10 YEARS LATER, MORRIE’S TEACHING GOES ON

Ten years ago, I sat with a literary agent and wondered whether a little book called “Tuesdays With Morrie” was going to hurt my sportswriting career.

“What do you mean ‘hurt’?” he said.

“Well,” I said, “it’s about a dying professor and the meaning of life. What if I go into locker rooms now and athletes start making fun of me, calling me soft?”

He thought for a second then waved a dismissive hand.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “nobody’s gonna read it.”

Ten years ago. I was a sportswriter then. I am a sportswriter now.

But everything else has changed.

My agent was wrong. People read the book. Oh, not at first. At first, you couldn’t find it. The story of my beloved old college teacher, Morrie Schwartz, who was dying from ALS, was something I wrote to help pay his medical bills. A labor of love. And initially it was published that way. About 20,000 books were printed – total – and I had visions of giving them away from the trunk of my car.

Today, there are 14 million copies in print around the world.

And I am still trying to figure it out.

¦ ¦ ¦

“Everyone knows they’re going to die,” Morrie says, “but nobody believes it. If we did, we would do things differently.”

So we kid ourselves about death, I ask?

“Yes. But there’s a better approach. To know you’re going to die and to be prepared for it at any time.”

How can you be prepared to die?

“Every day, have a little bird on your shoulder that asks, ‘Is today the day? … Am I being the person I want to be?’ “

He turns his head to his shoulder as if a bird were there now.

“Is today the day?” he says.

¦ ¦ ¦

People ask me all the time if Morrie were always that smart, or if he only became enlightened when he received his death sentence. The truth is, Morrie, even back in college, was brilliant, iconoclastic and funny. He was a small, silver-haired wizard, with big ears, crooked teeth and the wisdom to know that people counted more than money, love more than fame, compassion more than accomplishment.

He was one of those teachers who experimented with different things – teaching outdoors, inviting students to his home, “trust exercises” in which you fall down backward trusting someone will catch you.

And he was really big into emotion.

“One day, Mitch, I’m gonna make you cry,” he would say.

“Yeah, yeah,” I would mock.

“Yeah, yeah,” he would mock back.

People think that Morrie and I only discussed deep, serious subjects. But mostly, on those Tuesdays in his study with the little hibiscus plant near the window, we teased each other. Even the phone call that brought us together again began with a little dig.

Remember, I had lost touch with Morrie while chasing my journalism career. Sixteen years, and we hadn’t spoken a word. My fault, of course. I was too interested in success to remember the people who enabled me to pursue it.

By accident one night, I saw Morrie on ABC’s “Nightline,” talking to Ted Koppel about dying. Shocked and ashamed, I decided to call Morrie. Say hello. Say I was sorry. That’s all it was going to be. One phone call. Ease my guilt. No visits. No life-changing education. No book.

But back at Brandeis University, I used to call Morrie “Coach,” a nickname I made up, and when I called his house after 16 years and he said, “Hello?” I cleared my throat and I said, “Professor Schwartz, my name is Mitch Albom, I was a student of yours in the ’70s, I don’t know if you remember me.”

And this is the first thing he said:

“How come you didn’t call me ‘Coach?’ “

A little dig.

And I was on my way back.

¦ ¦ ¦

His legs are useless. His arms can barely move. I need to turn his head to the side so he can look at me. Yet he is thinking so deeply, so clearly, about everything.

“Look, I can’t go shopping,” he says. “I can’t put out the garbage. I can’t take care of the bank accounts. But I can take care of and look at what I think is important in life, because I have both the time and the impulse now to do that.”

So, I say, the key to life is finding someone else to take out the garbage?

“Ha ha,” he says.

Making him laugh feels like the most important thing I can do.

¦ ¦ ¦

The truth is, I wasn’t very comfortable around Morrie at the beginning. Watching him drool water when he tried to drink, the way his head listed to the side like a dead weight, the droopy flesh of his aged body, it all made me uncomfortable. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis turns you into a useless husk, needing to be carried from place to place. Someone even wiped Morrie’s rear end when he went to the bathroom. But Morrie was not easily embarrassed.

“Pay no attention to this body,” he told me, “it’s not me. It’s the carton I was shipped in. Look in my eyes. I’m still here. Don’t treat me like I’m already dead.”

I have learned to do that now. In the 10 years since the book came out, I have met countless people with ALS, MS, cancer, AIDS, people whose exterior has been altered dramatically. I have learned to look in the eyes not the face, to listen to the soul not the voice.

As I’ve aged myself, I realize how much time we spend primping our headlights, windshields, tires and doors, and how very little time we spend on our engines, on our souls.

Morrie taught me that. I hope to never forget it.

¦ ¦ ¦

Of all the diseases, I think to myself, Morrie gets one named after an athlete.

You remember Lou Gehrig, I ask?

“I remember him in the stadium, saying good-bye.”

So you remember the famous line?

“Remind me.”

Through the open window, I hear the sound of a garbage truck. Although it is hot, Morrie is wearing long sleeves, with a blanket over his legs, his skin pale. The disease owns him.

I do the Gehrig imitation: “Todayyy … I feel like … the luckiest maaan … on the face of the Earth. …”

Morrie closes his eyes.

“Yeah. Well. I didn’t say that.”

¦ ¦ ¦

“What’s the biggest lesson Morrie taught you?” people often ask. I never have a good answer, because I can’t really rank them.

He taught me death ends a life, not a relationship. That was huge. He taught me that we are all “connected.” I truly believe that. It was the idea behind the next book I wrote, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.”

He said there was no real security or firm footing without a family. He said “love is the only rational act.” He said that many of us were brainwashed; we were told more money was good, more ownership was good, but no one told us the most important things in life – love, friendship, community, a spiritual connection – had nothing to do with all that. He felt most people sleepwalk through their lives, only waking up when they recognize they were about to die.

He taught me to not be afraid to be sentimental or emotional. Our society likes to scoff at such things; we think stoicism, dark sides, angst, anger and rage are somehow cool, while love or compassion is soft. Ridiculous, Morrie would say. And he’s right.

But I’m not sure the biggest lessons from my old professor always came through his words. Much of what still moves me is what I saw. Like the time Morrie began to cry when watching televised footage of war in Bosnia. How many times have we all watched destruction on TV – war, floods, hurricanes? How many of us cry? Morrie said he felt more connected to all people suffering – anywhere in the world – the moment he accepted that he was going to die. There is something profound in that.

I also remember the people who came to visit Morrie with the idea of cheering him up; but after an hour, he was cheering them up – about their lives, their divorces, their work. I later asked him why he didn’t just take their sympathy and revel in it, and he got upset.

“Why would I take from people like that?” he said. “Taking makes me feel like I’m dying. Giving makes me feel like I’m living.”

Giving makes me feel like I’m living. As I have, thanks to Morrie, gotten more involved with charity, community and family, I have come to realize what he meant. You get a certain tingle in your stomach when someone thanks you for helping him. You never get that when you are showering yourself with stuff.

¦ ¦ ¦

“Someone asked me an interesting question the other day,” Morrie says. “Did I worry about being forgotten after I died.”

Well? Do you?

“I don’t think I will be. I’ve got so many people who have been involved with me in close, intimate ways. And love is how you stay alive, even after you are gone.”

Sounds like a song lyric.

Morrie chuckles. “Maybe. But, Mitch, all this talk that we’re doing? Do you ever hear my voice when you’re back home? When you’re all alone?”

Yes, I admit.

“Then you will not forget me after I’m gone. Think of my voice, and I’ll be there.”

Think of your voice.

“And if you want to cry a little, it’s OK.”

¦ ¦ ¦

Morrie never read a word of “Tuesdays With Morrie.” It has been published in nearly 50 countries in more than 40 languages, but he never saw a single edition. It was made into a TV film by Oprah Winfrey, with Jack Lemmon winning an Emmy for his portrayal, but Morrie never met either of them. An off-Broadway play was produced. Morrie never attended. A new 10-year anniversary edition of the book has been published; he cannot hold it in his hands.

Morrie’s words and wisdom are taught in school systems around the world now, in college classes, in freshman seminars, yet despite how large his classroom has grown, the man himself is no longer here to teach it.

And I guess that is the biggest thing I have learned in the last 10 years. That if you do things from the heart, that if you touch other people, that if you focus not on enriching yourself but on how you can enrich others, your legacy may be longer than you ever imagined. And you truly can go on after you’re gone.

I hope I get to see Morrie again somehow, to sit the way we sat before and to thank him and to tease him and to ask him how’d I do? Did I pass his course? And to tell him that, no matter how much he was around me in pages, in conversation, in all the incredible attention that small book has been blessed with, I still missed him.

I miss him every day.

¦ ¦ ¦

“I’ve decided what I want on my tombstone,” he says.

What did you decide?

Morrie pops his lips. “I was thinking of this: A Teacher To The Last.”

He waits while I absorb it.

A Teacher To The Last.

“Good?” he says.

Yes, I say. Very good.

SIDEBAR

More about Mitch, Morrie

Readers first met Morrie Schwartz in the pages of the Free Press on Nov. 12, 1995.

Under the headline “A teacher to the last,” Mitch Albom wrote about the final lessons from Morrie, his college professor and mentor. His column started like this: “The worst part of dying this way, he said, was that he couldn’t dance.”

Almost two full years later, “Tuesdays With Morrie” was published by Doubleday with a press run of around 20,000. It has since become the biggest-selling memoir of all time, with 14 million copies in print.

On Tuesday, a special 10th anniversary edition was released. It includes an added chapter in which Albom reflects anew on the life lessons he learned from Morrie and all the things the book has inspired.

“Tuesdays With Morrie” (Broadway) retails for $13.95.

To read Albom’s 1995 column that started it all, go to freep.com/sports.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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