Tuesdays with Morrie

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Fourth Tuesday We Talk About Death

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 time­then 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. DRAWDEGrieving 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."

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