Tuesdays With Morrie (5)
The Professor, Part Two
The Morrie I knew, the Morrie so many others knew, would not have been the man he was without the years he spent working at a mental hospital just outside Washington, D.C., a place with the deceptively peaceful name of Chestnut Lodge. It was one of Morrie’s first jobs after plowing through a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Having rejected medicine, law, and business, Morrie had decided the research world would be a place where he could contribute without exploiting others.
Morrie was given a grant to observe mental patients and record their treatments. While the idea seems common today, it was groundbreaking in the early fifties. Morrie saw patients who would scream all day. Patients who would cry all night. Patients soiling their underwear. Patients refusing to eat, having to be held down, medicated, fed intravenously.
One of the patients, a middle-aged woman, came out of her room every day and lay facedown on the tile floor, stayed there for hours, as doctors and nurses stepped around her. Morrie watched in horror. He took notes, which is what he was there to do. Every day, she did the same thing: came out in the morning, lay on the floor, stayed there until the evening, talking to no one, ignored by everyone. It saddened Morrie. He began to sit on the floor with her, even lay down alongside her, trying to draw her out of her misery. Eventually, he got her to sit up, and even to return to her room. What she mostly wanted, he learned, was the same thing many people want—someone to notice she was there.
Morrie worked at Chestnut Lodge for five years. Although it wasn’t encouraged, he befriended some of the patients, including a woman who joked with him about how lucky she was to be there “because my husband is rich so he can afford it. Can you imagine if I had to be in one of those cheap mental hospitals?”
Another woman—who would spit at everyone else took to Morrie and called him her friend. They talked each day, and the staff was at least encouraged that someone had gotten through to her. But one day she ran away, and Morrie was asked to help bring her back. They tracked her down in a nearby store, hiding in the back, and when Morrie went in, she burned an angry look at him.
“So you’re one of them, too,” she snarled.
“One of who?”
Morrie observed that most of the patients there had been rejected and ignored in their lives, made to feel that they didn’t exist. They also missed compassion—something the staff ran out of quickly. And many of these patients were well-off, from rich families, so their wealth did not buy them happiness or contentment. It was a lesson he never forgot.
I used to tease Morrie that he was stuck in the sixties. He would answer that the sixties weren’t so bad, compared to the times we lived in now.
He came to Brandeis after his work in the mental health field, just before the sixties began. Within a few years, the campus became a hotbed for cultural revolution. Drugs, sex, race, Vietnam protests. Abbie Hoffman attended Brandeis. So did Jerry Rubin and Angela Davis. Morrie had many of the “radical” students in his classes.
That was partly because, instead of simply teaching, the sociology faculty got involved. It was fiercely antiwar, for example. When the professors learned that students who did not maintain a certain grade point average could lose their deferments and be drafted, they decided not to give any grades. When the administration said, “If you don’t give these students grades, they will all fail,” Morrie had a solution: “Let’s give them all A’s.” And they did.
Just as the sixties opened up the campus, it also opened up the staff in Morrie’s department, from the jeans and sandals they now wore when working to their view of the classroom as a living, breathing place. They chose discussions over lectures, experience over theory. They sent students to the Deep South for civil rights projects and to the inner city for fieldwork. They went to Washington for protest marches, and Morrie often rode the busses with his students. On one trip, he watched with gentle amusement as women in flowing skirts and love beads put flowers in soldiers’ guns, then sat on the lawn, holding hands, trying to levitate the Pentagon.
“They didn’t move it,” he later recalled, “but it was a nice try.”
One time, a group of black students took over Ford Hall on the Brandeis campus, draping it in a banner that read Malcolm X University. ford hall had chemistry labs, and some administration officials worried that these radicals were making bombs in the basement. Morrie knew better. He saw right to the core of the problem, which was human beings wanting to feel that they mattered.
The standoff lasted for weeks. And it might have gone on even longer if Morrie hadn’t been walking by the building when one of the protesters recognized him as a favorite teacher and yelled for him to come in through the window.
An hour later, Morrie crawled out through the window with a list of what the protesters wanted. He took the list to the university president, and the situation was diffused.
Morrie always made good peace.
At Brandeis, he taught classes about social psychology, mental illness and health, group process. They were light on what you’d now call “career skills” and heavy on “personal development.”
And because of this, business and law students today might look at Morrie as foolishly naive about his contributions. How much money did his students go on to make? How many big-time cases did they win?
Then again, how many business or law students ever visit their old professors once they leave? Morrie’s students did that all the time. And in his final months, they came back to him, hundreds of them, from Boston, New York, California, London, and Switzerland; from corporate offices and inner city school programs. They called. They wrote. They drove hundreds of miles for a visit, a word, a smile.
“I’ve never had another teacher like you,” they all said.
As my visits with Morrie go on, I begin to read about death, how different cultures view the final passage. There is a tribe in the North American Arctic, for example, who believe that all things on earth have a soul that exists in a miniature form of the body that holds it—so that a deer has a tiny deer inside it, and a man has a tiny man inside him. When the large being dies, that tiny form lives on. It can slide into something being born nearby, or it can go to a temporary resting place in the sky, in the belly of a great feminine spirit, where it waits until the moon can send it back to earth.
Sometimes, they say, the moon is so busy with the new souls of the world that it disappears from the sky. That is why we have moonless nights. But in the end, the moon always returns, as do we all.
That is what they believe.
The Seventh Tuesday We Talk About the Fear o f Aging
Morrie lost his battle. Someone was now wiping his behind.
He faced this with typically brave acceptance. No longer able to reach behind him when he used the commode, he informed Connie of his latest limitation. “Would you be embarrassed to do it for me?” She said no.
I found it typical that he asked her first.
It took some getting used to, Morrie admitted, because it was, in a way, complete surrender to the disease. The most personal and basic things had now been taken from him—going to the bathroom, wiping his nose, washing his private parts. With the exception of breathing and swallowing his food, he was dependent on others for nearly everything.
I asked Morrie how he managed to stay positive through that.
“Mitch, it’s funny,” he said. “I’m an independent person, so my inclination was to fight all of this—being helped from the car, having someone else dress me. I felt a little ashamed, because our culture tells us we should be ashamed if we can’t wipe our own behind. But then I figured, Forget what the culture says. I have ignored the culture much of my life. I am not going to be ashamed. What’s the big deal?
“And you know what? The strangest thing.” What’s that?
“I began to enjoy my dependency. Now I enjoy when they turn me over on my side and rub cream on my behind so I don’t get sores. Or when they wipe my brow, or they massage my legs. I revel in it. I close my eyes and soak it up. And it seems very familiar to me.
“It’s like going back to being a child again. Someone to bathe you. Someone to lift you. Someone to wipe you. We all know how to be a child. It’s inside all of us. For me, it’s just remembering how to enjoy it.
“The truth is, when our mothers held us, rocked us, stroked our heads—none of us ever got enough of that. We all yearn in some way to return to those days when we were completely taken care of—unconditional love, unconditional attention. Most of us didn’t get enough.
“I know I didn’t.”
I looked at Morrie and I suddenly knew why he so enjoyed my leaning over and adjusting his microphone, or fussing with the pillows, or wiping his eyes. Human touch. At seventy-eight, he was giving as an adult and taking as a child.
Later that day, we talked about aging. Or maybe I should say the fear of aging— another of the issues on my what’s-bugging-my-generation list. On my ride from the Boston airport, I had counted the billboards that featured young and beautiful people. There was a handsome young man in a cowboy hat, smoking a cigarette, two beautiful young women smiling over a shampoo bottle, a sultrylooking teenager with her jeans unsnapped, and a sexy woman in a black velvet dress, next to a man in a tuxedo, the two of them snuggling a glass of scotch.
Not once did I see anyone who would pass for over thirty-five. I told Morrie I was already feeling over the hill, much as I tried desperately to stay on top of it. I worked out constantly. Watched what I ate. Checked my hairline in the mirror. I had gone from being proud to say my age—because of all I had done so young—to not bringing it up, for fear I was getting too close to forty and, therefore, professional oblivion.
Morrie had aging in better perspective.
“All this emphasis on youth—I don’t buy it,” he said. “Listen, I know what a misery being young can be, so don’t tell me it’s so great. All these kids who came to me with their struggles, their strife, their feelings of inadequacy, their sense that life was miserable, so bad they wanted to kill themselves …
“And, in addition to all the miseries, the young are not wise. They have very little understanding about life. Who wants to live every day when you don’t know what’s going on? When people are manipulating you, telling you to buy this perfume and you’ll be beautiful, or this pair of jeans and you’ll be sexy—and you believe them! It’s such nonsense.”
Weren’t you ever afraid to grow old, I asked?
“Mitch, I embrace aging.”
“It’s very simple. As you grow, you learn more. If you stayed at twenty-two, you’d always be as ignorant as you were at twenty-two. Aging is not just decay, you know. It’s growth. It’s more than the negative that you’re going to die, it’s also the positive that you understand you’re going to die, and that you live a better life because of it.”
Yes, I said, but if aging were so valuable, why do people always say, “Oh, if I were young again.” You never hear people say, “I wish I were sixty-five.”
He smiled. “You know what that reflects? Unsatisfied lives. Unfulfilled lives. Lives that haven’t found meaning. Because if you’ve found meaning in your life, you don’t want to go back. You want to go forward. You want to see more, do more. You can’t wait until sixty-five. “Listen. You should know something. All younger people should know something. If you’re always battling against getting older, you’re always going to be unhappy, because it will happen anyhow.
He lowered his voice.
“The fact is, you are going to die eventually.” I nodded.
“It won’t matter what you tell yourself.” I know.
“But hopefully,” he said, “not for a long, long time.” He closed his eyes with a peaceful look, then asked me to adjust the pillows behind his head. His body needed constant adjustment to stay comfortable. It was propped in the chair with white pillows, yellow foam, and blue towels. At a quick glance, it seemed as if Morrie were being packed for shipping.
“Thank you,” he whispered as I moved the pillows. No problem, I said.
“Mitch. What are you thinking?”
I paused before answering. Okay, I said, I’m wondering how you don’t envy younger, healthy people.
“Oh, I guess I do.” He closed his eyes. “I envy them being able to go to the health club, or go for a swim. Or dance. Mostly for dancing. But envy comes to me, I feel it, and then I let it go. Remember what I said about detachment? Let it go. Tell yourself, ‘That’s envy, I’m going to separate from it now.’ And walk away.”
He coughed—a long, scratchy cough—and he pushed a tissue to his mouth and spit weakly into it. Sitting there, I felt so much stronger than he, ridiculously so, as if I could lift him and toss him over my shoulder like a sack of flour. I was embarrassed by this superiority, because I did not feel superior to him in any other way.
How do you keep from envying … “What?”
“Mitch, it is impossible for the old not to envy the young. But the issue is to accept who you are and revel in that. This is your time to be in your thirties. I had my time to be in my thirties, and now is my time to be seventy-eight.
“You have to find what’s good and true and beautiful in your life as it is now. Looking back makes you competitive. And, age is not a competitive issue.”
He exhaled and lowered his eyes, as if to watch his breath scatter into the air.
“The truth is, part of me is every age. I’m a three-year-old, I’m a five-year-old, I’m a thirty-seven-year-old, I’m a fifty-year-old. I’ve been through all of them, and I know what it’s like. I delight in being a child when it’s appropriate to be a child. I delight in being a wise old man when it’s appropriate to be a wise old man. Think of all I can be! I am every age, up to my own. Do you understand?”
“How can I be envious of where you are—when I’ve been there myself?”
“Fate succumbs many a species: one alone jeopardises itself.”
W.H. Auden, Morrie’s favorite poet.
The Eighth Tuesday We Talk About Money
I held up the newspaper so that Morrie could see it:
I Don’t Want My Tombstone To Read “I Never Owned a Network”
Morrie laughed, then shook his head. The morning sun was coming through the window behind him, falling on the pink flowers of the hibiscus plant that sat on the sill. The quote was from Ted Turner, the billionaire media mogul, founder of CNN, who had been lamenting his inability to snatch up the CBS network in a corporate megadeal. I had brought the story to Morrie this morning because I wondered if Turner ever found himself in my old professor’s position, his breath disappearing, his body turning to stone, his days being crossed off the calendar one by one—would he really be crying over owning a network?
“It’s all part of the same problem, Mitch,” Morrie said. “We put our values in the wrong things. And it leads to very disillusioned lives. I think we should talk about that.”
Morrie was focused. There were good days and bad days now. He was having a good day. The night before, he had been entertained by a local a cappella group that had come to the house to perform, and he relayed the story excitedly, as if the Ink Spots themselves had dropped by for a visit. Morrie’s love for music was strong even before he got sick, but now it was so intense, it moved him to tears. He would listen to opera sometimes at night, closing his eyes, riding along with the magnificent voices as they dipped and soared.
“You should have heard this group last night, Mitch. Such a sound!”
Morrie had always been taken with simple pleasures, singing, laughing, dancing. Now, more than ever, material things held little or no significance. When people die, you always hear the expression “You can’t take it with you.” Morrie seemed to know that a long time ago.
“We’ve got a form of brainwashing going on in our country,” Morrie sighed. “Do you know how they brainwash people? They repeat something over and over. And that’s what we do in this country. Owning things is good. More money is good. More property is good. More commercialism is good. More is good. More is good. We repeat it—and have it repeated to us—over and over until nobody bothers to even think otherwise. The average person is so fogged up by all this, he has no perspective on what’s really important anymore.
“Wherever I went in my life, I met people wanting to gobble up something new. Gobble up a new car. Gobble up a new piece of property. Gobble up the latest toy. And then they wanted to tell you about it. ‘Guess what I got? Guess what I got?’
“You know how I always interpreted that? These were people so hungry for love that they were accepting substitutes. They were embracing material things and expecting a sort of hug back. But it never works. You can’t substitute material things for love or for gentleness or for tenderness or for a sense of comradeship.
“Money is not a substitute for tenderness, and power is not a substitute for tenderness. I can tell you, as I’m sitting here dying, when you most need it, neither money nor power will give you the feeling you’re looking for, no matter how much of them you have.”
I glanced around Morrie’s study. It was the same today as it had been the first day I arrived. The books held their same places on the shelves. The papers cluttered the same old desk. The outside rooms had not been improved or upgraded. In fact, Morrie really hadn’t bought anything new—except medical equipment—in a long, long time, maybe years. The day he learned that he was terminally ill was the day he lost interest in his purchasing power.
So the TV was the same old model, the car that Charlotte drove was the same old model, the dishes and the silverware and the towels—all the same. And yet the house had changed so drastically. It had filled with love and teaching and communication. It had filled with friendship and family and honesty and tears. It had filled with colleagues and students and meditation teachers and therapists and nurses and a cappella groups. It had become, in a very real way, a wealthy home, even though Morrie’s bank account was rapidly depleting.
“There’s a big confusion in this country over what we want versus what we need,” Morrie said. “You need food, you want a chocolate sundae. You have to be honest with yourself. You don’t need the latest sports car, you don’t need the biggest house.
“The truth is, you don’t get satisfaction from those things. You know what really gives you satisfaction?” What?
“Offering others what you have to give.”
You sound like a Boy Scout.
“I don’t mean money, Mitch. I mean your time. Your concern. Your storytelling. It’s not so hard. There’s a senior center that opened near here. Dozens of elderly people come there every day. If you’re a young man or young woman and you have a skill, you are asked to come and teach it. Say you know computers. You come there and teach them computers. You are very welcome there. And they are very grateful. This is how you start to get respect, by offering something that you have.
“There are plenty of places to do this. You don’t need to have a big talent. There are lonely people in hospitals and shelters who only want some companionship. You play cards with a lonely older man and you find new respect for yourself, because you are needed. “Remember what I said about finding a meaningful life? I wrote it down, but now I can recite it: Devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.
“You notice,” he added, grinning, “there’s nothing in there about a salary.”
I jotted some of the things Morrie was saying on a yellow pad. I did this mostly because I didn’t want him to see my eyes, to know what I was thinking, that I had been, for much of my life since graduation, pursuing these very things he had been railing against—bigger toys, nicer house. Because I worked among rich and famous athletes, I convinced myself that my needs were realistic, my greed inconsequential compared to theirs.
This was a smokescreen. Morrie made that obvious. “Mitch, if you’re trying to show off for people at the top, forget it. They will look down at you anyhow. And if you’re trying to show off for people at the bottom, forget it. They will only envy you. Status will get you nowhere. Only an open heart will allow you to float equally between everyone.”
He paused, then looked at me. “I’m dying, right?” Yes.
“Why do you think it’s so important for me to hear other people’s problems? Don’t I have enough pain and suffering of my own?
“Of course I do. But giving to other people is what makes me feel alive. Not my car or my house. Not what I look like in the mirror. When I give my time, when I can make someone smile after they were feeling sad, it’s as close to healthy as I ever feel.
“Do the kinds of things that come from the heart. When you do, you won’t be dissatisfied, you won’t be envious, you won’t be longing for somebody else’s things. On the contrary, you’ll be overwhelmed with what comes back.”
He coughed and reached for the small bell that lay on the chair. He had to poke a few times at it, and I finally picked it up and put it in his hand.
“Thank you,” he whispered. He shook it weakly, trying to get Connie’s attention.
“This Ted Turner guy,” Morrie said, “he couldn’t think of anything else for his tombstone?”
“Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.”
The Ninth Tuesday We Talk About How Love Goes On
The leaves had begun to change color, turning the ride through West Newton into a portrait of gold and rust. Back in Detroit, the labor war had stagnated, with each side accusing the other of failing to communicate. The stories on the TV news were just as depressing. In rural Kentucky, three men threw pieces of a tombstone off a bridge, smashing the windshield of a passing car, killing a teenage girl who was traveling with her family on a religious pilgrimage. In California, the O. J. Simpson trial was heading toward a conclusion, and the whole country seemed to be obsessed. Even in airports, there were hanging TV sets tuned to CNN so that you could get an O.J. update as you made your way to a gate.
I had tried calling my brother in Spain several times. I left messages saying that I really wanted to talk to him, that I had been doing a lot of thinking about us. A few weeks later, I got back a short message saying everything was okay, but he was sorry, he really didn’t feel like talking about being sick.
For my old professor, it was not the talk of being sick but the being sick itself that was sinking him. Since my last visit, a nurse had inserted a catheter into his penis, which drew the urine out through a tube and into a bag that sat at the foot of his chair. His legs needed constant tending (he could still feel pain, even though he could not move them, another one of ALS’s cruel little ironies), and unless his feet dangled just the right number of inches off the foam pads, it felt as if someone were poking him with a fork. In the middle of conversations, Morrie would have to ask visitors to lift his foot and move it just an inch, or to adjust his head so that it fit more easily into the palm of the colored pillows. Can you imagine being unable to move your own head?
With each visit, Morrie seemed to be melting into his chair, his spine taking on its shape. Still, every morning he insisted on being lifted from his bed and wheeled to his study, deposited there among his books and papers and the hibiscus plant on the windowsill. In typical fashion, he found something philosophical in this.
“I sum it up in my newest aphorism,” he said. Let me hear it.
“When you’re in bed, you’re dead.”
He smiled. Only Morrie could smile at something like that.
He had been getting calls from the “Nightline” people and from Ted Koppel himself. “They want to come and do another show with me,” he said. “But they say they want
Until what? You’re on your last breath? “Maybe. Anyhow, I’m not so far away.” Don’t say that.
That bugs me, that they want to wait until you wither.
“It bugs you because you look out for me.”
He smiled. “Mitch, maybe they are using me for a little drama. That’s okay. Maybe I’m using them, too. They help me get my message to millions of people. I couldn’t do that without them, right? So it’s a compromise.”
He coughed, which turned into a long-drawn-out gargle, ending with another glob into a crushed tissue. “Anyhow,” Morrie said, “I told them they better not wait too long, because my voice won’t be there. Once this thing hits my lungs, talking may become impossible. I can’t speak for too long without needing a rest now. I have already canceled a lot of the people who want to see me. Mitch, there are so many. But I’m too fatigued. If I can’t give them the right attention, I can’t help them.” I looked at the tape recorder, feeling guilty, as if I were stealing what was left of his precious speaking time. “Should we skip it?” I asked. “Will it make you too tired?”
Morrie shut his eyes and shook his head. He seemed to be waiting for some silent pain to pass. “No,” he finally said. “You and I have to go on.
“This is our last thesis together, you know.” Our last thesis.
“We want to get it right.”
I thought about our first thesis together, in college. It was Morrie’s idea, of course. He told me I was good enough to write an honors project—something I had never considered.
Now here we were, doing the same thing once more. Starting with an idea. Dying man talks to living man, tells him what he should know. This time, I was in less of a hurry to finish.
“Someone asked me an interesting question yesterday,” Morrie said now, looking over my shoulder at the wallhanging behind me, a quilt of hopeful messages that friends had stitched for him on his seventieth birthday. Each patch on the quilt had a different message: Stay the Course, the Best Is Yet to Be, Morrie—Always No.1 in Mental Health!
What was the question? I asked.
“If I worried about being forgotten after I died?” Well? Do you?
“I don’t think I will be. I’ve got so many people who have been involved with me in close, intimate ways. And love is how you stay alive, even after you are gone.” Sounds like a song lyric—“love is how you stay alive.”
Morrie chuckled. “Maybe. But, Mitch, all this talk that we’re doing? Do you ever hear my voice sometimes when you’re back home? When you’re all alone? Maybe on the plane? Maybe in your car?”
Yes, I admitted.
“Then you will not forget me after I’m gone. Think of my voice and I’ll be there.” Think of your voice.
“And if you want to cry a little, it’s okay.”
Morrie. He had wanted to make me cry since I was a freshman. “One of these days, I’m gonna get to you,” he would say. Yeah, yeah, I would answer.
“I decided what I wanted on my tombstone,” he said.
I don’t want to hear about tombstones. “Why? They make you nervous?” I shrugged.
“We can forget it.”
No, go ahead. What did you decide?
Morrie popped his lips. “I was thinking of this: A Teacher to the Last.”
He waited while I absorbed it.
A Teacher to the Last.
“Good?” he said.
Yes, I said. Very good.
I came to love the way Morrie lit up when I entered the room. He did this for many people, I know, but it was his special talent to make each visitor feel that the smile was unique.
“Ahhhh, it’s my buddy,” he would say when he saw me, in that foggy, high-pitched voice. And it didn’t stop with the greeting. When Morrie was with you, he was really with you. He looked you straight in the eye, and he listened as if you were the only person in the world. How much better would people get along if their first encounter each day were like this—instead of a grumble from a waitress or a bus driver or a boss?
“I believe in being fully present,” Morrie said. “That means you should be with the person you’re with. When I’m talking to you now, Mitch, I try to keep focused only on what is going on between us. I am not thinking about something we said last week. I am not thinking of what’s coming up this Friday. I am not thinking about doing another Koppel show, or about what medications I’m taking.
“I am talking to you. I am thinking about you.”
I remembered how he used to teach this idea in the Group Process class back at Brandeis. I had scoffed back then, thinking this was hardly a lesson plan for a university course. Learning to pay attention? How important could that be? I now know it is more important than almost everything they taught us in college.
Morrie motioned for my hand, and as I gave it to him, I felt a surge of guilt. Here was a man who, if he wanted, could spend every waking moment in self-pity, feeling his body for decay, counting his breaths. So many people with far smaller problems are so self- absorbed, their eyes glaze over if you speak for more than thirty seconds. They already have something else in mind—a friend to call, a fax to send, a lover they’re daydreaming about. They only snap back to full attention when you finish talking, at which point they say “Uh-huh” or “Yeah, really” and fake their way back to the moment.
“Part of the problem, Mitch, is that everyone is in such a hurry,” Morrie said. “People haven’t found meaning in their lives, so they’re running all the time looking for it. They think the next car, the next house, the next job. Then they find those things are empty, too, and they keep running.”
Once you start running, I said, it’s hard to slow yourself down.
“Not so hard,” he said, shaking his head. “Do you know what I do? When someone wants to get ahead of me in traffic—when I used to be able to drive—I would raise my hand …”
He tried to do this now, but the hand lifted weakly, only six inches.
“… I would raise my hand, as if I was going to make a negative gesture, and then I would wave and smile. Instead of giving them the finger, you let them go, and you smile.
“You know what? A lot of times they smiled back. “The truth is, I don’t have to be in that much of a hurry with my car. I would rather put my energies into people.”
He did this better than anyone I’d ever known. Those who sat with him saw his eyes go moist when they spoke about something horrible, or crinkle in delight when they told him a really bad joke. He was always ready to openly display the emotion so often missing from my baby boomer generation. We are great at small talk: “What do you do?” “Where do you live?” But really listening to someone—without trying to sell them something, pick them up, recruit them, or get some kind of status in return—how often do we get this anymore? I believe many visitors in the last few months of Morrie’s life were drawn not because of the attention they wanted to pay to him but because of the attention he paid to them. Despite his personal pain and decay, this little old man listened the way they always wanted someone to listen.
I told him he was the father everyone wishes they had.
“Well,” he said, closing his eyes, “I have some experience in that area …”
The last time Morrie saw his own father was in a city morgue. Charlie Schwartz was a quiet man who liked to read his newspaper, alone, under a streetlamp on Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. Every night, when Morrie was little, Charlie would go for a walk after dinner. He was a small Russian man, with a ruddy complexion and a full head of grayish hair. Morrie and his brother, David, would look out the window and see him leaning against the lamppost, and Morrie wished he would come inside and talk to them, but he rarely did. Nor did he tuck them in, nor kiss them good-night.
Morrie always swore he would do these things for his own children if he ever had any. And years later, when he had them, he did.
Meanwhile, as Morrie raised his own children, Charlie was still living in the Bronx. He still took that walk. He still read the paper. One night, he went outside after dinner. A few blocks from home, he was accosted by two robbers.
“Give us your money,” one said, pulling a gun. Frightened, Charlie threw down his wallet and began to run. He ran through the streets, and kept running until he reached the steps of a relative’s house, where he collapsed on the porch.
He died that night.
Morrie was called to identify the body. He flew to New York and went to the morgue.
He was taken downstairs, to the cold room where the corpses were kept.
“Is this your father?” the attendant asked.
Morrie looked at the body behind the glass, the body of the man who had scolded himand molded him and taught him to work, who had been quiet when Morrie wanted him to speak, who had told Morrie to swallow his memories of his mother when he wanted to share them with the world.
He nodded and he walked away. The horror of the room, he would later say, sucked all other functions out of him. He did not cry until days later.
Still, his father’s death helped prepare Morrie for his own. This much he knew: there would be lots of holding and kissing and talking and laughter and no good-byes left unsaid, all the things he missed with his father and his mother.
When the final moment came, Morrie wanted his loved ones around him, knowing what was happening. No one would get a phone call, or a telegram, or have to look through a glass window in some cold and foreign basement.
In the South American rain forest, there is a tribe called the Desana, who see the world as a fixed quantity of energy that flows between all creatures. Every birth must therefore engender a death, and every death bring forth another birth. This way, the energy of the world remains complete.
When they hunt for food, the Desana know that the animals they kill will leave a hole in the spiritual well. But that hole will be filled, they believe, by the souls of the Desana hunters when they die. Were there no men dying, there would be no birds orfish being born. I like this idea. Morrie likes it, too. The closer he gets to good-bye, the more he seems to feel we are all creatures in the same forest. What we take, we must replenish.
“It’s only fair,” he says.
The Tenth Tuesday We Talk About Marriage
I brought a visitor to meet Morrie. My wife.
He had been asking me since the first day I came. “When do I meet Janine?” “When are you bringing her?” I’d always had excuses until a few days earlier, when I called his house to see how he was doing.
It took a while for Morrie to get to the receiver. And when he did, I could hear the fumbling as someone held it to his ear. He could no longer lift a phone by himself. “Hiiiiii,” he gasped.
You doing okay, Coach?
I heard him exhale. “Mitch … your coach … isn’t having such a great day …
His sleeping time was getting worse. He needed oxygen almost nightly now, and his
coughing spells had become frightening. One cough could last an hour, and he never knew if he’d be able to stop. He always said he would die when the disease got his lungs. I shuddered when I thought how close death was.
I’ll see you on Tuesday, I said. You’ll have a better day then. “Mitch.”
“Is your wife there with you?” She was sitting next to me. “Put her on. I want to hear her voice.”
Now, I am married to a woman blessed with far more intuitive kindness than I. Although she had never met Morrie, she took the phone –I would have shaken my head and whispered, “I’m not here! I’m not here!”—and in a minute, she was connecting with my old professor as if they’d known each other since college. I sensed this, even though all I heard on my end was “Uh-huh … Mitch told me … oh, thank you …
When she hung up, she said, “I’m coming next trip.” And that was that.
Now we sat in his office, surrounding him in his recliner. Morrie, by his own admission, was a harmless flirt, and while he often had to stop for coughing, or to use the commode, he seemed to find new reserves of energy with Janine in the room. He looked at photos from our wedding, which Janine had brought along.
“You are from Detroit?” Morrie said. Yes, Janine said.
“I taught in Detroit for one year, in the late forties. I remember a funny story about that.”
He stopped to blow his nose. When he fumbled with the tissue, I held it in place and he blew weakly into it. I squeezed it lightly against his nostrils, then pulled it off, like a mother does to a child in a car seat.
“Thank you, Mitch.” He looked at Janine. “My helper, this one is.”
“Anyhow. My story. There were a bunch of sociologists at the university, and we used
to play poker with other staff members, including this guy who was a surgeon. One night, after the game, he said, ‘Morrie, I want to come see you work.’ I said fine. So he came to one of my classes and watched me teach.
“After the class was over he said, ‘All right, now, how would you like to see me work? I have an operation tonight.’ I wanted to return the favor, so I said okay.
“He took me up to the hospital. He said, ‘Scrub down, put on a mask, and get into a gown.’ And next thing I knew, I was right next to him at the operating table. There was this woman, the patient, on the table, naked from the waist down. And he took a knife and went zip just like that! Well …
Morrie lifted a finger and spun it around.
“… I started to go like this. I’m about to faint. All the blood. Yech. The nurse next to me said, ‘What’s the matter, Doctor?’ and I said, ‘I’m no damn doctor! Get me out of here!’” We laughed, and Morrie laughed, too, as hard as he could, with his limited breathing.
It was the first time in weeks that I could recall him telling a story like this. How strange, I thought, that he nearly fainted once from watching someone else’s illness, and now he was so able to endure his own.
Connie knocked on the door and said that Morrie’s lunch was ready. It was not the carrot soup and vegetable cakes and Greek pasta I had brought that morning from Bread and Circus. Although I tried to buy the softest of foods now, they were still beyond Morrie’s limited strength to chew and swallow. He was eating mostly liquid supplements, with perhaps a bran muffin tossed in until it was mushy and easily digested. Charlotte would puree almost everything in a blender now. He was taking food through a straw. I still shopped every week and walked in with bags to show him, but it was more for the look on his face than anything else. When I opened the refrigerator, I would see an overflow of containers. I guess I was hoping that one day we would go back to eating a real lunch together and I could watch the sloppy way in which he talked while chewing, the food spilling happily out of his mouth. This was a foolish hope.
“So … Janine,” Morrie said. She smiled.
“You are lovely. Give me your hand.”
“Mitch says that you’re a professional singer.” Yes, Janine said. “He says you’re great.”
Oh, she laughed. N0. He just says that.
Morrie raised his eyebrows. “Will you sing something for me?”
Now, I have heard people ask this of Janine for almost as long as I have known her.
When people find out you sing for a living, they always say, “Sing something for us.” Shy about her talent, and a perfectionist about conditions, Janine never did. She would politely decline. Which is what I expected now.
Which is when she began to sing:
“The very thought of you
and I forget to do
the little ordinary things
that everyone ought to do …”
It was a 1930s standard, written by Ray Noble, and Janine sang it sweetly, looking straight at Morrie. I was amazed, once again, at his ability t0 draw emotion from people who otherwise kept it locked away. Morrie closed his eyes to absorb the notes. As my wife’s loving voice filled the room, a crescent smile appeared 0n his face. And while his body was stiff as a sandbag, you could almost see him dancing inside it.
“I see your face in every flower, your eyes in stars above,
it’s just the thought of you, the very thought of you, my love …”
When she finished, Morrie opened his eyes and tears rolled down his cheeks. In all the years I have listened to my wife sing, I never heard her the way he did at that moment.
Marriage. Almost everyone I knew had a problem with it. Some had problems getting into it, some had problems getting out. My generation seemed t0 struggle with the commitment, as if it were an alligator from some murky swamp. I had gotten used to attending weddings, congratulating the couple, and feeling only mild surprise when I saw the groom a few years later sitting in a restaurant with a younger woman whom he introduced as a friend. “You know, I’m separated from so-and-so …” he would say.
Why do we have such problems? I asked Morrie about this. Having waited seven years before I proposed t0 Janine, I wondered if people my age were being more careful than those who came before us, 0r simply more selfish?
“Well, I feel sorry for your generation,” Morrie said. “In this culture, it’s so important to find a loving relationship with someone because so much of the culture does not give you that. But the poor kids today, either they’re too selfish to take part in a real loving relationship, or they rush into marriage and then six months later, they get divorced. They don’t know what they want in a partner. They don’t know who they are themselves—so how can they know who they’re marrying?”
He sighed. Morrie had counseled so many unhappy lovers in his years as a professor. “It’s sad, because a loved one is so important. You realize that, especially when you’re in a time like I am, when you’re not doing so well. Friends are great, but friends are not going to be here on a night when you’re coughing and can’t sleep and someone has to sit up all night with you, comfort you, try to be helpful.”
Charlotte and Morrie, who met as students, had been married forty-four years. I watched them together now, when she would remind him of his medication, or come in and stroke his neck, or talk about one of their sons. They worked as a team, often needing no more than a silent glance to understand what the other was thinking. Charlotte was a private person, different from Morrie, but I knew how much he respected her, because sometimes when we spoke, he would say, “Charlotte might be uncomfortable with me revealing that,” and he would end the conversation. It was the only time Morrie held anything back.
“I’ve learned this much about marriage,” he said now. “You get tested. You find out who you are, who the other person is, and how you accommodate or don’t.”
Is there some kind of rule to know if a marriage is going to work?
Morrie smiled. “Things are not that simple, Mitch.” I know.
“Still,” he said, “there are a few rules I know to be true about love and marriage: If you don’t respect the other person, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. If you don’t know how to compromise, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. If you can’t talk openly about what goes on between you, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. And if you don’t have a common set of values in life, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. Your values must be alike.
“And the biggest one of those values, Mitch?”‘
“Your belief in the importance of your marriage.”
He sniffed, then closed his eyes for a moment.
“Personally,” he sighed, his eyes still closed, “I think marriage is a very important thing to do, and you’re missing a hell of a lot if you don’t try it.”
He ended the subject by quoting the poem he believed in like a prayer: “Love each other or perish.”
Okay, question, I say to Morrie. His bony fingers hold his glasses across his chest, which rises and falls with each labored breath.
“What’s the question?” he says. Remember the Book of Job?
“From the Bible?”
Right. Job is a good man, but God makes him suffer. To test his faith.
Takes away everything he has, his house, his money, his family …
“His health. ”
Makes him sick.
“To test his faith.”
Right. To test his faith. So, I’m wondering …
“What are you wondering?”
What you think about that?
Morrie coughs violently. His hands quiver as he drops them by his side.
“I think,” he says, smiling, “God overdid it.”
The Eleventh Tuesday We Talk About Our Culture
“Hit him harder.”
I slapped Morrie’s back.
I slapped him again.
“Near his shoulders … now down lower.”
Morrie, dressed in pajama bottoms, lay in bed on his side, his head flush against the pillow, his mouth open. The physical therapist was showing me how to bang loose the poison in his lungs—which he needed done regularly now, to keep it from solidifying, to keep him breathing.
“I … always knew … you wanted … to hit me …” Morrie gasped.
Yeah, I joked as I rapped my fist against the alabaster skin of his back. This is for that B you gave me sophomore year! Whack!
We all laughed, a nervous laughter that comes when the devil is within earshot. It would have been cute, this little scene, were it not what we all knew it was, the fmla calisthenics before death. Morrie’s disease was now dangerously close to his surrender spot, his lungs. He had been predicting he would die from choking, and I could not imagine a more terrible way to go. Sometimes he would close his eyes and try to draw the air up into his mouth and nostrils, and it seemed as if he were trying to lift an anchor.
Outside, it was jacket weather, early October, the leaves clumped in piles on the lawns around West Newton. Morrie’s physical therapist had come earlier in the day, and I usually excused myself when nurses or specialists had business with him. But as the weeks passed and our time ran down, I was increasingly less self-conscious about the physical embarrassment. I wanted to be there. I wanted to observe everything. This was not like me, but then, neither were a lot of things that had happened these last few months in Morrie’s house.
So I watched the therapist work on Morrie in the bed, pounding the back of his ribs, asking if he could feel the congestion loosening within him. And when she took a break, she asked if I wanted to try it. I said yes. Morrie, his face on the pillow, gave a little smile. “Not too hard,” he said. “I’m an old man.”
I drummed on his back and sides, moving around, as she instructed. I hated the idea of Morrie’s lying in bed under any circumstances (his last aphorism, “When you’re in bed, you’re dead,” rang in my ears), and curled on his side, he was so small, so withered, it was more a boy’s body than a man’s. I saw the paleness of his skin, the stray white hairs, the way his arms hung limp and helpless. I thought about how much time we spend trying to shape our bodies, lifting weights, crunching sit-ups, and in the end, nature takes it away from us anyhow. Beneath my fingers, I felt the loose flesh around Morrie’s bones, and I thumped him hard, as instructed. The truth is, I was pounding on his back when I wanted to be hitting the walls.
“Mitch?” Morrie gasped, his voice jumpy as a jack-hammer as I pounded on him.
“When did … I … give you … a B?” Morrie believed in the inherent good of people. But he also saw what they could become.
“People are only mean when they’re threatened,” he said later that day, “and that’s what our culture does. That’s what our economy does. Even people who have jobs in our economy are threatened, because they worry about losing them. And when you get threatened, you start looking out only for yourself. You start making money a god. It is all part of this culture.”
He exhaled. “Which is why I don’t buy into it.”
I nodded at him and squeezed his hand. We held hands regularly now. This was another change for me. Things that before would have made me embarrassed or squeamish were now routinely handled. The catheter bag, connected to the tube inside him and filled with greenish waste fluid, lay by my foot near the leg of his chair. A few months earlier, it might have disgusted me; it was inconsequential now. So was the smell of the room after Morrie had used the commode. He did not have the luxury of moving from place to place, of closing a bathroom door behind him, spraying some air freshener when he left. There was his bed, there was his chair, and that was his life. If my life were squeezed into such a thimble, I doubt I could make it smell any better.
“Here’s what I mean by building your own little subculture,” Morrie said. “I don’t mean you disregard every rule
of your community. I don’t go around naked, for example. I don’t run through red lights. The little things, I can obey. But the big things—how we think, what we value—those you must choose yourself. You can’t let anyone—or any society—determine those for you.
“Take my condition. The things I am supposed to be embarrassed about now—not being able to walk, not being able to wipe my ass, waking up some mornings wanting to cry—there is nothing innately embarrassing or shaming about them.
“It’s the same for women not being thin enough, or men not being rich enough. It’s just what our culture would have you believe. Don’t believe it.”
I asked Morrie why he hadn’t moved somewhere else when he was younger.
I don’t know. South America. New Guinea. Someplace not as selfish as America.
“Every society has its own problems,” Morrie said, lifting his eyebrows, the very eager to join in one big human family in this world, and to care about that family the way we care about our own.
“But believe me, when you are dying, you see it is true. We all have the same beginning—birth—and we all have the same end—death. So how different can we be?
“Invest in the human family. Invest in people. Build a little community of those you love and who love you.”
He squeezed my hand gently. I squeezed back harder. And like that carnival contest where you bang a hammer and watch the disk rise up the pole, I could almost see my body heat rise up Morrie’s chest and neck into his cheeks and eyes. He smiled. “In the beginning of life, when we are “In the beginning of life, when we are infants, we need others to survive, right? And at the end of life, when you get like me, you need others to survive, right?”
His voice dropped to a whisper. “But here’s the secret : in between, we need others as well.”
Later that afternoon, Connie and I went into the bedroom to watch the O. J. Simpson verdict. It was a tense scene as the principals all turned to face the jury, Simpson, in his blue suit, surrounded by his small army of lawyers, the prosecutors who wanted him behind bars just a few feet away. When the foreman read the verdict—“ Not guilty”—Connie shrieked.
“Oh my God!”
We watched as Simpson hugged his lawyers. We listened as the commentators tried to explain what it all meant. We saw crowds of blacks celebrating in the streets outside the courthouse, and crowds of whites sitting stunned inside restaurants. The decision was being hailed as momentous, even though murders take place every day. Connie went out in the hall. She had seen enough.
I heard the door to Morrie’s study close. I stared at the TV set. Everyone in the world is watching this thing, I told myself. Then, from the other room, I heard the ruffling of Morrie’s being lifted from his chair and I smiled. As “The Trial of the Century” reached its dramatic conclusion, my old professor was sitting on the toilet.
It is 1979, a basketball game in the Brandeis gym. The team is doing well, and the student section begins a chant, “We’re number one! We’re number one!” Morrie is sitting nearby. He is puzzled by the cheer. At one point, in the midst of “We’re number one!” he rises and yells, “What’s wrong with being number two?”
The students look at him. They stop chanting. He sits down, smiling and triumphant.