Tuesdays with Morrie

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Fourteenth Tuesday We Say Good-bye

The Fourteenth Tuesday We Say Good-bye

It was cold and damp as I walked up the steps to Morrie's house. I took in little details, things I hadn't noticed for all the times I'd visited. The cut of the hill. The stone facade of the house. The pachysandra plants, the low shrubs. I walked slowly, taking my time, stepping on dead wet leaves that flattened beneath my feet.

Charlotte had called the day before to tell me Morrie was not doing well." This was her way of saying the final days had arrived. Morrie had canceled all of his appoint­ments and had been sleeping much of the time, which was unlike him. He never cared for sleeping, not when there were people he could talk with.

"He wants you to come visit," Charlotte said, "but, Mitch . . ."

Yes?

"He's very weak."

The porch steps. The glass in the front door. I ab­sorbed these things in a slow, observant manner, as if seeing them for the first time. I felt the tape recorder in the bag on my shoulder, and I unzipped it to make sure I had tapes. I don't know why. I always had tapes.

Connie answered the bell. Normally buoyant, she had a drawn look on her face. Her hello was softly spoken.

"How's he doing?" I said.

"Not so good." She bit her lower lip. "I don't like to think about it. He's such a sweet man, you know?"

I knew.

"This is such a shame."

Charlotte came down the hall and hugged me. She said that Morrie was still sleeping, even though it was 10 A.M. We went into the kitchen. I helped her straighten up, noticing all the bottles of pills, lined up on the table, a small army of brown plastic soldiers with white caps. My old professor was taking morphine now to ease his breath­ing.

I put the food I had brought with me into the refrig­erator-soup, vegetable cakes, tuna salad. I apologized to Charlotte for bringing it. Morrie hadn't chewed food like this in months, we both knew that, but it had become a small tradition. Sometimes, when you're losing someone, you hang on to whatever tradition you can.

I waited in the living room, where Morrie and Ted Koppel had done their first interview. I read the newspa­per that was lying on the table. Two Minnesota children had shot each other playing with their fathers' guns. A baby had been found buried in a garbage can in an alley in Los Angeles.

I put down the paper and stared into the empty fire­place. I tapped my shoe lightly on the hardwood floor. Eventually, I heard a door open and close, then Char­lotte's footsteps coming toward me.

"All right," she said softly. "He's ready for you."

I rose and I turned toward our familiar spot, then saw a strange woman sitting at the end of the hall in a folding chair, her eyes on a book, her legs crossed. This was a hospice nurse, part of the twenty-four-hour watch.

Morrie's study was empty. I was confused. Then I turned back hesitantly to the bedroom, and there he was, lying in bed, under the sheet. I had seen him like this only one other time-when he was getting massaged-and the echo of his aphorism "When you're in bed, you're dead" began anew inside my head.

I entered, pushing a smile onto my face. He wore a yellow pajama-like top, and a blanket covered him from the chest down. The lump of his form was so withered that I almost thought there was something missing. He was as small as a child.

Morrie's mouth was open, and his skin was pale and tight against his cheekbones. When his eyes rolled toward me, he tried to speak, but I heard only a soft grunt.

There he is, I said, mustering all the excitement I could find in my empty till.

He exhaled, shut his eyes, then smiled, the very effort seeming to tire him.

"My . . . dear friend . . ." he finally said.

I am your friend, I said.

"I'm not . . . so good today . . ." Tomorrow will be better.

He pushed out another breath and forced a nod. He was struggling with something beneath the sheets, and I realized he was trying to move his hands toward the open­ing.

"Hold . . ." he said.

I pulled the covers down and grasped his fingers. They disappeared inside my own. I leaned in close, a few inches from his face. It was the first time I had seen him unshaven, the small white whiskers looking so out of place, as if someone had shaken salt neatly across his cheeks and chin. How could there be new life in his beard when it was draining everywhere else?

Morrie, I said softly. "Coach," he corrected.

Coach, I said. I felt a shiver. He spoke in short bursts, inhaling air, exhaling words. His voice was thin and raspy. He smelled of ointment.

"You . . . are a good soul." A good soul.

"Touched me . . ." he whispered. He moved my hands to his heart. "Here."

It felt as if I had a pit in my throat. Coach?

"Ahh?"

I don't know how to say good-bye.

He patted my hand weakly, keeping it on his chest.

"This . . . is how we say . . . good-bye . . ."

He breathed softly, in and out, I could feel his rib­cage rise and fall. Then he looked right at me.

"Love . . . you," he rasped.

I love you, too, Coach.

"Know you do . . . know . . . something else..."

What else do you know?

"You . . . always have . . .

His eyes got small, and then he cried, his face con­torting like a baby who hasn't figured how his tear ducts work. I held him close for several minutes. I rubbed his loose skin. I stroked his hair. I put a palm against his face and felt the bones close to the flesh and the tiny wet tears, as if squeezed from a dropper.

When his breathing approached normal again, I cleared my throat and said I knew he was tired, so I would be back next Tuesday, and I expected him to be a little more alert, thank you. He snorted lightly, as close as he could come to a laugh. It was a sad sound just the same.

I picked up the unopened bag with the tape recorder. Why had I even brought this? I knew we would never use it. I leaned in and kissed him closely, my face against his, whiskers on whiskers, skin on skin, holding it there, longer than normal, in case it gave him even a split second of pleasure.

Okay, then? I said, pulling away.

I blinked back the tears, and he smacked his lips to­gether and raised his eyebrows at the sight of my face. I like to think it was a fleeting moment of satisfaction for my dear old professor: he had finally made me cry.

"Okay, then," he whispered.

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