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[2 of 5] Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life's Greatest Lesson - 2 by Mitch Albom (1997)

Author: Mitch Albom

“Part Two of Five.” Tuesday with Morris: an Old Man, a Young Man, and Life's Greatest Lesson, by Mitch Albom, Broadway Books, 1997.

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Jan-02-21 Tuesdays with Morrie (Full Film: Hallmark)

Taking Attendance

I flew to London a few weeks later. I was covering Wimbledon, the world’s premier tennis competition and one of the few events I go to where the crowd never boos and no one is drunk in the parking lot. England was warm and cloudy, and each morning I walked the treelined streets near the tennis courts, passing teenagers cued up for leftover tickets and vendors selling strawberries and cream. Outside the gate was a newsstand that sold a halfdozen colorful British tabloids, featuring photos of topless women, paparazzi pictures of the royal family, horoscopes, sports, lottery contests, and a wee bit of actual news. Their top headline of the day was written on a small chalkboard that leaned against the latest stack of papers, and usually read something like Diana in Row with Charles! or Gazza to Team: Give Me Millions!

People scooped up these tabloids, devoured their gossip, and on previous trips to

England, I had always done the same. But now, for some reason, I found myself thinking about Morrie whenever I read anything silly or mindless. I kept picturing him there, in the house with the Japanese maple and the hardwood floors, counting his breath, squeezing out every moment with his loved ones, while I spent so many hours on things that meant absolutely nothing to me personally: movie stars, supermodels, the latest noise out of Princess Di or Madonna or John F. Kennedy, Jr. In a strange way, I envied the quality of Morrie’s time even as I lamented its diminishing supply. Why did we, bother with all the distractions we did? Back home, the O. J. Simpson trial was in full swing, and there were people who surrendered their entire lunch hours watching it, then taped the rest so they could watch more at night. They didn’t know O. J. Simpson. They didn’t know anyone involved in the case. Yet they gave up days and weeks of their lives, addicted to someone else’s drama.

I remembered what Morrie said during our visit: “The culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it.”

Morrie, true to these words, had developed his own culture—long before he got sick. Discussion groups, walks with friends, dancing to his music in the Harvard Square church. He started a project called Greenhouse, where poor people could receive mental health services. He read books to find new ideas for his classes, visited with colleagues, kept up with old students, wrote letters to distant friends. He took more time eating and looking at nature and wasted no time in front of TV sitcoms or “Movies of the

Week.” He had created a cocoon of human activities—conversation, interaction, affection—and it filled his life like an overflowing soup bowl.

I had also developed my own culture. Work. I did four or five media jobs in England, juggling them like a clown. I spent eight hours a day on a computer, feeding my stories back to the States. Then I did TV pieces, traveling with a crew throughout parts of

London. I also phoned in radio reports every morning and afternoon. This was not an abnormal load. Over the years, I had taken labor as my companion and had moved everything else to the side.

In Wimbledon; I ate meals at my little wooden work cubicle and thought nothing of it. On one particularly crazy day, a crush of reporters had tried to chase down Andre

Agassi and his famous girlfriend, Brooke Shields, and I had gotten knocked over by a British photographer who barely muttered “Sorry” before sweeping past, his huge metal lenses strapped around his neck. I thought of something else Morrie had told me: “So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half- asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”

I knew he was right.

Not that I did anything about it.

At the end of the tournament—and the countless cups of coffee I drank to get through

it—I closed my computer, cleaned out my cubicle, and went back to the apartment to pack. It was late. The TV was nothing but fuzz.

I flew to Detroit, arrived late in the afternoon, dragged myself home and went to sleep.

I awoke to a jolting piece of news: the unions at my newspaper had gone on strike. The place was shut down. There were picketers at the front entrance and marchers chanting up and down the street. As a member of the union, I had no choice: I was suddenly, and for the first time in my life, out of a job, out of a paycheck, and pitted against my employers. Union leaders called my home and warned me against any contact with my former editors, many of whom were my friends, telling me to hang up if they tried to call and plead their case.

“We’re going to fight until we win!” the union leaders swore, sounding like soldiers.

I felt confused and depressed. Although the TV and radio work were nice supplements, the newspaper had been my lifeline, my oxygen; when I saw my stories in print in each morning, I knew that, in at least one way, I was alive.

Now it was gone. And as the strike continued—the first day, the second day, the third day—there were worried phone calls and rumors that this could go on for months.

Everything I had known was upside down. There were sporting events each night that I would have gone to cover. Instead, I stayed home, watched them on TV. I had grown used to thinking readers somehow needed my column. I was stunned at how easily things went on without me.

After a week of this, I picked up the phone and dialed Morrie’s number. Connie brought him to the phone. “You’re coming to visit me,” he said, less a question than a statement.

Well. Could I?

“How about Tuesday?”

Tuesday would be good, I said. Tuesday would be fine.

In my sophomore year, I take two more of his courses. We go beyond the classroom, meeting now and then just to talk. I have never done this before with an adult who was not a relative, yet I feel comfortable doing it with Morrie, and he seems comfortable making the time.

“Where shall we visit today?” he asks cheerily when I enter his office.

In the spring, we sit under a tree outside the sociology building, and in the winter, we sit by his desk, me in my gray sweatshirts and Adidas sneakers, Morrie in Rockport shoes and corduroy pants. Each time we talk, lie listens to me ramble, then he tries to pass on some sort of life lesson. He warns me that money is not the most important thing, contrary to the popular view on campus. He tells me I need to be “fully human.” He speaks of the alienation of youth and the need for “connectedness” with the society around me. Some of these things I understand, some I do not. It makes no difference.

The discussions give me an excuse to talk to him, fatherly conversations I cannot have with my own father, who would like me to be a lawyer.

Morrie hates lawyers.

“What do you want to do when you get out of college?” he asks.

I want to be a musician, I say. Piano player. “Wonderful,” he says. “But that’s a hard life.” Yeah.

“A lot of sharks.” That’s what I hear.

“Still,” he says, “if you really want it, then you’ll make your dream happen.

I want to hug him, to thank him for saying that, but I am not that open. I only nod instead.

“I’ll bet you play piano with a lot of pep,” he says. I laugh. Pep?

He laughs back. “Pep. What’s the matter? They don’t say that anymore?”

The First Tuesday We Talk About the World

Connie opened the door and let me in. Morrie was in his wheelchair by the kitchen table, wearing a loose cotton shirt and even looser black sweatpants. They were loose because his legs had atrophied beyond normal clothing size—you could get two hands around his thighs and have your fingers touch. Had he been able to stand, he’d have been no more than five feet tall, and he’d probably have fit into a sixth grader’s jeans. “I got you something,” I announced, holding up a brown paper bag. I had stopped on my way from the airport at a nearby supermarket and purchased some turkey, potato salad, macaroni salad, and bagels. I knew there was plenty of food at the house, but I

wanted to contribute something. I was so powerless to help Morrie otherwise. And I remembered his fondness for eating.

“Ah, so much food!” he sang. “Well. Now you have to eat it with me.”

We sat at the kitchen table, surrounded by wicker chairs. This time, without the need to make up sixteen years of information, we slid quickly into the familiar waters of our old college dialogue, Morrie asking questions, listening to my replies, stopping like a chef to sprinkle in something I’d forgotten or hadn’t realized. He asked about the newspaper strike, and true to form, he couldn’t understand why both sides didn’t simply communicate with each other and solve their problems. I told him not everyone was as smart as he was.

Occasionally, he had to stop to use the bathroom, a process that took some time.

Connie would wheel him to the toilet, then lift him from the chair and support him as he urinated into the beaker. Each time he came back, he looked tired.

“Do you remember when I told Ted Koppel that pretty soon someone was gonna have to wipe my ass?” he said.

I laughed. You don’t forget a moment like that. “Well, I think that day is coming. That one bothers me.”

Why?

“Because it’s the ultimate sign of dependency. Someone wiping your bottom. But I’m working on it. I’m trying to enjoy the process.”

Enjoy it?

“Yes. After all, I get to be a baby one more time.” That’s a unique way of looking at it. “Well, I have to look at life uniquely now. Let’s face it. I can’t go shopping, I can’t take

care of the bank accounts, I can’t take out the garbage. But I can sit here with my dwindling days and look at what I think is important in life. I have both the time—and the reason—to do that.”

So, I said, in a reflexively cynical response, I guess the key to finding the meaning of life is to stop taking out the garbage?

He laughed, and I was relieved that he did.

As Connie took the plates away, I noticed a stack of newspapers that had obviously been read before I got there.

You bother keeping up with the news, I asked? “Yes,” Morrie said. “Do you think that’s strange? Do you think because I’m dying, I shouldn’t care what happens in this world?”

Maybe.

He sighed. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I shouldn’t care. After all, I won’t be around to see how it all turns out.

“But it’s hard to explain, Mitch. Now that I’m suffering, I feel closer to people who suffer than I ever did before. The other night, on TV, I saw people in Bosnia running across the street, getting fired upon, killed, innocent victims … and I just started to cry. I feel their anguish as if it were my own. I don’t know any of these people. But—how can I put this?—I’m almost … drawn to them.”

His eyes got moist, and I tried to change the subject, but he dabbed his face and waved me off.

“I cry all the time now,” he said. “Never mind.”

Amazing , I thought. I worked in the news business. I covered stories where people died. I interviewed grieving family members. I even attended the funerals. I never cried. Morrie, for the suffering of people half a world away, was weeping. Is this what comes at the end, I wondered? Maybe death is the great equalizer, the one big thing that can finally make strangers shed a tear for one another.

Morrie honked loudly into the tissue. “This is okay with you, isn’t it? Men crying?” Sure, I said, too quickly.

He grinned. “Ah, Mitch, I’m gonna loosen you up. One day, I’m gonna show you it’s okay to cry.”

Yeah, yeah, I said. “Yeah, yeah,” he said.

We laughed because he used to say the same thing nearly twenty years earlier.

Mostly on Tuesdays. In fact, Tuesday had always been our day together. Most of my courses with Morrie were on Tuesdays, he had office hours on Tuesdays, and when I wrote my senior thesiswhich was pretty much Morrie’s suggestion, right from the start— it was on Tuesdays that we sat together, by his desk, or in the cafeteria, or on the steps of Pearlman Hall, going over the work.

So it seemed only fitting that we were back together on a Tuesday, here in the house with the Japanese maple out front. As I readied to go, I mentioned this to Morrie.

“We’re Tuesday people,” he said. Tuesday people, I repeated. Morrie smiled.

“Mitch, you asked about caring for people I don’t even know. But can I tell you the thing I’m learning most with this disease?”

What’s that?

“The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Let it come in. We think we don’t deserve love, we

think if we let it in we’ll become too soft. But a wise man named Levine said it right. He said, ‘Love is the only rational act.’”

He repeated it carefully, pausing for effect. “‘Love is the only rational act.’”

I nodded, like a good student, and he exhaled weakly. I leaned over to give him a hug.

And then, although it is not really like me, I kissed him on the cheek. I felt his weakened hands on my arms, the thin stubble of his whiskers brushing my face.

“So you’ll come back next Tuesday?” he whispered.

He enters the classroom, sits down, doesn’t say anything. He looks at its, we look at him. At first, there are a few giggles, but Morrie only shrugs, and eventually a deep silence falls and we begin to notice the smallest sounds, the radiator humming in the corner of the room, the nasal breathing of one of the fat students.

Some of us are agitated. When is lie going to say something? We squirm, check our watches. A few students look out the window, trying to be above it all. This goes on a good fifteen minutes, before Morrie finally breaks in with a whisper.

“What’s happening here?” he asks.

And slowly a discussion begins as Morrie has wanted all along—about the effect of silence on human relations. My are we embarrassed by silence? What comfort do we find in all the noise?

I am not bothered by the silence. For all the noise I make with my friends, I am still not comfortable talking about my feelings in front of others—especially not classmates. I could sit in the quiet for hours if that is what the class demanded.

On my way out, Morrie stops me. “You didn’t say much today,” he remarks.

I don’t know. I just didn’t have anything to add.

“I think you have a lot to add. In fact, Mitch, you remind me of someone I knew who also liked to keep things to himself when he was younger.”

Who?

“Me.”

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.”

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 $9 per-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.

The Audiovisual, Part Two

The “Nightline” show had done a follow-up story on Morrie partly becau°e the reception for the first show had been so strong. This time, when the cameramen and producers came through the door, they already felt like family. And Koppel himself was noticeably warmer. There was no feeling-out process, no interview before the interview. As warm-up, Koppel and Morrie exchanged stories about their childhood backgrounds:

Koppel spoke of growing up in England, and Morrie spoke of growing up in the Bronx.

Morrie wore a longsleeved blue shirt—he was almost always chilly, even when it was ninety degrees outside—but Koppel removed his jacket and did the interview in shirt and tie. It was as if Morrie were breaking him down, one layer at a time.

“You look fine,” Koppel said when the tape began to roll.

“That’s what everybody tells me,” Morrie said. “You sound fine.” “That’s what everybody tells me.”

“So how do you know things are going downhill?”

Morrie sighed.. “Nobody can know it but me, Ted. But I know it.”

And as he spoke, it became obvious. He was not waving his hands to make a point as freely as he had in their first conversation. He had trouble pronouncing certain words— the l sound seemed to get caught in his throat. In a few more months, he might no longer speak at all.

“Here’s how my emotions go,” Morrie told Koppel. “When I have people and friends here, I’m very up. The loving relationships maintain me.

“But there are days when I am depressed. Let me not deceive you. I see certain things going and I feel a sense of dread. What am I going to do without my hands? What happens when I can’t speak? Swallowing, I don’t care so much about—so they feed me through a tube, so what? But my voice? My hands? They’re such an essential part of me. I talk with my voice. I gesture with my hands. This is how I give to people.”

“How will you give when you can no longer speak?” Koppel asked.

Morrie shrugged. “Maybe I’ll have everyone ask me yes or no questions.”

It was such a simple answer that Koppel had to smile. He asked Morrie about silence. He mentioned a dear friend Morrie had, Maurie Stein, who had first sent Morrie’s aphorisms to the Boston Globe. They had been together at Brandeis since the early sixties. Now Stein was going deaf. Koppel imagined the two men together one day, one unable to speak, the other unable to hear. What would that be like?

“We will hold hands,” Morrie said. “And there’ll be a lot of love passing between us. Ted, we’ve had thirty-five years of friendship. You don’t need speech or hearing to feel that.”

Before the show ended, Morrie read Koppel one of the letters he’d received. Since the first “Nightline” program, there had been a great deal of mail. One particular letter came from a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania who taught a special class of nine children; every child in the class had suffered the death of a parent.

“Here’s what I sent her back,” Morrie told Koppel, perching his glasses gingerly on his nose and ears. “‘Dear Barbara … I was very moved by your letter. I feel the work you have done with the children who have lost a parent is very important. I also lost a parent at an early age …’”

Suddenly, with the cameras still humming, Morrie adjusted the glasses. He stopped, bit his lip, and began to choke up. Tears fell down his nose. “‘I lost my mother when I was a child … and it was quite a blow to me … I wish I’d had a group like yours where I would have been able to talk about my sorrows. I would have joined your group because … “

His voice cracked.

“… because I was so lonely … “

“Morrie,” Koppel said, “that was seventy years ago your mother died. The pain still goes on?”

“You bet,” Morrie whispered.

The Professor

He was eight years old. A telegram came from the hospital, and since his father, a Russian immigrant, could not read English, Morrie had to break the news, reading his mother’s death notice like a student in front of the class. “We regret to inform you …” he began.

On the morning of the funeral, Morrie’s relatives came down the steps of his tenement building on the poor Lower East Side of Manhattan. The men wore dark suits, the women wore veils. The kids in the neighborhood were going off to school, and as they passed, Morrie looked down, ashamed that his classmates would see him this way. One of his aunts, a heavyset woman, grabbed Morrie and began to wail: “What will you do

without your mother? What will become of you?”

Morrie burst into tears. His classmates ran away.

At the cemetery, Morrie watched as they shoveled dirt into his mother’s grave. He tried to recall the tender moments they had shared when she was alive. She had operated a candy store until she got sick, after which she mostly slept or sat by the window, looking frail and weak. Sometimes she would yell out for her son to get her some medicine, and young Morrie, playing stickball in the street, would pretend he did not hear her. In his mind he believed he could make the illness go away by ignoring it.

How else can a child confront death?

Morrie’s father, whom everyone called Charlie, had come to America to escape the Russian Army. He worked in the fur business, but was constantly out of a job.

Uneducated and barely able to speak English, he was terribly poor, and the family was on public assistance much of the time. Their apartment was a dark, cramped, depressing place behind the candy store. They had no luxuries. No car. Sometimes, to make money, Morrie and his younger brother, David, would wash porch steps together for a nickel.

After their mother’s death, the two boys were sent off to a small hotel in the

Connecticut woods where several families shared a large cabin and a communal kitchen. The fresh air might be good for the children, the relatives thought. Morrie and David had never seen so much greenery, and they ran and played in the fields. One night after dinner, they went for a walk and it began to rain. Rather than come inside, they splashed around for hours.

The next morning, when they awoke, Morrie hopped out of bed. “Come on,” he said to his brother. “Get up.” “I can’t.”

“What do you mean?”

David’s face was panicked. “I can’t … move.” He had polio.

Of course, the rain did not cause this. But a child Morrie’s age could not understand that. For a long time—as his brother was taken back and forth to a special medical home and was forced to wear braces on his legs, which left him limping—Morrie felt responsible.

So in the mornings, he went to synagogue—by himself, because his father was not a religious man—and he stood among the swaying men in their long black coats and he asked God to take care of his dead mother and his sick brother.

And in the afternoons, he stood at the bottom of the subway steps and hawked magazines, turning whatever money he made over to his family to buy food.

In the evenings, he watched his father eat in silence, hoping for—but never getting—a show of affection, communication, warmth.

At nine years old, he felt as if the weight of a mountain were on his shoulders.

But a saving embrace came into Morrie’s life the following year: his new stepmother, Eva. She was a short Romanian immigrant with plain features, curly brown hair, and the energy of two women. She had a glow that warmed the otherwise murky atmosphere his father created. She talked when her new husband was silent, she sang songs to the children at night. Morrie took comfort in her soothing voice, her school lessons, her strong character. When his brother returned from the medical home, still wearing leg braces from the polio, the two of them shared a rollaway bed in the kitchen of their apartment, and Eva would kiss them good-night. Morrie waited on those kisses like a puppy waits on milk, and he felt, deep down, that he had a mother again.

There was no escaping their poverty, however. They lived now in the Bronx, in a one-bedroom apartment in a redbrick building on Tremont Avenue, next to an Italian beer garden where the old men played boccie on summer evenings. Because of the

Depression, Morrie’s father found even less work in the fur business. Sometimes when the family sat at the dinner table, all Eva could put out was bread.

“What else is there?” David would ask.

“Nothing else,” she would answer.

When she tucked Morrie and David into bed, she would sing to them in Yiddish. Even the songs were sad and poor. There was one about a girl trying to sell her cigarettes:

Please buy my cigarettes.

They are dry, not wet by rain.

Take pity on me, take pity on me.

Still, despite their circumstances, Morrie was taught to love and to care. And to learn. Eva would accept nothing less than excellence in school, because she saw education as the only antidote to their poverty. She herself went to night school to improve her English. Morrie’s love for education was hatched in her arms.

He studied at night, by the lamp at the kitchen table. And in the mornings he would go to synagogue to say Yizkor—the memorial prayer for the dead—for his mother. He did this to keep her memory alive. Incredibly, Morrie had been told by his father never to talk about her. Charlie wanted young David to think Eva was his natural mother.

It was a terrible burden to Morrie. For years, the only evidence Morrie had of his mother was the telegram announcing her death. He had hidden it the day it arrived.

He would keep it the rest of his life.

DMU Timestamp: November 12, 2020 20:50

Added January 02, 2021 at 11:49am by Paul Allison
Title: Tuesdays with Morrie (Full Film: Hallmark)

DMU Timestamp: November 12, 2020 20:50