In the rural South African village where he once roamed as a boy, the lowered flags at Nelson Mandela's homestead are a constant reminder of his absence.
Ill health forced the 94-year-old, now battling a lung infection in hospital, to leave Qunu months ago, but his latest illness has sparked prayers, worry and resignation in his home town.
"There is a change, because we can see that he is old now and there is no way that he can live many more years," said Nozuko Mbokadi, a teacher at a school that bears the 94-year-old's name.
Mandela used to walk through Qunu, telling children to go to school, giving his two cents on local life -- amid chats with villagers whom he would also invite into his home.
"I am worried that his health is deteriorating and I know that we are not going to stay in this world forever," said Mbokadi.
"So maybe one day we'll wake up hearing some bad news that he is dead. So that is why I'm not happy with this in and out of hospital."
Mandela spent the heady years of his early boyhood in Qunu's rolling grassy hills.
Home was a traditional mud hut and days were spent stick-fighting, herding animals, drinking milk from a cow's udder, and swimming in streams.
These times are what he credits for his love of "open spaces, the simple beauties of nature, the clean line of the horizon" and he finally returned to retire.
Qunu is a place where meals are still cooked on outdoor fires, where water is collected in buckets from communal pipes, and food grown in home plots.
And while Mandela's hospitalisation early Saturday sparked an immediate massive social media frenzy, the news and details of his serious condition spread here via the radio or a neighbour.
"We are so afraid about the sickness of Mr Mandela," said Nolulamo Gcwebe, 50, who works at a local branch of a government department.
"I'm one of those people who don't want to lose him. Just because he's our father, he's our grandfather, our mother, our grandmother, you know."
But the combination of his great age, just weeks from his 95th birthday, and his repeated recent illnesses has hit home.
"Anything can happen the way he is," said Gcwebe.
It is said in the village that Mandela is like Jesus, a person who died for many others, because he offered himself for the nation, said Mkhuseli Gqabantshi.
"They are very proud of him," said the 74-year-old who lives next door to one of Mandela's close relatives.
But he has no hope that he will see "the old man" again, saying it is likely that he will only "come back for the funeral".
"We'll never see him again now, I don't think so, really," he said.
Chasing goats out of a maize field, Daliwe Bida, 46, said people were worried as they depended on Mandela.
"We are praying non-stop because we don't know what can happen if he leaves us," she said.
Andiswa Msongelwa, 32, a distant relative, explained simply "we need him."
In a village full of the same Madiba clan that Mandela belongs to, Msongelwa's 97-year-old grandmother, a close relative of Mandela's, died last week.
"Even last year, we buried a lot of Mandelas," Msongelwa said.
"The Mandelas, the old generation is just passing."