Tuesdays with Morrie

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Third Tuesday We Talk About Regrets

The Third Tuesday We Talk About Regrets

The next Tuesday, I arrived with the normal bags of food-pasta with corn, potato salad, apple cobbler­--and something else: a Sony tape recorder.

I want to remember what we talk about, I told Mor­rie. I want to have your voice so I can listen to it . . . later.

"When I'm dead." Don't say that.

He laughed. "Mitch, I'm going to die. And sooner, not later."

He regarded the new machine. "So big," he said. I felt intrusive, as reporters often do, and I began to think that a tape machine between two people who were sup­posedly friends was a foreign object, an artificial ear. With all the people clamoring for his time, perhaps I was trying to take too much away from these Tuesdays.

Listen, I said, picking up the recorder. We don't have to use this. If it makes you uncomfortable.

He stopped me, wagged a finger, then hooked his glasses off his nose, letting them dangle on the string around his neck. He looked me square in the eye. "Put it down," he said.

I put it down.

"Mitch," he continued, softly now, "you don't un­derstand. I want to tell you about my life. I want to tell you before I can't tell you anymore."

His voice dropped to a whisper. "I want someone to hear my story. Will you?"

I nodded.

We sat quietly for a moment.

"So," he said, "is it turned on?"

Now, the truth is, that tape recorder was more than nostalgia. I was losing Morrie, we were all losing Morrie--his family, his friends, his ex-students, his fellow professors, his pals from the political discussion groups that he loved so much, his former dance partners, all of us. And I suppose tapes, like photographs and videos, are a desperate attempt to steal something from death's suitcase.

But it was also becoming clear to me -through his courage, his humor, his patience, and his openness-that Morrie was looking at life from some very different place than anyone else I knew. A healthier place. A more sensi­ble place. And he was about to die.

If some mystical clarity of thought came when you looked death in the eye, then I knew Morrie wanted to share it. And I wanted to remember it for as long as I could.

The first time I saw Morrie on "Nightline," 1 wondered what regrets he had once he knew his death was imminent. Did he lament lost friends? Would he have done much differently? Selfishly, I wondered if I were in his shoes, would I be consumed with sad thoughts of all that I had missed? Would I regret the secrets I had kept hidden?

When I mentioned this to Morrie, he nodded. "It's what everyone worries about, isn't it? What if today were my last day on earth?" He studied my face, and perhaps he saw an ambivalence about my own choices. I had this vision of me keeling over at my desk one day, halfway through a story, my editors snatching the copy even as the medics carried my body away.

"Mitch?" Morrie said.

I shook my head and said nothing. But Morrie picked up on my hesitation.

"Mitch," he said, "the culture doesn't encourage you to think about such things until you're about to die. We're so wrapped up with egotistical things, career, family, hav­ing enough money, meeting the mortgage, getting a new car, fixing the radiator when it breaks-we're involved in trillions of little acts just to keep going. So we don't get into the habit of standing back and looking at our lives and saying, Is this all? Is this all I want? Is something missing?"

He paused.

"You need someone to probe you in that direction. It won't just happen automatically."

I knew what he was saying. We all need teachers in our lives.

And mine was sitting in front of me.

Fine, I figured. If I was to be the student, then I would be as good a student as I could be.

On the plane ride home that day, I made a small list on a yellow legal pad, issues and questions that we all grapple with, from happiness to aging to having children to death. Of course, there were a million self-help books on these subjects, and plenty of cable TV shows, and $9o­per-hour consultation sessions. America had become a Persian bazaar of self-help.

But there still seemed to be no clear answers. Do you take care of others or take care of your "inner child"? Return to traditional values or reject tradition as useless? Seek success or seek simplicity? Just Say No or just Do It? All I knew was this: Morrie, my old professor, wasn't in the self-help business. He was standing on the tracks, listening to death's locomotive whistle, and he was very clear about the important things in life.

I wanted that clarity. Every confused and tortured soul I knew wanted that clarity.

"Ask me anything," Morrie always said.

So I wrote this list:

Death

Fear

Aging

Greed

Marriage

Family

Society

Forgiveness

A meaningful life

The list was in my bag when I returned to West Newton for the fourth time, a Tuesday in late August when the air-conditioning at the Logan Airport terminal was not working, and people fanned themselves and wiped sweat angrily from their foreheads, and every face I saw looked ready to kill somebody.

By the start of my senior year, I have taken so many sociology classes, I am only a few credits shy of a degree. Morrie suggests I try an honors thesis.

Me? I ask. What would I write about?

"What interests you?" he says.

We bat it back and forth, until we finally settle on, of all things, sports. I begin a year-long project on how football in America has become ritualistic, almost a religion, an opiate for the masses. I have no idea that this is training for my future career. I only know it gives me another once-a-week session with Morrie.

And, with his help, by spring I have a 112 page thesis, researched, footnoted, documented, and neatly bound in black leather. I show it to Morrie with the pride of a Little Leaguer rounding the bases on his first home run.

"Congratulations," Morrie says.

I grin as he leafs through it, and I glance around his office. The shelves of books, the hardwood floor, the throw rug, the couch. I think to myself that I have sat just about everywhere there is to sit in this room.

"I don't know, Mitch," Morrie muses, adjusting his glasses as he reads, "with work like this, we may have to get you back here for grad school."

Yeah, right, I say.

I snicker, but the idea is momentarily appealing. Part of me is scared of leaving school. Part of me wants to go desperately. Tension of opposites. I watch Morrie as he reads my thesis, and wonder what the big world will be like out there.

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