Tuesdays with Morrie

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Fifth Tuesday We Talk About Family

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 becomes even more important," he said.

"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.

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