Tuesdays With Morrie (3)
The First Tuesday We Talk About the World
Connie opened the door and let me in. Morrie was in his wheelchair by the kitchen table, wearing a loose cotton shirt and even looser black sweatpants. They were loose because his legs had atrophied beyond normal clothing size—you could get two hands around his thighs and have your fingers touch. Had he been able to stand, he’d have been no more than five feet tall, and he’d probably have fit into a sixth grader’s jeans.
“I got you something,” I announced, holding up a brown paper bag. I had stopped on my way from the airport at a nearby supermarket and purchased some turkey, potato salad, macaroni salad, and bagels. I knew there was plenty of food at the house, but I wanted to contribute something. I was so powerless to help Morrie otherwise. And I remembered his fondness for eating.
“Ah, so much food!” he sang. “Well. Now you have to eat it with me.”
We sat at the kitchen table, surrounded by wicker chairs. This time, without the need to make up sixteen years of information, we slid quickly into the familiar waters of our old college dialogue, Morrie asking questions, listening to my replies, stopping like a chef to sprinkle in something I’d forgotten or hadn’t realized. He asked about the newspaper strike, and true to form, he couldn’t understand why both sides didn’t simply communicate with each other and solve their problems. I told him not everyone was as smart as he was.
Occasionally, he had to stop to use the bathroom, a process that took some time. Connie would wheel him to the toilet, then lift him from the chair and support him as he urinated into the beaker. Each time he came back, he looked tired.
“Do you remember when I told Ted Koppel that pretty soon someone was gonna have to wipe my ass?” he said.
I laughed. You don’t forget a moment like that. “Well, I think that day is coming. That one bothers me.”
“Because it’s the ultimate sign of dependency. Someone wiping your bottom. But I’m working on it. I’m trying to enjoy the process.”
“Yes. After all, I get to be a baby one more time.” That’s a unique way of looking at it. “Well, I have to look at life uniquely now. Let’s face it. I can’t go shopping, I can’t take care of the bank accounts, I can’t take out the garbage. But I can sit here with my dwindling days and look at what I think is important in life. I have both the time—and the reason—to do that.”
So, I said, in a reflexively cynical response, I guess the key to finding the meaning of life is to stop taking out the garbage?
He laughed, and I was relieved that he did.
As Connie took the plates away, I noticed a stack of newspapers that had obviously been read before I got there.
You bother keeping up with the news, I asked? “Yes,” Morrie said. “Do you think that’s strange? Do you think because I’m dying, I shouldn’t care what happens in this world?”
He sighed. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I shouldn’t care. After all, I won’t be around to see how it all turns out.
“But it’s hard to explain, Mitch. Now that I’m suffering, I feel closer to people who suffer than I ever did before. The other night, on TV, I saw people in Bosnia running across the street, getting fired upon, killed, innocent victims … and I just started to cry. I feel their anguish as if it were my own. I don’t know any of these people. But—how can I put this?—I’m almost … drawn to them.”
His eyes got moist, and I tried to change the subject, but he dabbed his face and waved me off.
“I cry all the time now,” he said. “Never mind.”
Amazing , I thought. I worked in the news business. I covered stories where people died. I interviewed grieving family members. I even attended the funerals. I never cried. Morrie, for the suffering of people half a world away, was weeping. Is this what comes at the end, I wondered? Maybe death is the great equalizer, the one big thing that can finally make strangers shed a tear for one another.
Morrie honked loudly into the tissue. “This is okay with you, isn’t it? Men crying?” Sure, I said, too quickly.
He grinned. “Ah, Mitch, I’m gonna loosen you up. One day, I’m gonna show you it’s okay to cry.”
Yeah, yeah, I said. “Yeah, yeah,” he said.
We laughed because he used to say the same thing nearly twenty years earlier.
Mostly on Tuesdays. In fact, Tuesday had always been our day together. Most of my courses with Morrie were on Tuesdays, he had office hours on Tuesdays, and when I wrote my senior thesis which was pretty much Morrie’s suggestion, right from the start— it was on Tuesdays that we sat together, by his desk, or in the cafeteria, or on the steps of Pearlman Hall, going over the work.
So it seemed only fitting that we were back together on a Tuesday, here in the house with the Japanese maple out front. As I readied to go, I mentioned this to Morrie.
“We’re Tuesday people,” he said. Tuesday people, I repeated.
“Mitch, you asked about caring for people I don’t even know. But can I tell you the thing I’m learning most with this disease?”
“The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Let it come in. We think we don’t deserve love, we think if we let it in we’ll become too soft. But a wise man named Levine said it right. He said, ‘Love is the only rational act.’”
He repeated it carefully, pausing for effect. “‘Love is the only rational act.’”
I nodded, like a good student, and he exhaled weakly. I leaned over to give him a hug. And then, although it is not really like me, I kissed him on the cheek. I felt his weakened hands on my arms, the thin stubble of his whiskers brushing my face.
“So you’ll come back next Tuesday?” he whispered.
He enters the classroom, sits down, doesn’t say anything. He looks at its, we look at him. At first, there are a few giggles, but Morrie only shrugs, and eventually a deep silence falls and we begin to notice the smallest sounds, the radiator humming in the corner of the room, the nasal breathing of one of the fat students.
Some of us are agitated. When is he going to say something? We squirm, check our watches. A few students look out the window, trying to be above it all. This goes on a good fifteen minutes, before Morrie finally breaks in with a whisper.
“What’s happening here?” he asks.
And slowly a discussion begins as Morrie has wanted all along—about the effect of silence on human relations. Why are we embarrassed by silence? What comfort do we find in all the noise?
I am not bothered by the silence. For all the noise I make with my friends, I am still not comfortable talking about my feelings in front of others—especially not classmates. I could sit in the quiet for hours if that is what the class demanded.
On my way out, Morrie stops me. “You didn’t say much today,” he remarks.
I don’t know. I just didn’t have anything to add.
“I think you have a lot to add. In fact, Mitch, you remind me of someone I knew who also liked to keep things to himself when he was younger.” Who?
The Second Tuesday We Talk About Feeling Sorry for Yourself
I came back the next Tuesday. And for many Tuesdays that followed. I looked forward to these visits more than one would think, considering I was flying seven hundred miles to sit alongside a dying man. But I seemed to slip into a time warp when I visited Morrie, and I liked myself better when I was there. I no longer rented a cellular phone for the rides from the airport. Let them wait , I told myself, mimicking Morrie.
The newspaper situation in Detroit had not improved. In fact, it had grown increasingly insane, with nasty confrontations between picketers and replacement workers, people arrested, beaten, lying in the street in front of delivery trucks.
In light of this, my visits with Morrie felt like a cleansing rinse of human kindness. We talked about life and we talked about love. We talked about one of Morrie’s favorite subjects, compassion, and why our society had such a shortage of it. Before my third visit, I stopped at a market called Bread and Circus—I had seen their bags in Morrie’s house and figured he must like the food there—and I loaded up with plastic containers from their fresh food take-away, things like vermicelli with vegetables and carrot soup and baklava.
When I entered Morrie’s study, I lifted the bags as if I’d just robbed a bank.
“Food man!” I bellowed.
Morrie rolled his eyes and smiled.
Meanwhile, I looked for signs of the disease’s progression. His fingers worked well enough to write with a pencil, or hold up his glasses, but he could not lift his arms much higher than his chest. He was spending less and less time in the kitchen or living room and more in his study, where he had a large reclining chair set up with pillows, blankets, and specially cut pieces of foam rubber that held his feet and gave support to his withered legs. He kept a bell near his side, and when his head needed adjusting or he had to “go on the commode,” as he referred to it, he would shake the bell and Connie, Tony, Bertha, or Amy—his small army of home care workers would come in. It wasn’t always easy for him to lift the bell, and he got frustrated when he couldn’t make it work.
I asked Morrie if he felt sorry for himself.
“Sometimes, in the mornings,” he said. “That’s when I mourn. I feel around my body, I move my fingers and my hands—whatever I can still move—and I mourn what I’ve lost. I mourn the slow, insidious way in which I’m dying. But then I stop mourning.”
Just like that?
“I give myself a good cry if I need it. But then I concentrate on all the good things still in my life. On the people who are coming to see me. On the stories I’m going to hear. On you—if it’s Tuesday. Because we’re Tuesday people.”
I grinned. Tuesday people.
“Mitch, I don’t allow myself any more self-pity than that. A little each morning, a few tears, and that’s all.”
I thought about all the people I knew who spent many of their waking hours feeling sorry for themselves. How useful it would be to put a daily limit on self-pity. Just a few tearful minutes, then on with the day. And if Morrie could do it, with such a horrible disease …
“It’s only horrible if you see it that way,” Morrie said. “It’s horrible to watch my body slowly wilt away to nothing. But it’s also wonderful because of all the time I get to say good-bye.”
He smiled. “Not everyone is so lucky.”
I studied him in his chair, unable to stand, to wash, to pull on his pants. Lucky? Did he really say lucky?
During a break, when Morrie had to use the bathroom, I leafed through the Boston newspaper that sat near his chair. There was a story about a small timber town where two teenage girls tortured and killed a seventy-three-year-old man who had befriended them, then threw a party in his trailer home and showed off the corpse. There was another story, about the upcoming trial of a straight man who killed a gay man after the latter had gone on a TV talk show and said he had a crush on him.
I put the paper away. Morrie was rolled back in smiling as always—and Connie went to lift him from the wheelchair to the recliner.
You want me to do that? I asked.
There was a momentary silence, and I’m not even sure why I offered, but Morrie looked at Connie and said, “Can you show him how to do it?”
“Sure,” Connie said.
Following her instructions, I leaned over, locked my forearms under Morrie’s armpits, and hooked him toward me, as if lifting a large log from underneath. Then I straightened up, hoisting him as I rose. Normally, when you lift someone, you expect their arms to tighten around your grip, but Morrie could not do this. He was mostly dead weight, and I felt his head bounce softly on my shoulder and his body sag against me like a big damp loaf.
“Ahhhn,” he softly groaned.
I gotcha, I gotcha, I said.
Holding him like that moved me in a way I cannot describe, except to say I felt the seeds of death inside his shriveling frame, and as I laid him in his chair, adjusting his head on the pillows, I had the coldest realization that our time was running out.
And I had to do something.
It is my junior year, 1978, when disco and Rocky movies are the cultural rage. We are in an unusual sociology class at Brandeis, something Morrie calls “Group Process.” Each week we study the ways in which the students in the group interact with one another, how they respond to anger, jealousy, attention. We are human lab rats. More often than not, someone ends up crying. I refer to it as the “touchy –feely” course. Morrie says I should be more open-minded.
On this day, Morrie says he has an exercise for us to try. We are to stand, facing away from our classmates, and fall backward, relying on another student to catch us. Most of us are uncomfortable with this, and we cannot let go for more than a few inches before stopping ourselves. We laugh in embarrassment. Finally, one student, a thin, quiet, dark-haired girl whom I notice almost always wears bulky white fisherman sweaters, crosses her arms over her chest, closes her eyes, leans back, and does not flinch, like one of those Lipton tea commercials where the model splashes into the pool.
For a moment, I am sure she is going to thump on the floor. At the last instant, her assigned partner grabs her head and shoulders and yanks her up harshly.
“Whoa!” several students yell. Some clap. Morrie finally smiles.
“You see,” he says to the girl, “you closed your eyes. That was the difference. Sometimes you cannot believe what you see, you have to believe what you feel. And if you are ever going to have other people trust you, you must feel that you can trust them, too—even when you’re in the dark. Even when you’re falling.”
The Third Tuesday We Talk About Regrets
The next Tuesday, I arrived with the normal bags of food-pasta with corn, potato salad, apple cobbler—and something else: a Sony tape recorder.
I want to remember what we talk about, I told Morrie. I want to have your voice so I can listen to it … later.
“When I’m dead.” Don’t say that.
He laughed. “Mitch, I’m going to die. And sooner, not later.”
He regarded the new machine. “So big,” he said. I felt intrusive, as reporters often do, and I began to think that a tape machine between two people who were supposedly friends was a foreign object, an artificial ear. With all the people clamoring for his time, perhaps I was trying to take too much away from these Tuesdays.
Listen, I said, picking up the recorder. We don’t have to use this. If it makes you uncomfortable
He stopped me, wagged a finger, then hooked his glasses off his nose, letting them dangle on the string around his neck. He looked me square in the eye. “Put it down,” he said.
I put it down.
“Mitch,” he continued, softly now, “you don’t understand. I want to tell you about my life. I want to tell you before I can’t tell you anymore.”
His voice dropped to a whisper. “I want someone to hear my story. Will you?” I nodded.
We sat quietly for a moment.
“So,” he said, “is it turned on?”
Now, the truth is, that tape recorder was more than nostalgia. I was losing Morrie, we were all losing Morrie—his family, his friends, his ex-students, his fellow professors, his pals from the political discussion groups that he loved so much, his former dance partners, all of us. And I suppose tapes, like photographs and videos, are a desperate attempt to steal something from death’s suitcase.
But it was also becoming clear to me –through his courage, his humor, his patience, and his openness—that Morrie was looking at life from some very different place than anyone else I knew. A healthier place. A more sensible place. And he was about to die.
If some mystical clarity of thought came when you looked death in the eye, then I knew Morrie wanted to share it. And I wanted to remember it for as long as I could.
The first time I saw Morrie on “Nightline,” 1 wondered what regrets he had once he knew his death was imminent. Did he lament lost friends? Would he have done much differently? Selfishly, I wondered if I were in his shoes, would I be consumed with sad thoughts of all that I had missed? Would I regret the secrets I had kept hidden?
When I mentioned this to Morrie, he nodded. “It’s what everyone worries about, isn’t it? What if today were my last day on earth?” He studied my face, and perhaps he saw an ambivalence about my own choices. I had this vision of me keeling over at my desk one day, halfway through a story, my editors snatching the copy even as the medics carried my body away.
“Mitch?” Morrie said.
I shook my head and said nothing. But Morrie picked up on my hesitation.
“Mitch,” he said, “the culture doesn’t encourage you to think about such things until you’re about to die. We’re so wrapped up with egotistical things, career, family, having enough money, meeting the mortgage, getting a new car, fixing the radiator when it breaks—we’re involved in trillions of little acts just to keep going. So we don’t get into the habit of standing back and looking at our lives and saying, Is this all? Is this all I want? Is something missing?”
“You need someone to probe you in that direction. It won’t just happen automatically.” I knew what he was saying. We all need teachers in our lives.
And mine was sitting in front of me.
Fine, I figured. If I was to be the student, then I would be as good a student as I could be.
On the plane ride home that day, I made a small list on a yellow legal pad, issues and questions that we all grapple with, from happiness to aging to having children to death. Of course, there were a million self-help books on these subjects, and plenty of cable TV shows, and $9 per-hour consultation sessions. America had become a Persian bazaar of self-help.
But there still seemed to be no clear answers. Do you take care of others or take care of your “inner child”? Return to traditional values or reject tradition as useless? Seek success or seek simplicity? Just Say No or just Do It? All I knew was this: Morrie, my old professor, wasn’t in the self-help business. He was standing on the tracks, listening to death’s locomotive whistle, and he was very clear about the important things in life.
I wanted that clarity. Every confused and tortured soul I knew wanted that clarity.
“Ask me anything,” Morrie always said. So I wrote this list:
A meaningful life
The list was in my bag when I returned to West Newton for the fourth time, a Tuesday in late August when the air-conditioning at the Logan Airport terminal was not working, and people fanned themselves and wiped sweat angrily from their foreheads, and every face I saw looked ready to kill somebody.
By the start of my senior year, I have taken so many sociology classes, I am only a few credits shy of a degree. Morrie suggests I try an honors thesis.
Me? I ask. What would I write about?
“What interests you?” he says.
We bat it back and forth, until we finally settle on, of all things, sports. I begin a year-long project on how football in America has become ritualistic, almost a religion, an opiate for the masses. I have no idea that this is training for my future career. I only know it gives me another once-a-week session with Morrie.
And, with his help, by spring I have a 112 page thesis, researched, footnoted, documented, and neatly bound in black leather. I show it to Morrie with the pride of a Little Leaguer rounding the bases on his first home run.
“Congratulations,” Morrie says.
I grin as he leafs through it, and I glance around his office. The shelves of books, the hardwood floor, the throw rug, the couch. I think to myself that I have sat just about everywhere there is to sit in this room.
“I don’t know, Mitch,” Morrie muses, adjusting his glasses as he reads, “with work like this, we may have to get you back here for grad school.”
Yeah, right, I say.
I snicker, but the idea is momentarily appealing. Part of me is scared of leaving school. Part of me wants to go desperately. Tension of opposites. I watch Morrie as he reads my thesis, and wonder what the big world will be like out there.