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

Author: Mitch Albom

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

The Eleventh Tuesday We Talk About Our Culture

“Hit him harder.”

I slapped Morrie’s back. “Harder.”

I slapped him again.

“Near his shoulders … now down lower.”

Morrie, dressed in pajama bottoms, lay in bed on his side, his head flush against the pillow, his mouth open. The physical therapist was showing me how to bang loose the poison in his lungs—which he needed done regularly now, to keep it from solidifying, to keep him breathing.

“I … always knew … you wanted … to hit me …” Morrie gasped.

Yeah, I joked as I rapped my fist against the alabaster skin of his back. This is for that B you gave me sophomore year! Whack!

We all laughed, a nervous laughter that comes when the devil is within earshot. It would have been cute, this little scene, were it not what we all knew it was, the final calisthenics before death. Morrie’s disease was now dangerously close to his surrender spot, his lungs. He had been predicting he would die from choking, and I could not imagine a more terrible way to go. Sometimes he would close his eyes and try to draw the air up into his mouth and nostrils, and it seemed as if he were trying to lift an anchor.

Outside, it was jacket weather, early October, the leaves clumped in piles on the lawns around West Newton. Morrie’s physical therapist had come earlier in the day, and I usually excused myself when nurses or specialists had business with him. But as the weeks passed and our time ran down, I was increasingly less self-conscious about the physical embarrassment. I wanted to be there. I wanted to observe everything. This was not like me, but then, neither were a lot of things that had happened these last few months in Morrie’s house.

So I watched the therapist work on Morrie in the bed, pounding the back of his ribs, asking if he could feel the congestion loosening within him. And when she took

a break, she asked if I wanted to try it. I said yes. Morrie, his face on the pillow, gave a little smile.

“Not too hard,” he said. “I’m an old man.”

I drummed on his back and sides, moving around, as she instructed. I hated the idea of Morrie’s lying in bed under any circumstances (his last aphorism, “When you’re in bed, you’re dead,” rang in my ears), and curled on his side, he was so small, so withered, it was more a boy’s body than a man’s. I saw the paleness of his skin, the stray white hairs, the way his arms hung limp and helpless. I thought about how much time we spend trying to shape our bodies, lifting weights, crunching sit-ups, and in the end, nature takes it away from us anyhow. Beneath my fingers, I felt the loose flesh around Morrie’s bones, and I thumped him hard, as instructed. The truth is, I was pounding on his back when I wanted to be hitting the walls.

“Mitch?” Morrie gasped, his voice jumpy as a jackhammer as I pounded on him.


“When did … I … give you … a B?”

Morrie believed in the inherent good of people. But he also saw what they could become.

“People are only mean when they’re threatened,” he said later that day, “and that’s what our culture does. That’s what our economy does. Even people who have jobs in our economy are threatened, because they worry about losing them. And when you get threatened, you start looking out only for yourself. You start making money a god. It is all part of this culture.”

He exhaled. “Which is why I don’t buy into it.”

I nodded at him and squeezed his hand. We held hands regularly now. This was another change for me. Things that before would have made me embarrassed or squeamish were now routinely handled. The catheter bag, connected to the tube inside him and filled with greenish waste fluid, lay by my foot near the leg of his chair. A few months earlier, it might have disgusted me; it was inconsequential now. So was the smell of the room after Morrie had used the commode. He did not have the luxury of moving from place to place, of closing a bathroom door behind him, spraying some air freshener when he left. There was his bed, there was his chair, and that was his life. If my life were squeezed into such a thimble, I doubt I could make it smell any better.

“Here’s what I mean by building your own little subculture,” Morrie said. “I don’t mean you disregard every rule of your community. I don’t go around naked, for example. I don’t run through red lights. The little things, I can obey. But the big things—how we think, what we value—those you must choose yourself. You can’t let anyone—or any society determine those for you.

“Take my condition. The things I am supposed to be embarrassed about now—not being able to walk, not being able to wipe my ass, waking up some mornings wanting to cry—there is nothing innately embarrassing or shaming about them.

“It’s the same for women not being thin enough, or men not being rich enough. It’s just what our culture would have you believe. Don’t believe it.”

I asked Morrie why he hadn’t moved somewhere else when he was younger. “Where?”

I don’t know. South America. New Guinea. Someplace not as selfish as America.

“Every society has its own problems,” Morrie said, lifting his eyebrows, the closest he could come to a shrug. “The way to do it, I think, isn’t to run away. You have to work at creating your own culture.

“Look, no matter where you live, the biggest defect we human beings have is our shortsightedness. We don’t see what we could be. We should be looking at our po-tential, stretching ourselves into everything we can become. But if you’re surrounded by people who say ‘I want mine now,’ you end up with a few people with everything and a military to keep the poor ones from rising up and stealing it.”

Morrie looked over my shoulder to the far window. Sometimes you could hear a passing truck or a whip of the wind. He gazed for a moment at his neighbors’ houses, then continued.

“The problem, Mitch, is that we don’t believe we are as much alike as we are. Whites and blacks, Catholics and Protestants, men and women. If we saw each other as more alike, we might be very eager to join in one big human family in this world, and to care about that family the way we care about our own.

“But believe me, when you are dying, you see it is true. We all have the same beginning—birth—and we all have the same end—death. So how different can we be?

“Invest in the human family. Invest in people. Build a little community of those you love and who love you.”

He squeezed my hand gently. I squeezed back harder. And like that carnival contest where you bang a hammer and watch the disk rise up the pole, I could almost see my body heat rise up Morrie’s chest and neck into his cheeks and eyes. He smiled.

“In the beginning of life, when we are infants, we need others to survive, right? And at the end of life, when you get like me, you need others to survive, right?”

His voice dropped to a whisper. “But here’s the secret: in between, we need others as well.”

Later that afternoon, Connie and I went into the bedroom to watch the O. J. Simpson verdict. It was a tense scene as the principals all turned to face the jury, Simpson, in his blue suit, surrounded by his small army of lawyers, the prosecutors who wanted him behind bars just a few feet away. When the foreman read the verdict“Not guilty”— Connie shrieked.

“Oh my God!”

We watched as Simpson hugged his lawyers. We listened as the commentators tried to explain what it all

meant. We saw crowds of blacks celebrating in the streets outside the courthouse, and crowds of whites sitting stunned inside restaurants. The decision was being hailed as momentous, even though murders take place every day. Connie went out in the hall.

She had seen enough.

I heard the door to Morrie’s study close. I stared at the TV set. Everyone in the world is watching this thing, I told myself. Then, from the other room, I heard the ruffling of Morrie’s being lifted from his chair and I smiled. As “The Trial of the Century” reached its dramatic conclusion, my old professor was sitting on the toilet.

It is 1979, a basketball game in the Brandeis gym. The team is doing well, and the student section begins a chant, “We’re number one! We’re number one!” Morrie is sitting nearby. He is puzzled by the cheer. At one point, in the midst of “We’re number one!” he rises and yells, “What’s wrong with being number two?”

The students look at him. They stop chanting. He sits down, smiling and triumphant.

The Audiovisual, Part Three

The “Nightline” crew came back for its third and final visit. The whole tenor of the thing was different now. Less like an interview, more like a sad farewell. Ted Koppel had called several times before coming up, and he had asked Morrie, “Do you think you can handle it?”

Morrie wasn’t sure he could. “I’m tired all the time now, Ted. And I’m choking a lot. If I can’t say something, will you say it for me?”

Koppel said sure. And then the normally stoic anchor added this: “If you don’t want to do it, Morrie, it’s okay. I’ll come up and say good-bye anyhow.”

Later, Morrie would grin mischievously and say, “I’m getting to him.” And he was. Koppel now referred to Morrie as “a friend.” My old professor had even coaxed compassion out of the television business.

For the interview, which took place on a Friday afternoon, Morrie wore the same shirt he’d had on the day before. He changed shirts only every other day at this point, and this was not the other day, so why break routine?

Unlike the previous two Koppel-Schwartz sessions, this one was conducted entirely within Morrie’s study, where Morrie had become a prisoner of his chair. Koppel, who kissed my old professor when he first saw him, now had to squeeze in alongside the bookcase in order to be seen in the camera’s lens.

Before they started, Koppel asked about the disease’s progression. “How bad is it, Morrie?”

Morrie weakly lifted a hand, halfway up his belly. This was as far as he could go. Koppel had his answer.

The camera rolled, the third and final interview. Koppel asked if Morrie was more afraid now that death was near. Morrie said no; to tell the truth, he was less afraid. He said he was letting go of some of the outside world, not having the newspaper read to him as much, not paying as much attention to mail, instead listening more to music and watching the leaves change color through his window.

There were other people who suffered from ALS, Morrie knew, some of them famous, such as Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physicist and author of A Brief History of Time . He lived with a hole in his throat, spoke through a computer synthesizer, typed words by batting his eyes as a sensor picked up the movement.

This was admirable, but it was not the way Morrie wanted to live. He told Koppel he knew when it would be time to say good-bye.

“For me, Ted, living means I can be responsive to the other person. It means I can show my emotions and my feelings. Talk to them. Feel with them …”

He exhaled. “When that is gone, Morrie is gone.”

They talked like friends. As he had in the previous two interviews, Koppel asked about the “old ass wipe test”—hoping, perhaps, for a humorous response. But Morrie was too tired even to grin. He shook his head. “When I sit on the commode, I can no longer sit up straight. I’m listing all the time, so they have to hold me. When I’m done they have to wipe me. That is how far it’s gotten.”

He told Koppel he wanted to die with serenity. He shared his latest aphorism: “Don’t let go too soon, but don’t hang on too long.”

Koppel nodded painfully. Only six months had passed between the first “Nightline” show and this one, but Morrie Schwartz was clearly a collapsed form. He had decayed before a national TV audience, a miniseries of a death. But as his body rotted, his character shone even more brightly.

Toward the end of the interview, the camera zoomed in on Morrie-Koppel was not even in the picture, only his voice was heard from outside it—and the anchor asked if my old professor had anything he wanted to say to the millions of people he had touched. Although he did not mean it this way, I couldn’t help but think of a condemned man being asked for his final words.

“Be compassionate,” Morrie whispered. “And take responsibility for each other. If we only learned those lessons, this world would be so much better a place.”

He took a breath, then added his mantra: “Love each other or die.”

The interview was ended. But for some reason, the cameraman left the film rolling, and a final scene was caught on tape.

“You did a good job,” Koppel said.

Morrie smiled weakly.

“I gave you what I had,” he whispered. “You always do.”

“Ted, this disease is knocking at my spirit. But it will not get my spirit. It’ll get my body. It will not get my spirit.”

Koppel was near tears. “You done good.”

“You think so?” Morrie rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. “I’m bargaining with Him up there now. I’m asking Him, ‘Do I get to be one of the angels?’”

It was the first time Morrie admitted talking to God.

The Twelfth Tuesday We Talk About Forgiveness

“Forgive yourself before you die. Then forgive others.”

This was a few days after the “Nightline” interview. The sky was rainy and dark, and Morrie was beneath a blanket. I sat at the far end of his chair, holding his bare feet. They were callused and curled, and his toenails were yellow. I had a small jar of lotion, and I squeezed some into my hands and began to massage his ankles.

It was another of the things I had watched his helpers do for months, and now, in an attempt to hold on to what I could of him, I had volunteered to do it myself. The disease had left Morrie without the ability even to wiggle his toes, yet he could still feel pain, and massages helped relieve it. Also, of course, Morrie liked being held and touched. And at this point, anything I could do to make him happy, I was going to do.

“Mitch,” he said, returning to the subject of forgiveness. “There is no point in keeping vengeance or stubbornness. These things”—he sighed—”these things I so regret in my life. Pride. Vanity. Why do we do the things we do?”

The importance of forgiving was my question. I had seen those movies where the patriarch of the family is on his death bed and he calls for his estranged son so that he can make peace before he goes. I wondered if Morrie had any of that inside him, a sudden need to say “I’m sorry” before he died?

Morrie nodded. “Do you see that sculpture?” He tilted his head toward a bust that sat high on a shelf against the far wall of his office. I had never really noticed it before. Cast in bronze, it was the face of a man in his early forties, wearing a necktie, a tuft of hair falling across his forehead.

“That’s me,” Morrie said. “A friend of mine sculpted that maybe thirty years ago. His name was Norman. We used to spend so much time together. We went swimming. We took rides to New York. He had me over to his house in Cambridge, and he sculpted that bust of me down in his basement. It took several weeks to do it, but he really wanted to get it right.”

I studied the face. How strange to see a three-dimensional Morrie, so healthy, so young, watching over us as we spoke. Even in bronze, he had a whimsical look, and I thought this friend had sculpted a little spirit as well.

“Well, here’s the sad part of the story,” Morrie said. “Norman and his wife moved away to Chicago. A little while later, my wife, Charlotte, had to have a pretty serious operation. Norman and his wife never got in touch with us. I know they knew about it. Charlotte and

I were very hurt because they never called to see how she was. So we dropped the relationship.

“Over the years, I met Norman a few times and he always tried to reconcile, but I didn’t accept it. I wasn’t satisfied with his explanation. I was prideful. I shrugged him off.

His voice choked.

“Mitch … a few years ago … he died of cancer. I feel so sad. I never got to see him. I never got to forgive. It pains me now so much …”

He was crying again, a soft and quiet cry, and because his head was back, the tears rolled off the side of his face before they reached his lips.

Sorry, I said.

“Don’t be,” he whispered. “Tears are okay.”

I continued rubbing lotion into his lifeless toes. He wept for a few minutes, alone with his memories.

“It’s not just other people we need to forgive, Mitch,” he finally whispered. We also need to forgive



“Yes. For all the things we didn’t do. All the things we should have done. You can’t get stuck on the regrets of what should have happened. That doesn’t help you when you get to where I am.

“I always wished I had done more with my work; I wished I had written more books. I used to beat myself up over it. Now I see that never did any good. Make peace. You need to make peace with yourself and everyone around you.”

I leaned over and dabbed at the tears with a tissue. Morrie flicked his eyes open and closed. His breathing was audible, like a light snore.

“Forgive yourself. Forgive others. Don’t wait, Mitch. Not everyone gets the time I’m getting. Not everyone is as lucky.”

I tossed the tissue into the wastebasket and returned to his feet. Lucky? I pressed my thumb into his hardened flesh and he didn’t even feel it.

“The tension of opposites, Mitch. Remember that? Things pulling in different directions?”

I remember.

“I mourn my dwindling time, but I cherish the chance it gives me to make things right.”

We sat there for a while, quietly, as the rain splattered against the windows. The hibiscus plant behind his head was still holding on, small but firm.

“Mitch,” Morrie whispered. Uh-huh?

I rolled his toes between my fingers, lost in the task.

“Look at me.”

I glanced up and saw the most intense look in his eyes.

“I don’t know why you came back to me. But I want to say this …

He paused, and his voice choked.

“If I could have had another son, I would have liked it to be you.”

I dropped my eyes, kneading the dying flesh of his feet between my fingers. For a moment, I felt afraid, as if accepting his words would somehow betray my own father.

But when I looked up, I saw Morrie smiling through tears and I knew there was no betrayal in a moment like this.

All I was afraid of was saying good-bye.

“I’ve picked a place to be buried.” Where is that?

“Not far from here. On a hill, beneath a tree, overlooking a pond. Very serene. A good place to think.”

Are you planning on thinking there? “I’m planning on being dead there.” He chuckles. I chuckle.

“Will you visit?” Visit?

‘Just come and talk. Make it a Tuesday. You always come on Tuesdays.” We’re Tuesday people.

“Right. Tuesday people. Come to talk, then?” He has grown so weak so fast.

“Look at me,” he says. I’m looking.

“You’ll come to my grave? To tell me your problems?” My problems?


And you’ll give me answers?

“I’ll give you what I can. Don’t I always?”

I picture his grave, on the hill, overlooking the pond, some little nine foot piece of earth where they will place him, cover him with dirt, put a stone on top. Maybe in a few weeks? Maybe in a few days? I see mysef sitting there alone, arms across my knees, staring into space.

It won’t be the same, I say, not being able to hear you talk. “Ah, talk …”

He closes his eyes and smiles.

“Tell you what. After I’m dead, you talk. And I’ll listen.”

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 plans.

“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.”

The Fourteenth Tuesday We Say Good-bye

It was cold and damp as I walked up the steps to Morrie’s house. I took in little details, things I hadn’t noticed for all the times I’d visited. The cut of the hill. The stone facade of the house. The pachysandra plants, the low shrubs. I walked slowly, taking my time, stepping on dead wet leaves that flattened beneath my feet.

Charlotte had called the day before to tell me Morrie was not doing well.” This was her way of saying the final days had arrived. Morrie had canceled all of his appointments and had been sleeping much of the time, which was unlike him. He never cared for sleeping, not when there were people he could talk with.

“He wants you to come visit,” Charlotte said, “but, Mitch …” Yes?

“He’s very weak.”

The porch steps. The glass in the front door. I absorbed these things in a slow, observant manner, as if seeing them for the first time. I felt the tape recorder in the bag on my shoulder, and I unzipped it to make sure I had tapes. I don’t know why. I always had tapes.

Connie answered the bell. Normally buoyant, she had a drawn look on her face. Her hello was softly spoken.

“How’s he doing?” I said.

“Not so good.” She bit her lower lip. “I don’t like to think about it. He’s such a sweet man, you know?”

I knew.

“This is such a shame.”

Charlotte came down the hall and hugged me. She said that Morrie was still sleeping, even though it was 10 A.M. We went into the kitchen. I helped her straighten up, noticing all the bottles of pills, lined up on the table, a small army of brown plastic soldiers with white caps. My old professor was taking morphine now to ease his breathing.

I put the food I had brought with me into the refrigerator—soup, vegetable cakes, tuna salad. I apologized to Charlotte for bringing it. Morrie hadn’t chewed food like this in months, we both knew that, but it had become a small tradition. Sometimes, when you’re losing someone, you hang on to whatever tradition you can.

I waited in the living room, where Morrie and Ted Koppel had done their first interview.

I read the newspaper that was lying on the table. Two Minnesota children had shot each other playing with their fathers’ guns. A baby had been found buried in a garbage can in an alley in Los Angeles.

I put down the paper and stared into the empty fireplace. I tapped my shoe lightly on the hardwood floor. Eventually, I heard a door open and close, then Charlotte’s footsteps coming toward me.

“All right,” she said softly. “He’s ready for you.”

I rose and I turned toward our familiar spot, then saw a strange woman sitting at the end of the hall in a folding chair, her eyes on a book, her legs crossed. This was a hospice nurse, part of the twenty-four-hour watch.

Morrie’s study was empty. I was confused. Then I turned back hesitantly to the bedroom, and there he was, lying in bed, under the sheet. I had seen him like this only one other time—when he was getting massaged—and the echo of his aphorism “When you’re in bed, you’re dead” began anew inside my head.

I entered, pushing a smile onto my face. He wore a yellow pajama—like top, and a blanket covered him from the chest down. The lump of his form was so withered that I almost thought there was something missing. He was as small as a child.

Morrie’s mouth was open, and his skin was pale and tight against his cheekbones. When his eyes rolled toward me, he tried to speak, but I heard only a soft grunt.

There he is, I said, mustering all the excitement I could find in my empty till.

He exhaled, shut his eyes, then smiled, the very effort seeming to tire him.

“My … dear friend …” he finally said.

I am your friend, I said.

“I’m not … so good today …” Tomorrow will be better.

He pushed out another breath and forced a nod. He was struggling with something beneath the sheets, and I realized he was trying to move his hands toward the opening.

“Hold …” he said.

I pulled the covers down and grasped his fingers. They disappeared inside my own. I leaned in close, a few inches from his face. It was the first time I had seen him unshaven, the small white whiskers looking so out of place, as if someone had shaken salt neatly across his cheeks and chin. How could there be new life in his beard when it was draining everywhere else?

Morrie, I said softly. “Coach,” he corrected.

Coach, I said. I felt a shiver. He spoke in short bursts, inhaling air, exhaling words. His voice was thin and raspy. He smelled of ointment.

“You … are a good soul.” A good soul.

“Touched me …” he whispered. He moved my hands to his heart. “Here.” It felt as if I had a pit in my throat. Coach?


I don’t know how to say good-bye.

He patted my hand weakly, keeping it on his chest.

“This … is how we say … good-bye …”

He breathed softly, in and out, I could feel his ribcage rise and fall. Then he looked right at me.

“Love … you,” he rasped.

I love you, too, Coach.

“Know you do … know … something else…” What else do you know?

“You … always have …

His eyes got small, and then he cried, his face contorting like a baby who hasn’t figured how his tear ducts work. I held him close for several minutes. I rubbed his loose skin. I stroked his hair. I put a palm against his face and felt the bones close to the flesh and the tiny wet tears, as if squeezed from a dropper.

When his breathing approached normal again, I cleared my throat and said I knew he was tired, so I would be back next Tuesday, and I expected him to be a little more alert, thank you. He snorted lightly, as close as he could come to a laugh. It was a sad sound just the same.

I picked up the unopened bag with the tape recorder. Why had I even brought this? I knew we would never use it. I leaned in and kissed him closely, my face against his, whiskers on whiskers, skin on skin, holding it there, longer than normal, in case it gave him even a split second of pleasure.

Okay, then? I said, pulling away.

I blinked back the tears, and he smacked his lips together and raised his eyebrows at the sight of my face. I like to think it was a fleeting moment of satisfaction for my dear old professor: he had finally made me cry.

“Okay, then,” he whispered.


Morrie died on a Saturday morning.

His immediate family was with him in the house. Rob made it in from Tokyo—he got to kiss his father good-bye-and Jon was there, and of course Charlotte was there and

Charlotte’s cousin Marsha, who had written the poem that so moved Morrie at his

“unofficial” memorial service, the poem that likened him to a “tender sequoia.” They slept in shifts around his bed. Morrie had fallen into a coma two days after our final visit, and the doctor said he could go at any moment. Instead, he hung on, through a tough afternoon, through a dark night.

Finally, on the fourth of November, when those he loved had left the room just for a moment—to grab coffee in the kitchen, the first time none of them were with him since the coma began—Morrie stopped breathing.

And he was gone.

I believe he died this way on purpose. I believe he wanted no chilling moments, no one to witness his last breath and be haunted by it, the way he had been haunted by his mother’s death—notice telegram or by his father’s corpse in the city morgue.

I believe he knew that he was in his own bed, that his books and his notes and his small hibiscus plant were nearby. He wanted to go serenely, and that is how he went.

The funeral was held on a damp, windy morning. The grass was wet and the sky was the color of milk. We stood by the hole in the earth, close enough to hear the pond water lapping against the edge and to see ducks shaking off their feathers.

Although hundreds of people had wanted to attend, Charlotte kept this gathering small, just a few close friends and relatives. Rabbi Axelrod read a few poems. Morrie’s brother, David—who still walked with a limp from his childhood polio lifted the shovel and tossed dirt in the grave, as per tradition.

At one point, when Morrie’s ashes were placed into the ground, I glanced around the cemetery. Morrie was right. It was indeed a lovely spot, trees and grass and a sloping hill.

“You talk, I’ll listen, “he had said.

I tried doing that in my head and, to my happiness, found that the imagined conversation felt almost natural. I looked down at my hands, saw my watch and realized why.

It was Tuesday.

“My father moved through theys of we, singing each new leaf out of each tree

(and every child was sure that spring danced when she heard my father sing) …”

Poem by E. E. Cummings, read by Morrie’s son, Rob, at the Memorial service


I look back sometimes at the person I was before I rediscovered my old professor. I want to talk to that person. I want to tell him what to look out for, what mistakes to avoid. I want to tell him to be more open, to ignore the lure of advertised values, to pay attention when your loved ones are speaking, as if it were the last time you might hear them.

Mostly I want to tell that person to get on an airplane and visit a gentle old man in West Newton, Massachusetts, sooner rather than later, before that old man gets sick and loses his ability to dance.

I know I cannot do this. None of us can undo what we’ve done, or relive a life already recorded. But if Professor Morris Schwartz taught me anything at all, it was this: there is no such thing as “too late” in life. He was changing until the day he said good-bye.

Not long after Morrie’s death, I reached my brother in Spain. We had a long talk. I told him I respected his distance, and that all I wanted was to be in touch—in the present, not just the past—to hold him in my life as much as he could let me.

“You’re my only brother,” I said. “I don’t want to lose you. I love you.”

I had never said such a thing to him before.

A few days later, I received a message on my fax machine. It was typed in the sprawling, poorly punctuated, all-cap-letters fashion that always characterized my brother’s words.

“HI I’VE JOINED THE NINETIES!” it began. He wrote a few little stories, what he’d been doing that week, a couple of jokes. At the end, he signed off this way:

I have heartburn and diahrea at the moment—life’s a bitch. Chat later?

Sore Tush.

I laughed until there were tears in my eyes.

This book was largely Morrie’s idea. He called it our “final thesis.” Like the best of work projects, it brought us closer together, and Morrie was delighted when several publishers expressed interest, even though he died before meeting any of them. The advance money helped pay Morrie’s enormous medical bills, and for that we were both grateful.

The title, by the way, we came up with one day in Morrie’s office. He liked naming things. He had several

ideas. But when I said, “How about Tuesdays with Morrie ?” he smiled in an almost blushing way, and I knew that was it.

After Morrie died, I went through boxes of old college material. And I discovered a final paper I had written for one of his classes. It was twenty years old now. On the front page were my penciled comments scribbled to Morrie, and beneath them were his comments scribbled back.

Mine began, “Dear Coach …’ His began, “Dear Player …”

For some reason, each time I read that, I miss him more.

Have you ever really had a teacher? One who saw you as a raw but precious thing, a jewel that, with wisdom, could be polished to a proud shine? If you are lucky enough to find your way to such teachers, you will always find your way back. Sometimes it is only

in your head. Sometimes it is right alongside their beds.

The last class of my old professor’s life took place once a week, in his home, by a window in his study where he could watch a small hibiscus plant shed its pink flowers.

The class met on Tuesdays. No books were required. The subject was the meaning of life. It was taught from experience.

The teaching goes on.

Hear some of the sources for this book.

DMU Timestamp: November 12, 2020 20:50