When the news came Thursday that Nelson Mandela was gone, anyone who cared about his life could feel the world shift.
There is no one alive today who was quite like him: a revolutionary and a nation's president, a man who fought and suffered and forgave, who became not only the moral anchor of his country but a symbol everywhere that the fight for right can be won.
That's the short, tidy version of Mandela's life, which was, of course, far more complicated.
By the time of his death, Mandela was as much an idea as a person, the idea that a man born in a hut can steer the world toward justice. We need that idea, but it helps to have the fuller story too.
When I heard about Mandela's death, I reached for my coffee-stained copy of his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom."
I read it last summer, motivated by some strange urgency to get to know him before he vanished. He was in the hospital at the time, with news crews nipping at the gates and family members arguing over his legacy.
"Long Walk" is a long book, more than 600 pages, and for several weeks I got up every morning wanting nothing more than to get back to it, to travel with Mandela through his days as a boy in a South African village, through his years as an anti-apartheid fighter (a terrorist in his critics' eyes), on through the almost three decades he spent in prison, until, at last, he was free.
The book ends shortly before he's elected South Africa's first black president.
Flipping through the book Thursday, I stumbled on passages I had marked.
There was one about letters Mandela received while imprisoned on Robben Island, a passage I liked because it showed how even in humiliation he retained his dignity and his disciplined sense of strategy:
"When I was handed a letter by the authorities, I would not rush forward and grab it as I felt like doing, but take it in a leisurely manner. Though I yearned to tear it open and read it on the spot, I would not give the authorities the satisfaction of seeing my eagerness, and I would return slowly to my cell as though I had many things to occupy me before opening a letter from my family."
I'd marked a passage about newspapers, which he and fellow inmates got by bribing guards:
"Newspapers were more valuable to political prisoners than gold or diamonds, more hungered for than food or tobacco; they were the most precious contraband on Robben Island. News was the intellectual raw material of the struggle."
I'd also marked an eerily familiar passage about how white supremacy in South Africa had mired black Africans in poverty, how poverty had led to family breakdown and how the breakdown of families had led to violence.
Of all the marked passages, though, the one that struck me most as I flipped through the book Thursday was one about Mandela's release from prison and return to his wife, Winnie, from whom he eventually divorced:
"She married a man who soon left her; that man became a myth; and then that myth returned home and proved to be just a man after all."
Just a man.
Long before his death, Mandela was transformed into a myth. Death is sure to elevate him even higher into the ranks of the superhuman.
But part of the power of Mandela's life is that he was just a man. A hero, yes, but not, as he often pointed out, a saint.
He was a man born into his place and moment, lifted by circumstance and courage into a life that came at a cost not only to himself but to the people he loved. He carried regrets over how he met his obligations as a husband, a father, a son.
Mandela wrote "Long Walk to Freedom" with Rick Stengel, the former managing editor of Time magazine, and on Thursday, Stengel remembered Mandela in an essay.
"So many people have said to me over the years, it's amazing that he was not bitter," Stengel wrote. "I've always smiled at that. With enormous self-control, he learned to hide his bitterness."
In the moment of his death, Mandela was remembered for his greatness, but it's useful to remember that he was also just a man, even if one of a kind.
And you have to wonder: Who among the living can inspire the world that way now?