Tuesdays with Morrie

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Audiovisual, Part Three

The Audiovisual, Part Three

The "Nightline" crew came back for its third and final visit. The whole tenor of the thing was different now. Less like an interview, more like a sad farewell. Ted Koppel had called several times before coming up, and he had asked Morrie, "Do you think you can handle it?"

Morrie wasn't sure he could. "I'm tired all the time now, Ted. And I'm choking a lot. If I can't say something, will you say it for me?"

Koppel said sure. And then the normally stoic anchor added this: "If you don't want to do it, Morrie, it's okay. I'll come up and say good-bye anyhow."

Later, Morrie would grin mischievously and say, "I'm getting to him." And he was. Koppel now referred to Morrie as "a friend." My old professor had even coaxed compassion out of the television business.

For the interview, which took place on a Friday after­noon, Morrie wore the same shirt he'd had on the day before. He changed shirts only every other day at this point, and this was not the other day, so why break rou­tine?

Unlike the previous two Koppel-Schwartz sessions, this one was conducted entirely within Morrie's study, where Morrie had become a prisoner of his chair. Kop­pel, who kissed my old professor when he first saw him, now had to squeeze in alongside the bookcase in order to be seen in the camera's lens.

Before they started, Koppel asked about the disease's progression. "How bad is it, Morrie?"

Morrie weakly lifted a hand, halfway up his belly. This was as far as he could go.

Koppel had his answer.

The camera rolled, the third and final interview. Koppel asked if Morrie was more afraid now that death was near. Morrie said no; to tell the truth, he was less afraid. He said he was letting go of some of the outside world, not having the newspaper read to him as much, not paying as much attention to mail, instead listening more to music and watching the leaves change color through his window.

There were other people who suffered from ALS, Morrie knew, some of them famous, such as Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physicist and author of A Brief His­tory of Time. He lived with a hole in his throat, spoke through a computer synthesizer, typed words by batting his eyes as a sensor picked up the movement.

This was admirable, but it was not the way Morrie wanted to live. He told Koppel he knew when it would be time to say good-bye.

"For me, Ted, living means I can be responsive to the other person. It means I can show my emotions and my feelings. Talk to them. Feel with them . . ."

He exhaled. "When that is gone, Morrie is gone."

They talked like friends. As he had in the previous two interviews, Koppel asked about the "old ass wipe test"-hoping, perhaps, for a humorous response. But Morrie was too tired even to grin. He shook his head. "When I sit on the commode, I can no longer sit up straight. I'm listing all the time, so they have to hold me. When I'm done they have to wipe me. That is how far it's gotten."

He told Koppel he wanted to die with serenity. He shared his latest aphorism: "Don't let go too soon, but don't hang on too long."

Koppel nodded painfully. Only six months had passed between the first "Nightline" show and this one, but Morrie Schwartz was clearly a collapsed form. He had decayed before a national TV audience, a miniseries of a death. But as his body rotted, his character shone even more brightly.

Toward the end of the interview, the camera zoomed in on Morrie-Koppel was not even in the picture, only his voice was heard from outside it-and the anchor asked if my old professor had anything he wanted to say to the millions of people he had touched. Although he did not mean it this way, I couldn't help but think of a con­demned man being asked for his final words.

"Be compassionate," Morrie whispered. "And take responsibility for each other. If we only learned those lessons, this world would be so much better a place."

He took a breath, then added his mantra: "Love each other or die."

The interview was ended. But for some reason, the cameraman left the film rolling, and a final scene was caught on tape.

"You did a good job," Koppel said.

Morrie smiled weakly.

"I gave you what I had," he whispered. "You always do."

"Ted, this disease is knocking at my spirit. But it will not get my spirit. It'll get my body. It will not get my spirit."

Koppel was near tears. "You done good."

"You think so?" Morrie rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. "I'm bargaining with Him up there now. I'm asking Him, `Do I get to be one of the angels?' "

It was the first time Morrie admitted talking to God.


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