I wonder where he will end up, should he best this awful disease.
I think of his life, and I cannot help but be as amazed, and inspired, and moved, as I am when I consider Mandela’s. The darkness that surrounded the man who would lead South Africa into the light fell upon an adult, not a child, a man who had already graduated law school and spent years as a member of a revolutionary party in an apartheid state. That does not diminish how I view his courage, or lessen the admiration and sense of awe I feel when I consider his struggle, and his eventual rise from that Hell to the heights he scaled as an international statesman – perhaps the last great international statesman of this generation – but wee Oscar’s struggle has been of a different order again, made all the more remarkable by his age.
When people talk about wee Oscar they talk about courage, sometimes without really thinking about it too deeply.
That’s not a criticism. It’s the first word that comes to mind when I think of him, but today I’ve given real thought to what the word means, and considered how it fits in the context of the wee man we’ve all come to think of as one of our own. And you know what? The word encapsulates him perfectly. He is courage personified.
Wee Oscar perhaps doesn’t grasp fully the extent of what’s going on here, but he doesn’t have to. Ask any doctor, anywhere in the world, how important a strong mentality, and a positive outlook, are to a good prognosis, and every one of them, without fail, will tell you it is vital. When the mind gives up, when the spirit gives up, the strongest body cannot keep going. We’ve seen it happen out on the pitch, for Gods sakes. Teams who lose a late goal often concede again shortly afterwards, especially if they’d been on the verge of a sensational result. Morale collapses and when it does the strength goes out of the legs. The weariness of their spirit weighs them down, and they can’t sustain their energy levels any longer.
Ask Oscar’s mum and dad. There must have been days, and nights, when they were utterly exhausted, a kind of exhaustion most of us cannot even fathom. Their courage must be almost beyond measure too, because he certainly drew some of his strength from them, and from their dedication, and their love.
Yet had he ever given up, had his little heart ever given out, there would have been no recovery in the first place. Oscar Knox fought this thing because he woke up every day wanting to experience life, wanting the joy of playing in the sunshine, or splashing in the rain, or tramping through the snow. Perhaps he simply wanted to be with other children, or his mum and dad, or his books or his toys and games.
Whatever it was, he woke every morning with a good heart, and a will to live which is unbelievable in one so young.
So wee Oscar fought through the pain, and his family smiled through their sadness, and they inspired each other, and in turn they inspired us all. Wee Oscar is the unconquerable, whatever happens to him next. His body may have turned on him again, but his spirit never flags.
He is what we all wish we could be, when we are lost in our private strife, most of it utterly minor in comparison to what he and his family are going through. Looking back on my own dark days of recent years, when all I wanted to do was climb into bed sometimes, I wish I’d had the courage to face the world as the wee man has, to still find things to enjoy, to take pleasure in just being here, on this Earth, whatever the circumstances might be.
The same thing comes across in all those who’ve formed the Oscar Knox support network, all the people who let him into their hearts, and dedicated part of their lives to his cause. They amaze me too, and I thought of them tonight watching the film. I thought about the role they played in his life.
At the end of the movie, and it actually happened in real life too, the South African captain shakes hands with Mandela, who thanks him for “what you did for this country.” The captain returns the complement by echoing the sentiment back.
The sacrifices made by the men and women of the Oscar Knox support network did so much for this little lad. Yet reading the beautiful and heartfelt messages from around the world yesterday, I was struck by the realisation of what Oscar Knox did for them, for all of us, for so many people, people who don’t even really know him except as a name.
The wonderful pictures of him at Celtic Park, especially the one of him on the pitch, hugging Hoopy the Hound, are so incredible and uplifting that I know instinctively if I knew him as some of these people have come to I would have spent yesterday overwhelmed with sadness, that it would not have been something that preyed on my mind at intervals but dominated it instead.
I don’t know how they carry it. I don’t know how any of them do it, any more than I can comprehend how Mandela carried himself through the long years of his imprisonment. Intellectually, I can just about wrap my brain around it. But emotionally? Looking at it through my eyes, it’s a miracle.
How do they keep from giving up? Where does the courage come from?
I cannot answer that question. They probably can’t either, because courage is not something you can explain from the inside any more than you can understand it from the outside. When you hear Mandela talk about his struggle he does it in a matter of fact way which passes off the extraordinary as if it wasn’t anything special. He can’t see it for what it was, with the detachment of the outsider.
For us, it was a triumph of will, of endurance, of hope over fear. For him it was … day to day living. That’s how it is now for wee Oscar. His courage has become routine.
I see the same in the written words of those who fought for him since he first got sick. They talk about it in such plain, simple terms, and I know from having talked to some of the same people when they were breaking their backs for Kano, or rallying around for the family of Stevie Reynolds, or any of the other incredible things they’ve done since I’ve had the pleasure of knowing who they are, that they don’t see it as anything remarkable, although it clearly is.
I get the feeling that if wee Oscar were old enough to explain away how he does it he would probably do it in that “aw shucks it’s nothing” way that only the truly extraordinary can, because only on the outside does it look so incredible.
There are people who come into the world and change everything around them, and imagining a world without them is impossible. Sometimes they perform on a global stage, and these people are the rarest of all human beings, and they leave an indelible mark not only on individual lives or in their own lifetimes, but a footprint in history, visible not just in this time but for all time.
Mandela was one of those men, and he transformed South Africa not simply because he was a good man but because the goodness in him appealed to, and echoed in, the goodness of other people. In a world more and more governed by hate, his story is remarkable because he changed his nation through love and our shared humanity, proving, as Gandhi did, that it is a more powerful weapon by far.
Oscar Knox has changed the lives of everyone around him in the same way, and he has impacted on the lives of countless others, with a smile that gladdens the heart and lifts the spirit, and with that big heart of his and his determination not to be beat. In a sense, come what may, he has won the final battle, the battle most of us never win, the battle to leave behind a goodwill that assures he is remembered with fondness and with love, even by those who didn’t get to know him.
Oscar’s name, and his memory, will ring out long after he, and we, are gone.
He is part of our story now, part of our collective family, part of the legend, and the mythology, that surrounds, and sustains, the thing we call Celtic, and he’s managed to transcended even that.
For the messages of love and support, and encouragement, which filled Twitter these last 36 hours paid no heed to football allegiance or rivalry. They paid no mind to what side of the fence people come down on. They united us all, right across the world. Blue and green. Celtic and Rangers. Secular or religious.
They reminded us that there is a bigger family out there, that the human race is all one, our lives interconnected, that we all share the same hopes and dreams, and that compassion and kindness flows through the veins of us all.
Oscar touches something in us all, something good, the same something Mandela tapped into and used to make his country, and the world, a better place.
Their kind is special. They have a quality that endures no matter the darkness around them. They make all of us want to be better human beings, and in this world of cynicism, hopelessness and deep despair, in this world that sometimes seems devoid of justice and compassion, these people are beams of light that pierce the gloom.
They fill us with hope again.
Oscar Knox, you were sent to us from Heaven. When God sees fit to call you back it will be, as with Mandela, a time not only for regret that you’ve gone but for joy that you were ever here at all. Your existence is a reminder that the human condition is one of hope, not despair. Of good, not evil. Of love, not hate.
You bring that out in all of us, and because of it the world has been made better, and more bright, by your being in it.
Love and respect little guy. You and yours keep on fighting.
You’ve got a whole world rooting for you.
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