Tuesdays with Morrie

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Tenth Tuesday We Talk About Marriage

The Tenth Tuesday We Talk About Marriage

I brought a visitor to meet Morrie. My wife.

He had been asking me since the first day I came. "When do I meet Janine?" "When are you bringing her?" I'd always had excuses until a few days earlier, when I called his house to see how he was doing.

It took a while for Morrie to get to the receiver. And when he did, I could hear the fumbling as someone held it to his ear. He could no longer lift a phone by himself. "Hiiiiii," he gasped.

You doing okay, Coach?

I heard him exhale. "Mitch . . . your coach . . . isn't having such a great day . . .

His sleeping time was getting worse. He needed oxy­gen almost nightly now, and his coughing spells had be­come frightening. One cough could last an hour, and he never knew if he'd be able to stop. He always said he would die when the disease got his lungs. I shuddered when I thought how close death was.

I'll see you on Tuesday, I said. You'll have a better day then.

"Mitch."

Yeah?

"Is your wife there with you?" She was sitting next to me.

"Put her on. I want to hear her voice."

Now, I am married to a woman blessed with far more intuitive kindness than 1. Although she had never met Morrie, she took the phone -I would have shaken my head and whispered, "I'm not here! I'm not here!"-and in a minute, she was connecting with my old professor as if they'd known each other since college. I sensed this, even though all I heard on my end was "Uh-huh . . . Mitch told me . . . oh, thank you . . .

When she hung up, she said, "I'm coming next trip." And that was that.

Now we sat in his office, surrounding him in his re­cliner. Morrie, by his own admission, was a harmless flirt, and while he often had to stop for coughing, or to use the commode, he seemed to find new reserves of energy with Janine in the room. He looked at photos from our wed­ding, which Janine had brought along.

"You are from Detroit?" Morrie said. Yes, Janine said.

"I taught in Detroit for one year, in the late forties. I remember a funny story about that."

He stopped to blow his nose. When he fumbled with the tissue, I held it in place and he blew weakly into it. I squeezed it lightly against his nostrils, then pulled it off, like a mother does to a child in a car seat.

"Thank you, Mitch." He looked at Janine. "My helper, this one is."

Janine smiled.

"Anyhow. My story. There were a bunch of sociolo­gists at the university, and we used to play poker with other staff members, including this guy who was a sur­geon. One night, after the game, he said, 'Morrie, I want to come see you work.' I said fine. So he came to one of my classes and watched me teach.

"After the class was over he said, `All right, now, how would you like to see me work? I have an operation to­night.' I wanted to return the favor, so I said okay.

"He took me up to the hospital. He said, `Scrub down, put on a mask, and get into a gown.' And next thing I knew, I was right next to him at the operating table. There was this woman, the patient, on the table, naked from the waist down. And he took a knife and went zip just like that! Well . . .

Morrie lifted a finger and spun it around.

" . . . I started to go like this. I'm about to faint. All the blood. Yech. The nurse next to me said, `What's the matter, Doctor?' and I said, `I'm no damn doctor! Get me out of here!' "

We laughed, and Morrie laughed, too, as hard as he could, with his limited breathing. It was the first time in weeks that I could recall him telling a story like this. How strange, I thought, that he nearly fainted once from watching someone else's illness, and now he was so able to endure his own.

Connie knocked on the door and said that Morrie's lunch was ready. It was not the carrot soup and vegetable cakes and Greek pasta I had brought that morning from Bread and Circus. Although I tried to buy the softest of foods now, they were still beyond Morrie's limited strength to chew and swallow. He was eating mostly liq­uid supplements, with perhaps a bran muffin tossed in until it was mushy and easily digested. Charlotte would puree almost everything in a blender now. He was taking food through a straw. I still shopped every week and walked in with bags to show him, but it was more for the look on his face than anything else. When I opened the refrigerator, I would see an overflow of containers. I guess I was hoping that one day we would go back to eating a real lunch together and I could watch the sloppy way in which he talked while chewing, the food spilling happily out of his mouth. This was a foolish hope.

"So . . . Janine," Morrie said. She smiled.

"You are lovely. Give me your hand."

She did.

"Mitch says that you're a professional singer." Yes, Janine said.

"He says you're great."

Oh, she laughed. N0. He just says that.

Morrie raised his eyebrows. "Will you sing something for me?"

Now, I have heard people ask this of Janine for almost as long as I have known her. When people find out you sing for a living, they always say, "Sing something for us." Shy about her talent, and a perfectionist about conditions, Janine never did. She would politely decline. Which is what I expected now.

Which is when she began t0 sing:

"The very thought of you

and I forget to do

the little ordinary things that everyone ought to do . . . "

It was a 1930s standard, written by Ray Noble, and Janine sang it sweetly, looking straight at Morrie. I was amazed, once again, at his ability t0 draw emotion from people who otherwise kept it locked away. Morrie closed his eyes to absorb the notes. As my wife's loving voice filled the room, a crescent smile appeared 0n his face. And while his body was stiff as a sandbag, you could almost see him dancing inside it.

"I see your face in every flower,

your eyes in stars above,

it's just the thought of you,

the very thought of you,

my love . . . "

When she finished, Morrie opened his eyes and tears rolled down his cheeks. In all the years I have listened to my wife sing, I never heard her the way he did at that moment.

Marriage. Almost everyone I knew had a problem with it. Some had problems getting into it, some had problems getting out. My generation seemed t0 struggle with the commitment, as if it were an alligator from some murky swamp. I had gotten used to attending weddings, congratulating the couple, and feeling only mild surprise when I saw the groom a few years later sitting in a restau­rant with a younger woman whom he introduced as a friend. "You know, I'm separated from so-and-so . . ." he would say.

Why do we have such problems? I asked Morrie about this. Having waited seven years before I proposed t0 Janine, I wondered if people my age were being more careful than those who came before us, 0r simply more selfish?

"Well, I feel sorry for your generation," Morrie said. "In this culture, it's so important to find a loving relation­ship with someone because so much of the culture does not give you that. But the poor kids today, either they're too selfish to take part in a real loving relationship, or they rush into marriage and then six months later, they get divorced. They don't know what they want in a partner. They don't know who they are themselves-so how can they know who they're marrying?"

He sighed. Morrie had counseled so many unhappy lovers in his years as a professor. "It's sad, because a loved one is so important. You realize that, especially when you're in a time like I am, when you're not doing so well. Friends are great, but friends are not going to be here on a night when you're coughing and can't sleep and someone has to sit up all night with you, comfort you, try to be helpful."

Charlotte and Morrie, who met as students, had been married forty-four years. I watched them together now, when she would remind him of his medication, or come in and stroke his neck, or talk about one of their sons. They worked as a team, often needing no more than a silent glance to understand what the other was thinking. Charlotte was a private person, different from Morrie, but I knew how much he respected her, because sometimes when we spoke, he would say, "Charlotte might be un­comfortable with me revealing that," and he would end the conversation. It was the only time Morrie held any­thing back.

"I've learned this much about marriage," he said now. "You get tested. You find out who you are, who the other person is, and how you accommodate or don't."

Is there some kind of rule to know if a marriage is going to work?

Morrie smiled. "Things are not that simple, Mitch." I know.

"Still," he said, "there are a few rules I know to be true about love and marriage: If you don't respect the other person, you're gonna have a lot of trouble. If you don't know how to compromise, you're gonna have a lot of trouble. If you can't talk openly about what goes on between you, you're gonna have a lot of trouble. And if you don't have a common set of values in life, you're gonna have a lot of trouble. Your values must be alike.

"And the biggest one of those values, Mitch?"'

Yes?

"Your belief in the importance of your marriage."

He sniffed, then closed his eyes for a moment.

"Personally," he sighed, his eyes still closed, "I think marriage is a very important thing to do, and you're miss­ing a hell of a lot if you don't try it."

He ended the subject by quoting the poem he be­lieved in like a prayer: "Love each other or perish."

Okay, question, I say to Morrie. His bony fingers hold his glasses across his chest, which rises and falls with each labored breath.

"What's the question?" lie says.

Remember the Book of Job?

"From the Bible?"

Right. Job is a good mare, but God makes him suffer. To test his faith.

"1 remember. "

Takes away everything lie has, his house, his money, his family . . .

"His health."

Makes him sick.

"To test his faith."

Right. To test his faith. So, I'm wondering . . .

"What are you wondering?"

What you think about that?

Morrie coughs violently. His hands quiver as he drops them by his side.

"I think, " he says, smiling, "God overdid it. "

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