Tuesdays With Morrie (4)

The Audiovisual, Part Two

The “Nightline” show had done a follow-up story on Morrie partly because the reception for the first show had been so strong. This time, when the cameramen and producers came through the door, they already felt like family. And Koppel himself was noticeably warmer. There was no feeling-out process, no interview before the interview. As warm-up, Koppel and Morrie exchanged stories about their childhood backgrounds: Koppel spoke of growing up in England, and Morrie spoke of growing up in the Bronx. Morrie wore a long sleeved blue shirt—he was almost always chilly, even when it was ninety degrees outside—but Koppel removed his jacket and did the interview in shirt and tie. It was as if Morrie were breaking him down, one layer at a time.

“You look fine,” Koppel said when the tape began to roll.

“That’s what everybody tells me,” Morrie said. “You sound fine.”

“That’s what everybody tells me.”

“So how do you know things are going downhill?”

Morrie sighed.. “Nobody can know it but me, Ted. But I know it.”

And as he spoke, it became obvious. He was not waving his hands to make a point as freely as he had in their first conversation. He had trouble pronouncing certain words— the sound seemed to get caught in his throat. In a few more months, he might no longer speak at all.

“Here’s how my emotions go,” Morrie told Koppel. “When I have people and friends here, I’m very up. The loving relationships maintain me.

“But there are days when I am depressed. Let me not deceive you. I see certain things going and I feel a sense of dread. What am I going to do without my hands? What happens when I can’t speak? Swallowing, I don’t care so much about—so they feed me through a tube, so what? But my voice? My hands? They’re such an essential part of me. I talk with my voice. I gesture with my hands. This is how I give to people.”

“How will you give when you can no longer speak?” Koppel asked.

Morrie shrugged. “Maybe I’ll have everyone ask me yes or no questions.”

It was such a simple answer that Koppel had to smile. He asked Morrie about silence.

He mentioned a dear friend Morrie had, Maurie Stein, who had first sent Morrie’s aphorisms to the Boston Globe. They had been together at Brandeis since the early sixties. Now Stein was going deaf. Koppel imagined the two men together one day, one unable to speak, the other unable to hear. What would that be like?

“We will hold hands,” Morrie said. “And there’ll be a lot of love passing between us. Ted, we’ve had thirty-five years of friendship. You don’t need speech or hearing to feel that.”

Before the show ended, Morrie read Koppel one of the letters he’d received. Since the first “Nightline” program, there had been a great deal of mail. One particular letter came from a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania who taught a special class of nine children; every child in the class had suffered the death of a parent.

“Here’s what I sent her back,” Morrie told Koppel, perching his glasses gingerly on his nose and ears. “‘Dear Barbara … I was very moved by your letter. I feel the work you have done with the children who have lost a parent is very important. I also lost a parent at an early age …’”

Suddenly, with the cameras still humming, Morrie adjusted the glasses. He stopped, bit his lip, and began to choke up. Tears fell down his nose. “‘I lost my mother when I was a child … and it was quite a blow to me … I wish I’d had a group like yours where I would have been able to talk about my sorrows. I would have joined your group because …“

His voice cracked.

“… because I was so lonely … “

“Morrie,” Koppel said, “that was seventy years ago your mother died. The pain still goes on?”

“You bet,” Morrie whispered.

The Professor

He was eight years old. A telegram came from the hospital, and since his father, a Russian immigrant, could not read English, Morrie had to break the news, reading his mother’s death notice like a student in front of the class. “We regret to inform you …” he began.

On the morning of the funeral, Morrie’s relatives came down the steps of his tenement building on the poor Lower East Side of Manhattan. The men wore dark suits, the women wore veils. The kids in the neighborhood were going off to school, and as they passed, Morrie looked down, ashamed that his classmates would see him this way. One of his aunts, a heavyset woman, grabbed Morrie and began to wail: “What will you do without your mother? What will become of you?”

Morrie burst into tears. His classmates ran away.

At the cemetery, Morrie watched as they shoveled dirt into his mother’s grave. He tried to recall the tender moments they had shared when she was alive. She had operated a candy store until she got sick, after which she mostly slept or sat by the window, looking frail and weak. Sometimes she would yell out for her son to get her some medicine, and young Morrie, playing stickball in the street, would pretend he did not hear her. In his mind he believed he could make the illness go away by ignoring it.

How else can a child confront death?

Morrie’s father, whom everyone called Charlie, had come to America to escape the Russian Army. He worked in the fur business, but was constantly out of a job. Uneducated and barely able to speak English, he was terribly poor, and the family was on public assistance much of the time. Their apartment was a dark, cramped, depressing place behind the candy store. They had no luxuries. No car. Sometimes, to make money, Morrie and his younger brother, David, would wash porch steps together for a nickel.

After their mother’s death, the two boys were sent off to a small hotel in the Connecticut woods where several families shared a large cabin and a communal kitchen. The fresh air might be good for the children, the relatives thought. Morrie and David had never seen so much greenery, and they ran and played in the fields. One night after dinner, they went for a walk and it began to rain. Rather than come inside, they splashed around for hours.

The next morning, when they awoke, Morrie hopped out of bed. “Come on,” he said to his brother. “Get up.” “I can’t.”

“What do you mean?”

David’s face was panicked. “I can’t … move.”

He had polio.

Of course, the rain did not cause this. But a child Morrie’s age could not understand that. For a long time—as his brother was taken back and forth to a special medical home and was forced to wear braces on his legs, which left him limping—Morrie felt responsible.

So in the mornings, he went to synagogue—by himself, because his father was not a religious man—and he stood among the swaying men in their long black coats and he asked God to take care of his dead mother and his sick brother.

And in the afternoons, he stood at the bottom of the subway steps and hawked magazines, turning whatever money he made over to his family to buy food.

In the evenings, he watched his father eat in silence, hoping for—but never getting—a show of affection, communication, warmth.

At nine years old, he felt as if the weight of a mountain were on his shoulders.

But a saving embrace came into Morrie’s life the following year: his new stepmother, Eva. She was a short Romanian immigrant with plain features, curly brown hair, and the energy of two women. She had a glow that warmed the otherwise murky atmosphere his father created. She talked when her new husband was silent, she sang songs to the children at night. Morrie took comfort in her soothing voice, her school lessons, her strong character. When his brother returned from the medical home, still wearing leg braces from the polio, the two of them shared a rollaway bed in the kitchen of their apartment, and Eva would kiss them good-night. Morrie waited on those kisses like a puppy waits on milk, and he felt, deep down, that he had a mother again.

There was no escaping their poverty, however. They lived now in the Bronx, in a one- bedroom apartment in a redbrick building on Tremont Avenue, next to an Italian beer garden where the old men played boccie on summer evenings. Because of the Depression, Morrie’s father found even less work in the fur business. Sometimes when the family sat at the dinner table, all Eva could put out was bread.

“What else is there?” David would ask.

When she tucked Morrie and David into bed, she would sing to them in Yiddish. Even

“Nothing else,” she would answer.

the songs were sad and poor. There was one about a girl trying to sell her cigarettes:

Please buy my cigarettes.

They are dry, not wet by rain. Take pity on me, take pity on me.

Still, despite their circumstances, Morrie was taught to love and to care. And to learn. Eva would accept nothing less than excellence in school, because she saw education as the only antidote to their poverty. She herself went to night school to improve her English. Morrie’s love for education was hatched in her arms.

He studied at night, by the lamp at the kitchen table. And in the mornings he would go to synagogue to say Yizkor—the memorial prayer for the dead—for his mother. He did this to keep her memory alive. Incredibly, Morrie had been told by his father never to talk about her. Charlie wanted young David to think Eva was his natural mother.

It was a terrible burden to Morrie. For years, the only evidence Morrie had of his mother was the telegram announcing her death. He had hidden it the day it arrived.

He would keep it the rest of his life.

When Morrie was a teenager, his father took him to a fur factory where he worked. This was during the Depression. The idea was to get Morrie a job.

He entered the factory, and immediately felt as if the walls had closed in around him. The room was dark and hot, the windows covered with filth, and the machines were packed tightly together, churning like train wheels. The fur hairs were flying, creating a thickened air, and the workers, sewing the pelts together, were bent over their needles as the boss marched up and down the rows, screaming for them to go faster. Morrie could barely breathe. He stood next to his father, frozen with fear, hoping the boss wouldn’t scream at him, too.

During lunch break, his father took Morrie to the boss and pushed him in front of him, asking if there was any work for his son. But there was barely enough work for the adult laborers, and no one was giving it up.

This, for Morrie, was a blessing. He hated the place. He made another vow that he kept to the end of his life: he would never do any work that exploited someone else, and he would never allow himself to make money off the sweat of others.

“What will you do?” Eva would ask him.

“I don’t know,” he would say. He ruled out law, because he didn’t like lawyers, and he ruled out medicine, because he couldn’t take the sight of blood.

“What will you do?”

It was only through default that the best professor I ever had became a teacher. “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

Henry Adams

The Fourth Tuesday We Talk About Death

“Let’s begin with this idea,” Morrie said. “Everyone knows they’re going to die, but nobody believes it.” He was in a businesslike mood this Tuesday. The subject was death, the first item on my list. Before I arrived, Morrie had scribbled a few notes on small white pieces of paper so that he wouldn’t forget. His shaky handwriting was now indecipherable to everyone but him. It was almost Labor Day, and through the office window I could see the spinach-colored hedges of the backyard and hear the yells of children playing down the street, their last week of freedom before school began.

Back in Detroit, the newspaper strikers were gearing up for a huge holiday demonstration, to show the solidarity of unions against management. On the plane ride in, I had read about a woman who had shot her husband and two daughters as they lay sleeping, claiming she was protecting them from “the bad people.” In California, the lawyers in the O. J. Simpson trial were becoming huge celebrities.

Here in Morrie’s office, life went on one precious day at a time. Now we sat together, a few feet from the newest addition to the house: an oxygen machine. It was small and portable, about knee-high. On some nights, when he couldn’t get enough air to swallow, Morrie attached the long plastic tubing to his nose, clamping on his nostrils like a leech. I hated the idea of Morrie connected to a machine of any kind, and I tried not to look at it as Morrie spoke.

“Everyone knows they’re going to die,” he said again, “but nobody believes it. If we did, we would do things differently.”

So we kid ourselves about death, I said.

“Yes. But there’s a better approach. To know you’re going to die, and to be prepared for it at any time. That’s better. That way you can actually be more involved in your life while you’re living.”

How can you ever be prepared to die?

“Do what the Buddhists do. Every day, have a little bird on your shoulder that asks, ‘Is today the day? Am I ready? Am I doing all I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be?’”

He turned his head to his shoulder as if the bird were there now.

“Is today the day I die?” he said.

Morrie borrowed freely from all religions. He was born Jewish, but became an agnostic when he was a teenager, partly because of all that had happened to him as a child. He enjoyed some of the philosophies of Buddhism and Christianity, and he still felt at home, culturally, in Judaism. He was a religious mutt, which made him even more open to the students he taught over the years. And the things he was saying in his final months on earth seemed to transcend all religious differences. Death has a way of doing that.

“The truth is, Mitch,” he said, “once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”

I nodded.

“I’m going to say it again,” he said. “Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”

He smiled, and I realized what he was doing. He was making sure I absorbed this point, without embarrassing me by asking. It was part of what made him a good teacher.

Did you think much about death before you got sick, I asked.

“No.” Morrie smiled. “I was like everyone else. I once told a friend of mine, in a moment of exuberance, ‘I’m gonna be the healthiest old man you ever met!’” How old were you?

“In my sixties.”

So you were optimistic.

“Why not? Like I said, no one really believes they’re going to die.”

But everyone knows someone who has died, I said. Why is it so hard to think about dying?

“Because,” Morrie continued, “most of us all walk around as if we’re sleepwalking. We really don’t experience the world fully, because we’re half-asleep, doing things we automatically think we have to do.”

And facing death changes all that?

“Oh, yes. You strip away all that stuff and you focus on the essentials. When you realize you are going to die, you see everything much differently.

He sighed. “Learn how to die, and you learn how to live.”

I noticed that he quivered now when he moved his hands. His glasses hung around his neck, and when he lifted them to his eyes, they slid around his temples, as if he were trying to put them on someone else in the dark. I reached over to help guide them onto his ears.

“Thank you,” Morrie whispered. He smiled when my hand brushed up against his head. The slightest human contact was immediate joy.

“Mitch. Can I tell you something?” Of course, I said.

“You might not like it.” Why not?

“Well, the truth is, if you really listen to that bird on your shoulder, if you accept that you can die at any time then you might not be as ambitious as you are.”

I forced a small grin.

“The things you spend so much time on—all this work you do—might not seem as important. You might have to make room for some more spiritual things.”

Spiritual things?

“You hate that word, don’t you? ‘Spiritual.’ You think it’s touchy-feely stuff.”

Well, I said.

He tried to wink, a bad try, and I broke down and laughed.

“Mitch,” he said, laughing along, “even I don’t know what ‘spiritual development’ really means. But I do know we’re deficient in some way. We are too involved in materialistic things, and they don’t satisfy us. The loving relationships we have, the universe around us, we take these things for granted.”

He nodded toward the window with the sunshine streaming in. “You see that? You can go out there, outside, anytime. You can run up and down the block and go crazy. I can’t do that. I can’t go out. I can’t run. I can’t be out there without fear of getting sick. But you know what? I appreciate that window more than you do.” Appreciate it?

“Yes. I look out that window every day. I notice the change in the trees, how strong the wind is blowing. It’s as if I can see time actually passing through that windowpane. Because I know my time is almost done, I am drawn to nature like I’m seeing it for the first time.”

He stopped, and for a moment we both just looked out the window. I tried to see what he saw. I tried to see time and seasons, my life passing in slow motion. Morrie dropped his head slightly and curled it toward his shoulder.

“Is it today, little bird?” he asked. “Is it today?”

Letters from around the world kept coming to Morrie, thanks to the “Nightline” appearances. He would sit, when he was up to it, and dictate the responses to friends and family who gathered for their letter-writing sessions.

One Sunday when his sons, Rob and Jon, were home, they all gathered in the living room. Morrie sat in his wheelchair, his skinny legs under a blanket. When he got cold, one of his helpers draped a nylon jacket over his shoulders.

“What’s the first letter?” Morrie said.

A colleague read a note from a woman named Nancy, who had lost her mother to ALS. She wrote to say how much she had suffered through the loss and how she knew that Morrie must be suffering, too.

“All right,” Morrie said when the reading was complete. He shut his eyes. “Let’s start by saying, ‘Dear Nancy, you touched me very much with your story about your mother. And I understand what you went through.

There is sadness and suffering on both parts. Grieving has been good for me, and I hope it has been good for you also.’”

“You might want to change that last line,” Rob said.

Morrie thought for a second, then said, “You’re right. How about ‘I hope you can find the healing power in grieving.’ Is that better?”

Rob nodded.

“Add ‘thank you, Morrie,’”Morrie said.

Another letter was read from a woman named Jane, who was thanking him for his inspiration on the “Nightline” program. She referred to him as a prophet.

“That’s a very high compliment,” said a colleague. “A prophet.”

Morrie made a face. He obviously didn’t agree with the assessment. “Let’s thank her for her high praise. And tell her I’m glad my words meant something to her.

“And don’t forget to sign ‘Thank you, Morrie.’”

There was a letter from a man in England who had lost his mother and asked Morrie to help him contact her through the spiritual world. There was a letter from a couple who wanted to drive to Boston to meet him. There was a long letter from a former graduate student who wrote about her life after the university. It told of a murder—suicide and three stillborn births. It told of a mother who died from ALS. It expressed fear that she, the daughter, would also contract the disease. It went on and on. Two pages. Three pages. Four pages.

Morrie sat through the long, grim tale. When it was finally finished, he said softly, “Well, what do we answer?”

The group was quiet. Finally, Rob said, “How about, ‘Thanks for your long letter?’” Everyone laughed. Morrie looked at his son and beamed.

The newspaper near his chair has a photo of a Boston baseball player who is smiling after pitching a shutout. Of all the diseases, I think to myself, Morrie gets one named after an athlete.

You remember Lou Gehrig, I ask?

“I remember him in the stadium, saying good-bye.” So you remember the famous line. “Which one?”

Come on. Lou Gehrig. “Pride of the Yankees”? The speech that echoes over the loudspeakers?

“Remind me,” Morrie says. “Do the speech.”

Through the open window I hear the sound of a garbage truck. Although it is hot,

Morrie is wearing long sleeves, with a blanket over his legs, his skin pale. The disease owns him.

I raise my voice and do the Gehrig imitation, where the words bounce off the stadium walls: “Too-dayyy … I feeel like … the luckiest maaaan … on the face of the earth …”

Morrie closes his eyes and nods slowly. “Yeah. Well. I didn’t say that.”

The Fifth Tuesday We Talk About Family

It was the first week in September, back-toschool week, and after thirty-five consecutive autumns, my old professor did not have a class waiting for him on a college campus. Boston was teeming with students, double-parked on side streets, unloading trunks. And here was Morrie in his study. It seemed wrong, like those football players who finally retire and have to face that first Sunday at home, watching on TV, thinking, I could still do that. I have learned from dealing with those players that it is best to leave them alone when their old seasons come around. Don’t say anything. But then, I didn’t need to remind Morrie of his dwindling time.

For our taped conversations, we had switched from handheld microphones—because it was too difficult now for Morrie to hold anything that long—to the lavaliere kind popular with TV newspeople. You can clip these onto a collar or lapel. Of course, since Morrie only wore soft cotton shirts that hung loosely on his ever-shrinking frame, the microphone sagged and flopped, and I had to reach over and adjust it frequently. Morrie seemed to enjoy this because it brought me close to him, in hugging range, and his need for physical affection was stronger than ever. When I leaned in, I heard his wheezing breath and his weak coughing, and he smacked his lips softly before he swallowed.

“Well, my friend,” he said, “what are we talking about today?”

How about family?

“Family.” He mulled it over for a moment. “Well, you see mine, all around me.”

He nodded to photos on his bookshelves, of Morrie as a child with his grandmother;

Morrie as a young man with his brother, David; Morrie with his wife, Charlotte; Morrie with his two sons, Rob, a journalist in Tokyo, and ion, a computer expert in Boston. “I think, in light of what we’ve been talking about all these weeks, family becomeseven more important,” he said. My

“The fact is, there is no foundation, no secure ground, upon which people may stand today if it isn’t the family. It’s become quite clear to me as I’ve been sick. If you don’t have the support and love and caring and concern that you get from a family, you don’t have much at all. Love is so supremely important. As our great poet Auden said, ‘Love each other or perish.’”

“Love each other or perish.” I wrote it down. Auden said that?

“Love each other or perish,” Morrie said. “It’s good, no? And it’s so true. Without love, we are birds with broken wings.

“Say I was divorced, or living alone, or had no children. This disease—what I’m going through—would be so much harder. I’m not sure I could do it. Sure, people would come visit, friends, associates, but it’s not the same as having someone who will not leave. It’s not the same as having someone whom you know has an eye on you, is watching you the whole time.

“This is part of what a family is about, not just love, but letting others know there’s someone who is watching out for them. It’s what I missed so much when my mother died—what I call your ‘spiritual security’—knowing that your family will be there watching out for you. Nothing else will give you that. Not money. Not fame.”

He shot me a look.

“Not work,” he added.

Raising a family was one of those issues on my little list—things you want to get right before it’s too late. I told Morrie about my generation’s dilemma with having children, how we often saw them as tying us down, making us into these “parent” things that we did not want to be. I admitted to some of these emotions myself.

Yet when I looked at Morrie, I wondered if I were in his shoes, about to die, and I had no family, no children, would the emptiness be unbearable? He had raised his two sons to be loving and caring, and like Morrie, they were not shy with their affection. Had he so desired, they would have stopped what they were doing to be with their father every minute of his final months. But that was not what he wanted.

“Do not stop your lives,” he told them. “Otherwise, this disease will have ruined three of us instead of one.” In this way, even as he was dying, he showed respect for his children’s worlds. Little wonder that when they sat with him, there was a waterfall of affection, lots of kisses and jokes and crouching by the side of the bed, holding hands.

“Whenever people ask me about having children or not having children, I never tell them what to do,” Morrie said now, looking at a photo of his oldest son. “I simply say, ‘There is no experience like having children.’ That’s all. There is no substitute for it. You cannot do it with a friend. You cannot do it with a lover. If you want the experience of having complete responsibility for another human being, and to learn how to love and bond in the deepest way, then you should have children.”

So you would do it again? I asked.

I glanced at the photo. Rob was kissing Morrie on the forehead, and Morrie was laughing with his eyes closed.

“Would I do it again?” he said to me, looking surprised. “Mitch, I would not have missed that experience for anything. Even though … “

He swallowed and put the picture in his lap.

“Even though there is a painful price to pay,” he said. Because you’ll be leaving them. “Because I’ll be leaving them soon.”

He pulled his lips together, closed his eyes, and I watched the first teardrop fall down the side of his cheek.

“And now,” he whispered, “you talk.”

Me?

“Your family. I know about your parents. I met them, years ago, at graduation. You have a sister, too, right?” Yes, I said. “Older, yes?” Older.

“And one brother, right?” I nodded. “Younger?”

Younger.

“Like me,” Morrie said. “I have a younger brother.”

Like you, I said.

“He also came to your graduation, didn’t he?”

I blinked, and in my mind I saw us all there, sixteen years earlier, the hot sun, the blue robes, squinting as we put our arms around each other and posed for Instamatic photos, someone saying, “One, two, threeee … “

“What is it?” Morrie said, noticing my sudden quiet. “What’s on your mind?” Nothing, I said, changing the subject.

The truth is, I do indeed have a brother, a blondhaired, hazel-eyed, two-years-younger brother, who looks so unlike me or my dark-haired sister that we used to tease him by claiming strangers had left him as a baby on our doorstep. “And one day,” we’d say, “they’re coming back to get you.” He cried when we said this, but we said it just the same.

He grew up the way many youngest children grow up, pampered, adored, and inwardly tortured. He dreamed of being an actor or a singer; he reenacted TV shows at the dinner table, playing every part, his bright smile practically jumping through his lips. I was the good student, he was the bad; I was obedient, he broke the rules; I stayed away from drugs and alcohol, he tried everything you could ingest. He moved to Europe not long after high school, preferring the more casual lifestyle he found there. Yet he remained the family favorite. When he visited home, in his wild and funny presence, I often felt stiff and conservative.

As different as we were, I reasoned that our fates would shoot in opposite directions once we hit adulthood. I was right in all ways but one. From the day my uncle died, I believed that I would suffer a similar death, an untimely disease that would take me out. So I worked at a feverish pace, and I braced myself for cancer. I could feel its breath. I knew it was coming. I waited for it the way a condemned man waits for the executioner.

And I was right. It came.

But it missed me.

It struck my brother.

The same type of cancer as my uncle. The pancreas. A rare form. And so the youngest of our family, with the blond hair and the hazel eyes, had the chemotherapy and the radiation. His hair fell out, his face went gaunt as a skeleton. It’s supposed to be me, I thought. But my brother was not me, and he was not my uncle. He was a fighter, and had been since his youngest days, when we wrestled in the basement and he actually bit through my shoe until I screamed in pain and let him go.

And so he fought back. He battled the disease in Spain, where he lived, with the aid of an experimental drug that was not—and still is not—available in the United States. He flew all over Europe for treatments. After five years of treatment, the drug appeared to chase the cancer into remission.

That was the good news. The bad news was, my brother did not want me around—not me, nor anyone in the family. Much as we tried to call and visit, he held us at bay, insisting this fight was something he needed to do by himself. Months would pass without a word from him. Messages on his answering machine would go without reply. I was ripped with guilt for what I felt I should be doing for him and fueled with anger for his denying us the right to do it.

So once again, I dove into work. I worked because I could control it. I worked because work was sensible and responsive. And each time I would call my brother’s apartment in Spain and get the answering machine—him speaking in Spanish, another sign of how far apart we had drifted—I would hang up and work some more.

Perhaps this is one reason I was drawn to Morrie. He let me be where my brother would not.

Looking back, perhaps Morrie knew this all along.

It is a winter in my childhood, on a snow packed hill in our suburban neighborhood. My brother and I are on the sled, him on top, me on the bottom. I feel his chin on my

shoulder and his feet on the backs of my knees.

The sled rumbles on icy patches beneath us. We pick up speed as we descend the hill.

“CAR!” someone yells.

We see it coming, down the street to our left. We scream and try to steer away, but the runners do not move. The driver slams his horn and hits his brakes, and we do what all kids do: we jump off. In our hooded parkas, we roll like logs down the cold, wet snow, thinking the next thing to touch us will be the hard rubber of a car tire. We are yelling “AHHHHHH” and we are tingling with fear, turning over and over, the world upside down, right side up, upside down.

And then, nothing. We stop rolling and catch our breath and wipe the dripping snow from our faces. The driver turns down the street, wagging his finger. We are safe. Our sled has thudded quietly into a snowbank, and ourfriends are slapping us now, saying “Cool” and “You could have died.”

I grin at my brother, and we are united by childish pride. That wasn’t so hard, we think, and we are ready to take on death again.

The Sixth Tuesday We Talk About Emotions

I walked past the mountain laurels and the Japanese maple, up the bluestone steps of Morrie’s house. The white rain gutter hung like a lid over the doorway. I rang the bell and was greeted not by Connie but by Morrie’s wife, Charlotte, a beautiful gray-haired woman who spoke in a lilting voice. She was not often at home when I came by—she continued working at MIT, as Morrie wished—and I was surprised this morning to see her.

“Morrie’s having a bit of a hard time today,” she said. She stared over my shoulder for a moment, then moved toward the kitchen.

I’m sorry, I said.

“No, no, he’ll be happy to see you,” she said quickly. “Sure …”

She stopped in the middle of the sentence, turning her head slightly, listening forsomething. Then she continued. “I’m sure … he’ll feel better when he knows you’re here.”

I lifted up the bags from the market—my normal food supply, I said jokingly—and she seemed to smile and fret at the same time.

“There’s already so much food. He hasn’t eaten any from last time.”

This took me by surprise. He hasn’t eaten any, I asked?

She opened the refrigerator and I saw familiar containers of chicken salad, vermicelli, vegetables, stuffed squash, all things I had brought for Morrie. She opened the freezer and there was even more.

“Morrie can’t eat most of this food. It’s too hard for him to swallow. He has to eat soft things and liquid drinks now.”

But he never said anything, I said.

Charlotte smiled. “He doesn’t want to hurt your feelings.”

It wouldn’t have hurt my feelings. I just wanted to help in some way. I mean, I just wanted to bring him something …

“You are bringing him something. He looks forward to your visits. He talks about having to do this project with you, how he has to concentrate and put the time aside. I think it’s giving him a good sense of purpose …”

Again, she gave that faraway look, the tuning-in-something-from-somewhere-else. I knew Morrie’s nights were becoming difficult, that he didn’t sleep through them, and that meant Charlotte often did not sleep through them either. Sometimes Morrie would lie awake coughing for hours—it would take that long to get the phlegm from his throat. There were health care workers now staying through the night and all those visitors dur-ing the day, former students, fellow professors, meditation teachers, tramping in and out of the house. On some days, Morrie had a half a dozen visitors, and they were often there when Charlotte returned from work. She handled it with patience, even though all these outsiders were soaking up her precious minutes with Morrie.

“… a sense of purpose,” she continued. “Yes. That’s good, you know.”

“I hope so,” I said.

I helped put the new food inside the refrigerator. The kitchen counter had all kinds of notes, messages, information, medical instructions. The table held more pill bottles than ever—Selestone for his asthma, Ativan to help him sleep, naproxen for infections— along with a powdered milk mix and laxatives. From down the hall, we heard the sound of a door open.

“Maybe he’s available now … let me go check.”

Charlotte glanced again at my food and I felt suddenly ashamed. All these reminders of things Morrie would never enjoy.

The small horrors of his illness were growing, and when I finally sat down with Morrie, he was coughing more than usual, a dry, dusty cough that shook his chest and made his head jerk forward. After one violent surge, he stopped, closed his eyes, and took a breath. I sat quietly because I thought he was recovering from his exertion.

“Is the tape on?” he said suddenly, his eyes still closed.

Yes, yes, I quickly said, pressing down the play and record buttons.

“What I’m doing now,” he continued, his eyes still closed, “is detaching myself from the experience.”

Detaching yourself?

“Yes. Detaching myself. And this is important—not just for someone like me, who is dying, but for someone like you, who is perfectly healthy. Learn to detach.”

He opened his eyes. He exhaled. “You know what the Buddhists say? Don’t cling to things, because everything is impermanent.”

But wait, I said. Aren’t you always talking about experiencing life? All the good emotions, all the bad ones? “Yes. “

Well, how can you do that if you’re detached?

“Ah. You’re thinking, Mitch. But detachment doesn’t mean you don’t let the experience penetrate you. On the contrary, you let it penetrate you fully. That’s how you are able to leave it.”

I’m lost.

“Take any emotion—love for a woman, or grief for a loved one, or what I’m going through, fear and pain from a deadly illness. If you hold back on the emotions—if you don’t allow yourself to go all the way through them—you can never get to being detached, you’re too busy being afraid. You’re afraid of the pain, you’re afraid of the grief. You’re afraid of the vulnerability that loving entails.

“But by throwing yourself into these emotions, by allowing yourself to dive in, all the way, over your head even, you experience them fully and completely. You know what pain is. You know what love is. You know what grief is. And only then can you say, ‘All right. I have experienced that emotion. I recognize that emotion. Now I need to detach from that emotion for a moment.’”

Morrie stopped and looked me over, perhaps to make sure I was getting this right.

“I know you think this is just about dying,” he said, “but it’s like I keep telling you. When you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”

Morrie talked about his most fearful moments, when he felt his chest locked in heaving surges or when he wasn’t sure where his next breath would come from. These were horrifying times, he said, and his first emotions were horror, fear, anxiety. But once he recognized the feel of those emotions, their texture, their moisture, the shiver down the back, the quick flash of heat that crosses your brain—then he was able to say, “Okay. This is fear. Step away from it. Step away.”

I thought about how often this was needed in everyday life. How we feel lonely, sometimes to the point of tears, but we don’t let those tears come because we are not supposed to cry. Or how we feel a surge of love for a partner but we don’t say anything because we’re frozen with the fear of what those words might do to the relationship.

Morrie’s approach was exactly the opposite. Turn on the faucet. Wash yourself with the emotion. It won’t hurt you. It will only help. If you let the fear inside, if you pull it on like a familiar shirt, then you can say to yourself, “All right, it’s just fear, I don’t have to let it control me. I see it for what it is.”

Same for loneliness: you let go, let the tears flow, feel it completely—but eventually be able to say, “All right, that was my moment with loneliness. I’m not afraid of feeling lonely, but now I’m going to put that loneliness aside and know that there are other emotions in the world, and I’m going to experience them as well.”

“Detach,” Morrie said again.

He closed his eyes, then coughed. Then he coughed again.

Then he coughed again, more loudly.

Suddenly, he was half-choking, the congestion in his lungs seemingly teasing him, jumping halfway up, then dropping back down, stealing his breath. He was gagging, then hacking violently, and he shook his hands in front of him—with his eyes closed, shaking his hands, he appeared almost possessed—and I felt my forehead break into a sweat. I instinctively pulled him forward and slapped the back of his shoulders, and he pushed a tissue to his mouth and spit out a wad of phlegm.

The coughing stopped, and Morrie dropped back into the foam pillows and sucked in air.

“You okay? You all right?” I said, trying to hide my fear.

“I’m … okay,” Morrie whispered, raising a shaky finger. “Just … wait a minute.”

We sat there quietly until his breathing returned to normal. I felt the perspiration on my scalp. He asked me to close the window, the breeze was making him cold. I didn’t mention that it was eighty degrees outside.

Finally, in a whisper, he said, “I know how I want to die.”

I waited in silence.

“I want to die serenely. Peacefully. Not like what just happened.

“And this is where detachment comes in. If I die in the middle of a coughing spell like I just had, I need to be able to detach from the horror, I need to say, ‘This is my moment.’ “I don’t want to leave the world in a state of fright. I want to know what’s happening, accept it, get to a peaceful place, and let go. Do you understand?” I nodded. Don’t let go yet, I added quickly. Morrie forced a smile. “No. Not yet. We still have work to do.”

Do you believe in reincarnation? I ask.

“Perhaps.”

What would you come back as?

“If I had my choice, a gazelle”

A gazelle?

“Yes. So graceful. So fast.”

A gazelle?

Morrie smiles at me. “You think that’s strange?”

I study his shrunken frame, the loose clothes, the socks-wrapped feet that rest stiffly on foam rubber cushions, unable to move, like a prisoner in leg irons. I picture a gazelle racing across the desert.

No, I say. I don’t think that’s strange at all.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: