Tuesdays with Morrie

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Second Tuesday We Talk About Feeling Sorry for Yourself

The Second Tuesday We Talk About Feeling Sorry for Yourself

I came back the next Tuesday. And for many Tuesdays that followed. I looked forward to these visits more than one would think, considering I was flying seven hundred miles to sit alongside a dying man. But I seemed to slip into a time warp when I visited Morrie, and I liked myself better when I was there. I no longer rented a cellular phone for the rides from the airport. Let them wait, I told myself, mimicking Morrie.

The newspaper situation in Detroit had not improved. In fact, it had grown increasingly insane, with nasty con­frontations between picketers and replacement workers, people arrested, beaten, lying in the street in front of de­livery trucks.

In light of this, my visits with Morrie felt like a cleansing rinse of human kindness. We talked about life and we talked about love. We talked about one of Mor­rie's favorite subjects, compassion, and why our society had such a shortage of it. Before my third visit, I stopped at a market called Bread and Circus-I had seen their bags in Morrie's house and figured he must like the food there-and I loaded up with plastic containers from their fresh food take-away, things like vermicelli with vegeta­bles and carrot soup and baklava.

When I entered Morrie's study, I lifted the bags as if I'd just robbed a bank.

"Food man!" I bellowed.

Morrie rolled his eyes and smiled.

Meanwhile, I looked for signs of the disease's progres­sion. His fingers worked well enough to write with a pencil, or hold up his glasses, but he could not lift his arms much higher than his chest. He was spending less and less time in the kitchen or living room and more in his study, where he had a large reclining chair set up with pillows, blankets, and specially cut pieces of foam rubber that held his feet and gave support to his withered legs. He kept a bell near his side, and when his head needed adjusting or he had to "go on the commode," as he re­ferred to it, he would shake the bell and Connie, Tony, Bertha, or Amy-his small army of home care workers­would come in. It wasn't always easy for him to lift the bell, and he got frustrated when he couldn't make it work.

I asked Morrie if he felt sorry for himself.

"Sometimes, in the mornings," he said. "That's when I mourn. I feel around my body, I move my fingers and my hands-whatever I can still move-and I mourn what I've lost. I mourn the slow, insidious way in which I'm dying. But then I stop mourning."

Just like that?

"I give myself a good cry if I need it. But then I concentrate on all the good things still in my life. On the people who are coming to see me. On the stories I'm going to hear. On you-if it's Tuesday. Because we're Tuesday people."

I grinned. Tuesday people.

"Mitch, I don't allow myself any more self-pity than that. A little each morning, a few tears, and that's all."

I thought about all the people I knew who spent many of their waking hours feeling sorry for themselves. How useful it would be to put a daily limit on self-pity. just a few tearful minutes, then on with the day. And if Morrie could do it, with such a horrible disease . . .

"It's only horrible if you see it that way," Morrie said. "It's horrible to watch my body slowly wilt away to nothing. But it's also wonderful because of all the time I get to say good-bye."

He smiled. "Not everyone is so lucky."

I studied him in his chair, unable to stand, to wash, to pull on his pants. Lucky? Did he really say lucky?

During a break, when Morrie had to use the bathroom, I leafed through the Boston newspaper that sat near his chair. There was a story about a small timber town where two teenage girls tortured and killed a sev­enty-three-year-old man who had befriended them, then threw a party in his trailer home and showed off the corpse. There was another story, about the upcoming trial of a straight man who killed a gay man after the latter had gone on a TV talk show and said he had a crush on him.

I put the paper away. Morrie was rolled back in­smiling, as always-and Connie went to lift him from the wheelchair to the recliner.

You want me to do that? I asked.

There was a momentary silence, and I'm not even sure why I offered, but Morrie looked at Connie and said, "Can you show him how to do it?"

"Sure," Connie said.

Following her instructions, I leaned over, locked my forearms under Morrie's armpits, and hooked him toward me, as if lifting a large log from underneath. Then I straightened up, hoisting him as I rose. Normally, when you lift someone, you expect their arms to tighten around your grip, but Morrie could not do this. He was mostly dead weight, and I felt his head bounce softly on my shoulder and his body sag against me like a big damp loaf.

"Ahhhn," he softly groaned.

I gotcha, I gotcha, I said.

Holding him like that moved me in a way I cannot describe, except to say I felt the seeds of death inside his shriveling frame, and as I laid him in his chair, adjusting his head on the pillows, I had the coldest realization that our time was running out.

And I had to do something.

It is my junior year, 1978, when disco and Rocky movies are the cultural rage. We are in an unusual sociology class at Bran­deis, something Morrie calls "Group Process." Each week we study the ways in which the students in the group interact with one another, how they respond to anger, jealousy, attention. We are human lab rats. More often than not, someone ends up crying. I refer to it as the "touchy -feely" course. Morrie says I should be more open-minded.

On this day, Morrie says he has an exercise for us to try. We are to stand, facing away from our classmates, and fall back­ward, relying on another student to catch us. Most of us are uncomfortable with this, and we cannot let go for more than a few inches before stopping ourselves. We laugh in embarrassment. Finally, one student, a thin, quiet, dark-haired girl whom I notice almost always wears bulky white fisherman sweaters, crosses her arms over her chest, closes her eyes, leans back, and does not flinch, like one of those Lipton tea commercials where the model splashes into the pool.

For a moment, I am sure she is going to thump on the floor. At the last instant, her assigned partner grabs her head and shoulders and yanks her up harshly.

"Whoa!" several students yell. Some clap. Morrie _finally smiles.

"You see," he says to the girl, "you closed your eyes. That was the difference. Sometimes you cannot believe what you see, you have to believe what you feel. And if you are ever going to have other people trust you, you must feel that you can trust them, too-even when you're in the dark. Even when you're falling. "

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