Tuesdays With Morrie (2)
In March of 1995, a limousine carrying Ted Koppel, the host of ABC-TV’s “Nightline” pulled up to the snow-covered curb outside Morrie’s house in West Newton, Massachusetts.
Morrie was in a wheelchair full-time now, getting used to helpers lifting him like a heavy sack from the chair to the bed and the bed to the chair. He had begun to cough while eating, and chewing was a chore. His legs were dead; he would never walk again.
Yet he refused to be depressed. Instead, Morrie had become a lightning rod of ideas. He jotted down his thoughts on yellow pads, envelopes, folders, scrap paper. He wrote bite-sized philosophies about living with death’s shadow: “Accept what you are able to do and what you are not able to do”; “Accept the past as past, without denying it or discarding it”; “Learn to forgive yourself and to forgive others”; “Don’t assume that it’s too late to get involved.”
After a while, he had more than fifty of these “aphorisms,” which he shared with his friends. One friend, a fellow Brandeis professor named Maurie Stein, was so taken with the words that he sent them to a Boston Globe reporter, who came out and wrote a long feature story on Morrie. The headline read:
A Professor’s Final Course: His Own Death
The article caught the eye of a producer from the “Nightline” show, who brought it to Koppel in Washington, D. C.
“Take a look at this,” the producer said.
Next thing you knew, there were cameramen in Morrie’s living room and Koppel’s limousine was in front of the house.
Several of Morrie’s friends and family members had gathered to meet Koppel, and when the famous man entered the house, they buzzed with excitement—all except Morrie, who wheeled himself forward, raised his eyebrows, and interrupted the clamor with his high, singsong voice.
“Ted, I need to check you out before I agree to do this interview.”
There was an awkward moment of silence, then the two men were ushered into the study. The door was shut. “Man,” one friend whispered outside the door, “I hope Ted goes easy on Morrie.”
“I hope Morrie goes easy on Ted,” said the other.
Inside the office, Morrie motioned for Koppel to sit down. He crossed his hands in his lap and smiled.
“Tell me something close to your heart,” Morrie began.
Koppel studied the old man. “All right,” he said cautiously, and he spoke about his children. They were close to his heart, weren’t they?
“Good,” Morrie said. “Now tell me something, about your faith.”
Koppel was uncomfortable. “I usually don’t talk about such things with people I’ve only known a few minutes.”
“Ted, I’m dying,” Morrie said, peering over his glasses. “I don’t have a lot of time here.” Koppel laughed. All right. Faith. He quoted a passage from Marcus Aurelius, something he felt strongly about. Morrie nodded.
“Now let me ask you something,” Koppel said. “Have you ever seen my program?” Morrie shrugged. “Twice, I think.” “Twice? That’s all?”
“Don’t feel bad. I’ve only seen ‘Oprah’ once.”
“Well, the two times you saw my show, what did you think?”
Morrie paused. “To be honest?”
“I thought you were a narcissist.”
Koppel burst into laughter. “I’m too ugly to be a narcissist,” he said.
Soon the cameras were rolling in front of the living room fireplace, with Koppel in his crisp blue suit and Morrie in his shaggy gray sweater. He had refused fancy clothes or makeup for this interview. His philosophy was that death should not be embarrassing; he was not about to powder its nose.
Because Morrie sat in the wheelchair, the camera never caught his withered legs. And because he was still able to move his hands—Morrie always spoke with both hands waving—he showed great passion when explaining how you face the end of life.
“Ted,” he said, “when all this started, I asked myself, ‘Am I going to withdraw from the world, like most people do, or am I going to live?’ I decided I’m going to live—or at least try to
live—the way I want, with dignity, with courage, with humor, with composure.
“There are some mornings when I cry and cry and mourn for myself. Some mornings, I’m so angry and bitter. But it doesn’t last too long. Then I get up and say, ‘I want to live …’
“So far, I’ve been able to do it. Will I be able to continue? I don’t know. But I’m betting on myself that I will.”
Koppel seemed extremely taken with Morrie. He asked about the humility that death induced.
“Well, Fred,” Morrie said accidentally, then he quickly corrected himself. “I mean Ted …“
“Now that’s inducing humility,” Koppel said, laughing.
The two men spoke about the afterlife. They spoke about Morrie’s increasing dependency on other people. He already needed help eating and sitting and moving from place to place. What, Koppel asked, did Morrie dread the most about his slow, insidious decay?
Morrie paused. He asked if he could say this certain thing on television.
Koppel said go ahead.
Morrie looked straight into the eyes of the most famous interviewer in America. “Well, Ted, one day soon, someone’s gonna have to wipe my ass.”
The program aired on a Friday night. It began with Ted Koppel from behind the desk in Washington, his voice booming with authority.
“Who is Morrie Schwartz,” he said, “and why, by the end of the night, are so many of you going to care about him?”
A thousand miles away, in my house on the hill, I was casually flipping channels. I heard these words from the TV set “Who is Morrie Schwartz?”—and went numb.
It is our first class together, in the spring of 1976. I enter Morrie’s large office and notice the seemingly countless books that line the wall, shelf after shelf. Books on sociology, philosophy, religion, psychology. There is a large rug on the hardwood floor and a window that looks out on the campus walk. Only a dozen or so students are there, fumbling with notebooks and syllabi. Most of them wear jeans and earth shoes and plaid flannel shirts. I tell myself it will not be easy to cut a class this small. Maybe I shouldn’t take it.
“Mitchell?” Morrie says, reading from the attendance list. I raise a hand.
“Do you prefer Mitch? Or is Mitchell better?”
I have never been asked this by a teacher. I do a double take at this guy in his yellow
turtleneck and green corduroy pants, the silver hair that falls on his forehead. He is smiling.
Mitch, I say. Mitch is what my friends called me.
“Well, Mitch it is then,” Morrie says, as if closing a deal. “And, Mitch?”
“I hope that one day you will think of me as your friend.”
As I turned the rental car onto Morrie’s street in West Newton, a quiet suburb of Boston, I had a cup of coffee in one hand and a cellular phone between my ear and shoulder. I was talking to a TV producer about a piece we were doing. My eyes jumped from the digital clock—my return flight was in a few hours—to the mailbox numbers on the tree-lined suburban street. The car radio was on, the all-news station. This was how I operated, five things at once.
“Roll back the tape,” I said to the producer. “Let me hear that part again.”
“Okay,” he said. “It’s gonna take a second.” Suddenly, I was upon the house. I pushed the brakes, spilling coffee in my lap. As the car stopped, I caught a glimpse of a large Japanese maple tree and three figures sitting near it in the driveway, a young man and a middle-aged woman flanking a small old man in a wheelchair. Morrie.
At the sight of my old professor, I froze.
“Hello?” the producer said in my ear. “Did I lose you?… “
I had not seen him in sixteen years. His hair was thinner, nearly white, and his face was gaunt. I suddenly felt unprepared for this reunion—for one thing, I was stuck on the phone—and I hoped that he hadn’t noticed my arrival, so that I could drive around the block a few more times, finish my business, get mentally ready. But Morrie, this new, withered version of a man I had once known so well, was smiling at the car, hands folded in his lap, waiting for me to emerge.
“Hey?” the producer said again. “Are you there?” For all the time we’d spent together, for all the kindness and patience Morrie had shown me when I was young, I should have dropped the phone and jumped from the car, run and held him and kissed him hello. Instead, I killed the engine and sunk down off the seat, as if I were looking for something.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m here,” I whispered, and continued my conversation with the TV producer until we were finished.
I did what I had become best at doing: I tended to my work, even while my dying professor waited on his front lawn. I am not proud of this, but that is what I did.
Now, five minutes later, Morrie was hugging me, his thinning hair rubbing against my cheek. I had told him I was searching for my keys, that’s what had taken me so long in the car, and I squeezed him tighter, as if I could crush my little lie. Although the spring sunshine was warm, he wore a windbreaker and his legs were covered by a blanket. He smelled faintly sour, the way people on medication sometimes do. With his face pressed close to mine, I could hear his labored breathing in my ear.
“My old friend,” he whispered, “you’ve come back at last.”
He rocked against me, not letting go, his hands reaching up for my elbows as I bent over him. I was surprised at such affection after all these years, but then, in the stone walls I had built between my present and my past, I had forgotten how close we once were. I remembered graduation day, the briefcase, his tears at my departure, and I swallowed because I knew, deep down, that I was no longer the good, gift-bearing student he remembered.
I only hoped that, for the next few hours, I could fool him.
Inside the house, we sat at a walnut dining room table, near a window that looked out on the neighbor’s house. Morrie fussed with his wheelchair, trying to get comfortable. As was his custom, he wanted to feed me, and I said all right. One of the helpers, a stout Italian woman named Connie, cut up bread and tomatoes and brought containers of chicken salad, hummus, and tabouli.
She also brought some pills. Morrie looked at them and sighed. His eyes were more sunken than I remembered them, and his cheekbones more pronounced. This gave him a harsher, older look—until he smiled, of course, and the sagging cheeks gathered up like curtains.
“Mitch,” he said softly, “you know that I’m dying.”
“All right, then.” Morrie swallowed the pills, put down the paper cup, inhaled deeply, then let it out. “Shall I tell you what it’s like?”
What it’s like? To die?
“Yes,” he said.
Although I was unaware of it, our last class had just begun.
It is my freshman year. Morrie is older than most of the teachers, and I am younger than most of the students, having left high school a year early. To compensate for my youth on campus, I wear old gray sweatshirts and box in a local gym and walk around with an unlit cigarette in my mouth, even though I do not smoke. I drive a beat-up Mercury Cougar, with the windows down and the music up. I seek my identity in toughness—but it is Morrie’s softness that draws me, and because he does not look at me as a kid trying to be something more than I am, I relax.
I finish that first course with him and enroll for another. He is an easy marker; he does not much care for grades. One year, they say, during the Vietnam War, Morrie gave all his male students A’s to help them keep their student deferments.
I begin to call Morrie “Coach,” the way I used to address my high school track coach. Morrie likes the nickname.
“Coach,” he says. “All right, I’ll be your coach. And you can be my player. You can play all the lovely parts of life that I’m too old for now.”
Sometimes we eat together in the cafeteria. Morrie, to my delight, is even more of a slob than I am. He talks instead of chewing, laughs with his mouth open, delivers a passionate thought through a mouthful of egg salad, the little yellow pieces spewing from his teeth.
It cracks me up. The whole time I know him, I have two overwhelming desires: to hug him and to give him a napkin.
The sun beamed in through the dining room window, lighting up the hardwood floor. We had been talking there for nearly two hours. The phone rang yet again and Morrie asked his helper, Connie, to get it. She had been jotting the callers’ names in Morrie’s small black appointment book. Friends. Meditation teachers. A discussion group. Someone who wanted to photograph him for a magazine. It was clear I was not the only one interested in visiting my old professor—the “Nightline” appearance had made him something of a celebrity—but I was impressed with, perhaps even a bit envious of, all the friends that Morrie seemed to have. I thought about the “buddies” that circled my orbit back in college. Where had they gone?
“You know, Mitch, now that I’m dying, I’ve become much more interesting to people.” You were always interesting.
“Ho.” Morrie smiled. “You’re kind.” No, I’m not, I thought.
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “People see me as a bridge. I’m not as alive as I used to
be, but I’m not yet dead. I’m sort of … in-between.”
He coughed, then regained his smile. “I’m on the last great journey here—and people
want me to tell them what to pack.”
The phone rang again.
“Morrie, can you talk?” Connie asked.
“I’m visiting with my old pal now,” he announced. “Let them call back.”
I cannot tell you why he received me so warmly. I was hardly the promising student who had left him sixteen years earlier. Had it not been for “Nightline,” Morrie might have died without ever seeing me again. I had no good excuse for this, except the one that everyone these days seems to have. I had become too wrapped up in the siren song of my own life. I was busy.
What happened to me? I asked myself. Morrie’s high, smoky voice took me back to my university years, when I thought rich people were evil, a shirt and tie were prison clothes, and life without freedom to get up and go motorcycle beneath you, breeze in your face, down the streets of Paris, into the mountains of Tibet—was not a good life at all. What happened to me?
The eighties happened. The nineties happened. Death and sickness and getting fat and going bald happened. I traded lots of dreams for a bigger paycheck, and I never even realized I was doing it.
Yet here was Morrie talking with the wonder of our college years, as if I’d simply been on a long vacation.
“Have you found someone to share your heart with?” he asked.
“Are you giving to your community? “Are you at peace with yourself?
“Are you trying to be as human as you can be?”
I squirmed, wanting to show I had been grappling deeply with such questions. What happened to me? I once promised myself I would never work for money, that I would join the Peace Corps, that I would live in beautiful, inspirational places.
Instead, I had been in Detroit for ten years now, at the same workplace, using the same bank, visiting the same barber. I was thirty-seven, more efficient than in college, tied to computers and modems and cell phones. I wrote articles about rich athletes who, for the most part, could not care less about people like me. I was no longer young for my peer group, nor did I walk around in gray sweatshirts with unlit cigarettes in my mouth. I did not have long discussions over egg salad sandwiches about the meaning of life.
My days were full, yet I remained, much of the time, unsatisfied.
What happened to me?
“Coach,” I said suddenly, remembering the nickname.
Morrie beamed. “That’s me. I’m still your coach.” He laughed and resumed his eating, a meal he had started forty minutes earlier. I watched him now, his hands working gingerly, as if he were learning to use them for the very first time. He could not press down hard with a knife. His fingers shook. Each bite was a struggle; he chewed the food finely before swallowing, and sometimes it slid out the sides of his lips, so that he had to put down what he was holding to dab his face with a napkin. The skin from his wrist to his knuckles was dotted with age spots, and it was loose, like skin hanging from a chicken soup bone.
For a while, we just ate like that, a sick old man, a healthy, younger man, both absorbing the quiet of the room. I would say it was an embarrassed silence, but I seemed to be the only one embarrassed.
“Dying,” Morrie suddenly said, “is only one thing to be sad over, Mitch. Living unhappily is something else. So many of the people who come to visit me are unhappy.” Why?
“Well, for one thing, the culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves. We’re teaching the wrong things. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it. Create your own. Most people can’t do it. They’re more unhappy than me—even in my current condition.
“I may be dying, but I am surrounded by loving, caring souls. How many people can say that?”
I was astonished by his complete lack of self-pity. Morrie, who could no longer dance, swim, bathe, or walk; Morrie, who could no longer answer his own door, dry himself after a shower, or even roll over in bed. How could he be so accepting? I watched him struggle with his fork, picking at a piece of tomato, missing it the first two times—a pathetic scene, and yet I could not deny that sitting in his presence was almost magically serene, the same calm breeze that soothed me back in college.
I shot a glance at my watch—force of habit—it was getting late, and I thought about changing my plane reservation home. Then Morrie did something that haunts me to this day.
“You know how I’m going to die?” he said.
I raised my eyebrows.
“I’m going to suffocate. Yes. My lungs, because of my asthma, can’t handle the disease. It’s moving up my body, this ALS. It’s already got my legs. Pretty soon it’ll get my arms and hands. And when it hits my lungs …
He shrugged his shoulders.
“… I’m sunk.”
I had no idea what to say, so I said, “Well, you know, I mean … you never know.” Morrie closed his eyes. “I know, Mitch. You mustn’t be afraid of my dying. I’ve had a good life, and we all know it’s going to happen. I maybe have four or five months.” Come on, I said nervously. Nobody can say
“I can,” he said softly. “There’s even a little test. A doctor showed me.”
“Inhale a few times.” I did as he said.
“Now, once more, but this time, when you exhale, count as many numbers as you can before you take another breath.”
I quickly exhaled the numbers. “One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight …” I reached seventy before my breath was gone.
“Good,” Morrie said. “You have healthy lungs. Now. Watch what I do.”
He inhaled, then began his number count in a soft, wobbly voice. “One-two-three-four- five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten-eleven-twelve-thirteen-fourteen-fifteen-sixteen-seventeen- eighteen—”
He stopped, gasping for air.
“When the doctor first asked me to do this, I could reach twenty-three. Now it’s eighteen.”
He closed his eyes, shook his head. “My tank is almost empty.”
I tapped my thighs nervously. That was enough for one afternoon.
“Come back and see your old professor,” Morrie said when I hugged him good-bye. I promised I would, and I tried not to think about the last time I promised this.
In the campus bookstore, I shop for the items on Morrie’s reading list. I purchase books that I never knew existed, titles such as Youth: Identity and Crisis, I and Thou, The Divided Self.
Before college I did not know the study of human relations could be considered scholarly. Until I met Morrie, I did not believe it.
But his passion for books is real and contagious. N. We begin to talk seriously sometimes, after class, when the room has emptied.He asks me questions about my life, then quotes lines from Erich Fromm, Martin Buber, Erik Erikson. Often he defers to their words, footnoting his own advice, even though he obviously thought the same things himself. It is at these times that I realize he is indeed a professor, not an uncle. One afternoon, I am complaining about the confusion of my age, what is expected of me versus what I want for myself.
“Have I told you about the tension of opposites?” he says. The tension of opposites?
“Life is a series of pulls back and forth. You want to do one thing, but you are bound to do something else. Something hurts you, yet you know it shouldn’t. You take certain things for granted, even when you know you should never take anything for granted.
“A tension of opposites, like a pull on a rubber band. And most of us live somewhere in the middle. “
Sounds like a wrestling match, I say.
“A wrestling match.” He laughs. “Yes, you could describe life that way.” So which side wins, I ask? “Which side wins?”
He smiles at me, the crinkled eyes, the crooked teeth.
“Love wins. Love always wins.”
I flew to London a few weeks later. I was covering Wimbledon, the world’s premier tennis competition and one of the few events I go to where the crowd never boos and no one is drunk in the parking lot. England was warm and cloudy, and each morning I walked the tree-lined streets near the tennis courts, passing teenagers cued up for leftover tickets and vendors selling strawberries and cream. Outside the gate was a newsstand that sold a half dozen colorful British tabloids, featuring photos of topless women, paparazzi pictures of the royal family, horoscopes, sports, lottery contests, and a wee bit of actual news. Their top headline of the day was written on a small chalkboard that leaned against the latest stack of papers, and usually read something like Diana in Row with Charles! or Gazza to Team: Give Me Millions!
People scooped up these tabloids, devoured their gossip, and on previous trips to England, I had always done the same. But now, for some reason, I found myself thinking about Morrie whenever I read anything silly or mindless. I kept picturing him there, in the house with the Japanese maple and the hardwood floors, counting his breath, squeezing out every moment with his loved ones, while I spent so many hours on things that meant absolutely nothing to me personally: movie stars, supermodels, the latest noise out of Princess Di or Madonna or John F. Kennedy, Jr. In a strange way, I envied the quality of Morrie’s time even as I lamented its diminishing supply. Why did we bother with all the distractions we did? Back home, the O. J. Simpson trial was in full swing, and there were people who surrendered their entire lunch hours watching it, then taped the rest so they could watch more at night. They didn’t know O. J. Simpson. They didn’t know anyone involved in the case. Yet they gave up days and weeks of their lives, addicted to someone else’s drama.
I remembered what Morrie said during our visit: “The culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it.”
Morrie, true to these words, had developed his own culture—long before he got sick. Discussion groups, walks with friends, dancing to his music in the Harvard Square church. He started a project called Greenhouse, where poor people could receive mental health services. He read books to find new ideas for his classes, visited with colleagues, kept up with old students, wrote letters to distant friends. He took more time eating and looking at nature and wasted no time in front of TV sitcoms or “Movies of the Week.” He had created a cocoon of human activities—conversation, interaction, affection—and it filled his life like an overflowing soup bowl.
I had also developed my own culture. Work. I did four or five media jobs in England, juggling them like a clown. I spent eight hours a day on a computer, feeding my stories back to the States. Then I did TV pieces, traveling with a crew throughout parts of London. I also phoned in radio reports every morning and afternoon. This was not an abnormal load. Over the years, I had taken labor as my companion and had moved everything else to the side.
In Wimbledon; I ate meals at my little wooden work cubicle and thought nothing of it. On one particularly crazy day, a crush of reporters had tried to chase down Andre Agassi and his famous girlfriend, Brooke Shields, and I had gotten knocked over by a British photographer who barely muttered “Sorry” before sweeping past, his huge metal lenses strapped around his neck. I thought of something else Morrie had told me: “So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”
I knew he was right.
Not that I did anything about it.
At the end of the tournament—and the countless cups of coffee I drank to get through it—I closed my computer, cleaned out my cubicle, and went back to the apartment to pack. It was late. The TV was nothing but fuzz.
I flew to Detroit, arrived late in the afternoon, dragged myself home and went to sleep. I awoke to a jolting piece of news: the unions at my newspaper had gone on strike. The place was shut down. There were picketers at the front entrance and marchers chanting up and down the street. As a member of the union, I had no choice: I was suddenly, and for the first time in my life, out of a job, out of a paycheck, and pitted against my employers. Union leaders called my home and warned me against any contact with my former editors, many of whom were my friends, telling me to hang up if they tried to call and plead their case.
“We’re going to fight until we win!” the union leaders swore, sounding like soldiers.
I felt confused and depressed. Although the TV and radio work were nice supplements, the newspaper had been my lifeline, my oxygen; when I saw my stories in print in each morning, I knew that, in at least one way, I was alive.
Now it was gone. And as the strike continued—the first day, the second day, the third day—there were worried phone calls and rumors that this could go on for months. Everything I had known was upside down. There were sporting events each night that I would have gone to cover. Instead, I stayed home, watched them on TV. I had grown used to thinking readers somehow needed my column. I was stunned at how easily things went on without me.
After a week of this, I picked up the phone and dialed Morrie’s number. Connie brought him to the phone. “You’re coming to visit me,” he said, less a question than a statement.
Well. Could I?
“How about Tuesday?”
Tuesday would be good, I said. Tuesday would be fine.
In my sophomore year, I take two more of his courses. We go beyond the classroom, meeting now and then just to talk. I have never done this before with an adult who was not a relative, yet I feel comfortable doing it with Morrie, and he seems comfortable making the time.
“Where shall we visit today?” he asks cheerily when I enter his office.
In the spring, we sit under a tree outside the sociology building, and in the winter, we sit by his desk, me in my gray sweatshirts and Adidas sneakers, Morrie in Rockport shoes and corduroy pants. Each time we talk, lie listens to me ramble, then he tries to pass on some sort of life lesson. He warns me that money is not the most important thing, contrary to the popular view on campus. He tells me I need to be “fully human.” He speaks of the alienation of youth and the need for “connectedness” with the society around me. Some of these things I understand, some I do not. It makes no difference. The discussions give me an excuse to talk to him, fatherly conversations I cannot have with my own father, who would like me to be a lawyer.
Morrie hates lawyers.
“What do you want to do when you get out of college?” he asks.
I want to be a musician, I say. Piano player. “Wonderful,” he says. “But that’s a hard life.” Yeah.
“A lot of sharks.” That’s what I hear.
“Still,” he says, “if you really want it, then you’ll make your dream happen. “
I want to hug him, to thank him for saying that, but I am not that open. I only nod instead.
“I’ll bet you play piano with a lot of pep,” he says. I laugh. Pep?
He laughs back. “Pep. What’s the matter? They don’t say that anymore?”