Tuesdays with Morrie

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Thirteenth Tuesday We Talk About the Perfect Day

The Thirteenth Tuesday We Talk About the Perfect Day

Morrie wanted to be cremated. He had discussed it with Charlotte, and they decided it was the best way. The rabbi from Brandeis, Al Axelrad-a longtime friend whom they chose to conduct the funeral service-had come to visit Morrie, and Morrie told him of his crema­tion plan.

"And Al?"

"Yes?"

"Make sure they don't overcook me."

The rabbi was stunned. But Morrie was able to joke about his body now. The closer he got to the end, the more he saw it as a mere shell, a container of the soul. It was withering to useless skin and bones anyhow, which made it easier to let go.

"We are so afraid of the sight of death," Morrie told me when I sat down. I adjusted the microphone on his collar, but it kept flopping over. Morrie coughed. He was coughing all the time now.

"I read a book the other day. It said as soon as some­one dies in a hospital, they pull the sheets up over their head, and they wheel the body to some chute and push it down. They can't wait to get it out of their sight. People act as if death is contagious."

I fumbled with the microphone. Morrie glanced at my hands.

"It's not contagious, you know. Death is as natural as life. It's part of the deal we made."

He coughed again, and I moved back and waited, always braced for something serious. Morrie had been having bad nights lately. Frightening nights. He could sleep only a few hours at a time before violent hacking spells woke him. The nurses would come into the bed­room, pound him on the back, try to bring up the poison. Even if they got him breathing normally again-"nor­mally" meaning with the help of the oxygen machine--the fight left him fatigued the whole next day.

The oxygen tube was up his nose now. I hated the sight of it. To me, it symbolized helplessness. I wanted to pull it out.

"Last night . . ." Morrie said softly. Yes? Last night?

". . . I had a terrible spell. It went on for hours. And I really wasn't sure I was going to make it. No breath. No end to the choking. At one point, I started to get dizzy

. . . and then I felt a certain peace, I felt that I was ready to go."

His eyes widened. "Mitch, it was a most incredible feeling. The sensation of accepting what was happening, being at peace. I was thinking about a dream I had last week, where I was crossing a bridge into something un­known. Being ready to move on to whatever is next."

But you didn't.

Morrie waited a moment. He shook his head slightly. "No, I didn't. But I felt that I could. Do you understand?

"That's what we're all looking for. A certain peace with the idea of dying. If we know, in the end, that we can ultimately have that peace with dying, then we can finally do the really hard thing."

Which is?

"Make peace with living."

He asked to see the hibiscus plant on the ledge behind him. I cupped it in my hand and held it up near his eyes. He smiled.

"It's natural to die," he said again. "The fact that we make such a big hullabaloo over it is all because we don't see ourselves as part of nature. We think because we're human we're something above nature."

He smiled at the plant.

"We're not. Everything that gets born, dies." He looked at me.

"Do you accept that?" Yes.

"All right," he whispered, "now here's the payoff. Here is how we are different from these wonderful plants and animals.

"As long as we can love each other, and remember the feeling of love we had, we can die without ever really going away. All the love you created is still there. All the memories are still there. You live on-in the hearts of everyone you have touched and nurtured while you were here."

His voice was raspy, which usually meant he needed to stop for a while. I placed the plant back on the ledge and went to shut off the tape recorder. This is the last sentence Morrie got out before I did:

"Death ends a life, not a relationship."

There had been a development in the treatment of ALS: an experimental drug that was just gaining pas­sage. It was not a cure, but a delay, a slowing of the decay for perhaps a few months. Morrie had heard about it, but he was too far gone. Besides, the medicine wouldn't be available for several months.

"Not for me," Morrie said, dismissing it.

In all the time he was sick, Morrie never held out hope he would be cured. He was realistic to a fault. One time, I asked if someone were to wave a magic wand and make him all better, would he become, in time, the man he had been before?

He shook his head. "No way I could go back. I am a different self now. I'm different in my attitudes. I'm dif­ferent appreciating my body, which I didn't do fully be­fore. I'm different in terms of trying to grapple with the big questions, the ultimate questions, the ones that won't go away.

"That's the thing, you see. Once you get your fingers on the important questions, you can't turn away from them."

And which are the important questions?

"As I see it, they have to do with love, responsibility, spirituality, awareness. And if I were healthy today, those would still be my issues. They should have been all along."

I tried to imagine Morrie healthy. I tried to imagine him pulling the covers from his body, stepping from that chair, the two of us going for a walk around the neighbor­hood, the way we used to walk around campus. I sud­denly realized it had been sixteen years since I'd seen him standing up. Sixteen years?

What if you had one day perfectly healthy, I asked? What would you do?

"Twenty-four hours?" Twenty-four hours.

"Let's see . . . I'd get up in the morning, do my exercises, have a lovely breakfast of sweet rolls and tea, go for a swim, then have my friends come over for a nice lunch. I'd have them come one or two at a time so we could talk about their families, their issues, talk about how much we mean to each other.

"Then I'd like to go for a walk, in a garden with some trees, watch their colors, watch the birds, take in the nature that I haven't seen in so long now.

"In the evening, we'd all go together to a restaurant with some great pasta, maybe some duck-I love duck­and then we'd dance the rest of the night. I'd dance with all the wonderful dance partners out there, until I was exhausted. And then I'd go home and have a deep, won­derful sleep.

That's it?

"That's it."

It was so simple. So average. I was actually a little disappointed. I figured he'd fly to Italy or have lunch with the President or romp on the seashore or try every exotic thing he could think of. After all these months, lying there, unable to move a leg or a foot-how could he find perfection in such an average day?

Then I realized this was the whole point.

Before I left that day, Morrie asked if he could bring up a topic.

"Your brother," he said.

I felt a shiver. I do not know how Morrie knew this was on my mind. I had been trying to call my brother in Spain for weeks, and had learned-from a friend of his­that he was flying back and forth to a hospital in Amster­dam.

"Mitch, I know it hurts when you can't be with someone you love. But you need to be at peace with his desires. Maybe he doesn't want you interrupting your life. Maybe he can't deal with that burden. I tell everyone I know to carry on with the life they know-don't ruin it because I am dying."

But he's my brother, I said.

"I know," Morrie said. "That's why it hurts."

I saw Peter in my mind when he was eight years old, his curly blond hair puffed into a sweaty ball atop his head. I saw us wrestling in the yard next to our house, the grass stains soaking through the knees of our jeans. I saw him singing songs in front of the mirror, holding a brush as a microphone, and I saw us squeezing into the attic where we hid together as children, testing our parents' will to find us for dinner.

And then I saw him as the adult who had drifted away, thin and frail, his face bony from the chemotherapy treatments.

Morrie, I said. Why doesn't he want to see me?

My old professor sighed. "There is no formula to relationships. They have to be negotiated in loving ways, with room for both parties, what they want and what they need, what they can do and what their life is like.

"In business, people negotiate to win. They negotiate to get what they want. Maybe you're too used to that. Love is different. Love is when you are as concerned about someone else's situation as you are about your own.

"You've had these special times with your brother, and you no longer have what you had with him. You want them back. You never want them to stop. But that's part of being human. Stop, renew, stop, renew."

I looked at him. I saw all the death in the world. I felt helpless.

"You'll find a way back to your brother," Morrie said.

How do you know?

Morrie smiled. "You found me, didn't you?"

"I heard a nice little story the other day," Morrie says. He closes his eyes for a moment and I wait.

"Okay. The story is about a little wave, bobbing along in the ocean, having a grand old time. He's enjoying the wind and the fresh air-until he notices the other waves in front of him, crashing against the shore.

" `My God, this is terrible,' the wave says. `Look what's going to happen to me!'

"Then along comes another wave. It sees the first wave, looking grim, and it says to him, `Why do you look so sad?'

"The first wave says, `You don't understand! We're all going to crash! All of us waves are going to be nothing! Isn't it terrible?'

"The second wave says, `No, you don't understand. You're not a wave, you're part of the ocean.' "

I smile. Morrie closes his eyes again.

"Part of the ocean, " he says, "part of the ocean. " I watch him breathe, in and out, in and out.

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