Tuesdays with Morrie

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Sixth Tuesday We Talk About Emotions

The Sixth Tuesday We Talk About Emotions

I walked past the mountain laurels and the Japa­nese maple, up the bluestone steps of Morrie's house. The white rain gutter hung like a lid over the doorway. I rang the bell and was greeted not by Connie but by Morrie's wife, Charlotte, a beautiful gray-haired woman who spoke in a lilting voice. She was not often at home when I came by-she continued working at MIT, as Morrie wished-and I was surprised this morning to see her.

"Morrie's having a bit of a hard time today," she said. She stared over my shoulder for a moment, then moved toward the kitchen.

I'm sorry, I said.

"No, no, he'll be happy to see you," she said quickly. "Sure . . ."

She stopped in the middle of the sentence, turning her head slightly, listening for something. Then she con­tinued. "I'm sure . . . he'll feel better when he knows you're here."

I lifted up the bags from the market-my normal food supply, I said jokingly-and she seemed to smile and fret at the same time.

"There's already so much food. He hasn't eaten any from last time."

This took me by surprise. He hasn't eaten any, I asked?

She opened the refrigerator and I saw familiar con­tainers of chicken salad, vermicelli, vegetables, stuffed squash, all things I had brought for Morrie. She opened the freezer and there was even more.

"Morrie can't eat most of this food. It's too hard for him to swallow. He has to eat soft things and liquid drinks now."

But he never said anything, I said.

Charlotte smiled. "He doesn't want to hurt your feel­ings."

It wouldn't have hurt my feelings. I just wanted to help in some way. I mean, I just wanted to bring him something . . .

"You are bringing him something. He looks forward to your visits. He talks about having to do this project with you, how he has to concentrate and put the time aside. I think it's giving him a good sense of pur­pose . . ."

Again, she gave that faraway look, the tuning-in-­something-from-somewhere-else. I knew Morrie's nights were becoming difficult, that he didn't sleep through them, and that meant Charlotte often did not sleep through them either. Sometimes Morrie would lie awake coughing for hours-it would take that long to get the phlegm from his throat. There were health care workers now staying through the night and all those visitors dur­ing the day, former students, fellow professors, meditation teachers, tramping in and out of the house. On some days, Morrie had a half a dozen visitors, and they were often there when Charlotte returned from work. She han­dled it with patience, even though all these outsiders were soaking up her precious minutes with Morrie.

". . . a sense of purpose," she continued. "Yes. That's good, you know."

"I hope so," I said.

I helped put the new food inside the refrigerator. The kitchen counter had all kinds of notes, messages, informa­tion, medical instructions. The table held more pill bottles than ever-Selestone for his asthma, Ativan to help him sleep, naproxen for infections-along with a powdered milk mix and laxatives. From down the hall, we heard the sound of a door open.

"Maybe he's available now . . . let me go check."

Charlotte glanced again at my food and I felt suddenly ashamed. All these reminders of things Morrie would never enjoy.

The small horrors of his illness were growing, and when I finally sat down with Morrie, he was coughing more than usual, a dry, dusty cough that shook his chest and made his head jerk forward. After one violent surge, he stopped, closed his eyes, and took a breath. I sat quietly because I thought he was recovering from his exertion.

"Is the tape on?" he said suddenly, his eyes still closed.

Yes, yes, I quickly said, pressing down the play and record buttons.

"What I'm doing now," he continued, his eyes still closed, "is detaching myself from the experience."

Detaching yourself?

"Yes. Detaching myself. And this is important-not just for someone like me, who is dying, but for someone like you, who is perfectly healthy. Learn to detach."

He opened his eyes. He exhaled. "You know what the Buddhists say? Don't cling to things, because every­thing is impermanent."

But wait, I said. Aren't you always talking about expe­riencing life? All the good emotions, all the bad ones?

"Yes. "

Well, how can you do that if you're detached?

"Ah. You're thinking, Mitch. But detachment doesn't mean you don't let the experience penetrate you. On the contrary, you let it penetrate you fully. That's how you are able to leave it."

I'm lost.

"Take any emotion-love for a woman, or grief for a loved one, or what I'm going through, fear and pain from a deadly illness. If you hold back on the emotions-if you don't allow yourself to go all the way through them-you can never get to being detached, you're too busy being afraid. You're afraid of the pain, you're afraid of the grief. You're afraid of the vulnerability that loving entails.

"But by throwing yourself into these emotions, by allowing yourself to dive in, all the way, over your head even, you experience them fully and completely. You know what pain is. You know what love is. You know what grief is. And only then can you say, `All right. I have experienced that emotion. I recognize that emotion. Now I need to detach from that emotion for a mo­ment.' "

Morrie stopped and looked me over, perhaps to make sure I was getting this right.

"I know you think this is just about dying," he said, "but it's like I keep telling you. When you learn how to die, you learn how to live."

Morrie talked about his most fearful moments, when he felt his chest locked in heaving surges or when he wasn't sure where his next breath would come from. These were horrifying times, he said, and his first emo­tions were horror, fear, anxiety. But once he recognized the feel of those emotions, their texture, their moisture, the shiver down the back, the quick flash of heat that crosses your brain-then he was able to say, "Okay. This is fear. Step away from it. Step away."

I thought about how often this was needed in every­day life. How we feel lonely, sometimes to the point of tears, but we don't let those tears come because we are not supposed to cry. Or how we feel a surge of love for a partner but we don't say anything because we're frozen with the fear of what those words might do to the rela­tionship.

Morrie's approach was exactly the opposite. Turn on the faucet. Wash yourself with the emotion. It won't hurt you. It will only help. If you let the fear inside, if you pull it on like a familiar shirt, then you can say to yourself, "All right, it's just fear, I don't have to let it control me. I see it for what it is."

Same for loneliness: you let go, let the tears flow, feel it completely-but eventually be able to say, "All right, that was my moment with loneliness. I'm not afraid of feeling lonely, but now I'm going to put that loneliness aside and know that there are other emotions in the world, and I'm going to experience them as well."

"Detach," Morrie said again.

He closed his eyes, then coughed. Then he coughed again.

Then he coughed again, more loudly.

Suddenly, he was half-choking, the congestion in his lungs seemingly teasing him, jumping halfway up, then dropping back down, stealing his breath. He was gagging, then hacking violently, and he shook his hands in front of him-with his eyes closed, shaking his hands, he appeared almost possessed-and I felt my forehead break into a sweat. I instinctively pulled him forward and slapped the back of his shoulders, and he pushed a tissue to his mouth and spit out a wad of phlegm.

The coughing stopped, and Morrie dropped back into the foam pillows and sucked in air.

"You okay? You all right?" I said, trying to hide my fear.

"I'm . . . okay," Morrie whispered, raising a shaky finger. "Just . . . wait a minute."

We sat there quietly until his breathing returned to normal. I felt the perspiration on my scalp. He asked me to close the window, the breeze was making him cold. I didn't mention that it was eighty degrees outside.

Finally, in a whisper, he said, "I know how I want to die."

I waited in silence.

"I want to die serenely. Peacefully. Not like what just happened.

"And this is where detachment comes in. If I die in the middle of a coughing spell like I just had, I need to be able to detach from the horror, I need to say, `This is my moment.'

"I don't want to leave the world in a state of fright. I want to know what's happening, accept it, get to a peace­ful place, and let go. Do you understand?"

I nodded.

Don't let go yet, I added quickly.

Morrie forced a smile. "No. Not yet. We still have work to do."

Do you believe in reincarnation? I ask. "Perhaps. "

What would you come back as? `If I had my choice, a gazelle."

" A gazelle?"

"Yes. So graceful. So fast."

" A gazelle?

Morrie smiles at me. "You think that's strange?"

I study his shrunken frame, the loose clothes, the socks­wrapped feet that rest stiffly on foam rubber cushions, unable to move, like a prisoner in leg irons. I picture a gazelle racing across the desert.

No, I say. I don't think that's strange at all.


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