Twenty-two years ago, I flipped on the TV and my life changed forever. An old professor of mine, Morrie Schwartz, was on the “Nightline” program, talking to Ted Koppel.
My mouth dropped. Morrie was more than a former teacher. He was closer to a favorite old uncle, a smiling, gentle mentor at Brandeis University in Massachusetts who saw in me a flawed but salvageable young man.
We’d been extremely close. I took every class he offered. I ate lunch with him. I visited his home. He spoke to me about life, values, love, community. He listened patiently to my silly collegiate complaints; I majored in sociology, his field, mostly so I could study with him all four years.
On graduation day, he gave me a hug. “Mitch,” he said, “you’re one of the good ones. Promise me you’ll stay in touch.”
I said I would.
And then I broke that promise. Every day, week, month and year — for 16 years. Not a letter. Not a phone call. Why? Ambition. Self-absorption. A belief that work — like this column at this newspaper — always came first, and everything else could wait.
What I ignored was the essence of that famous Emily Dickinson poem, “Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me.”
Death stopped for Morrie.
And it threw something in my direction.
Morrie and I reconnected before he died. We met regularly. And two decades later, I am still telling the story. I’ve seen it turned into a TV film made by Oprah Winfrey as well as an off-Broadway play produced more than 100 times globally. On Tuesday, the 20th anniversary edition of “Tuesdays With Morrie” will be released, a tiny book I wrote about our experience that grew beyond anyone’s imagination. I’ve added a new and final chapter because I am still, decades later, trying to process what transpired.
What transpired, in simple order, was this: I saw the “Nightline” program. I made a guilty phone call. I made a visit to Morrie’s home. Then another visit. Another visit. Then visits on every Tuesday that Morrie had left in his life. Like cold hands to fire, I was drawn to Morrie, seeking his warmth, and with each plane trip from Detroit to Boston, I felt the crust of who I’d become peeling off in favor of who I’d once been: a student, anxious to hear an old teacher’s wisdom.
And boy, did Morrie have wisdom.
Lessons so far
Even as his disease, ALS, chewed on his nervous system, leaving him a stiff, motionless husk needing to be carried from place to place, needing to be washed, fed, even wiped on his behind, he taught. He shared his experience. He had visitors turn his head so he could see them, and he spoke, and they listened, and he discovered a purpose to his awful affliction:
A final class on the Meaning Of Life.
I was his student. Week after week, I brought up a topic, and Morrie gave his views — not based on readings or footnotes, but on life experience. It proved to be the best form of research.
Because he lost his mother as a child, and never really got over it, Morrie cherished his own children and taught me, “There is no secure ground upon which people may stand if it isn’t the family.”
Because he watched his graduates chase after advertised values, only to return to him miserable and unsatisfied, Morrie taught me, “Don’t buy the culture if you don’t like it.”
Because he lost touch with a friend over a silly argument, then wept when he learned the man had died, Morrie taught me, “Forgive everyone everything. Now.”
And because he saw the struggles of so many, then suffered a catastrophic struggle of his own, Morrie recognized life was a “tension of opposites” with forces pulling you in conflicting directions.
“Which side wins?” I once asked him.
“Love wins,” he said. “Love always wins.”
Force of change
At one point in our visits, I asked Morrie what he feared the most with his dying. His answer surprised me. “The debt I’m going to leave my family,” he said. He explained that the cost of dying slowly, at home, had sapped his savings, and that his wife and sons would be burdened with payments after he was gone.
That was the impetus for me writing “Tuesdays With Morrie.” Simply to pay his bills. The book idea was not well-received. Many publishers shook their heads; it was boring, they said, it was depressing. I was a sports writer. Who’d want to read it? In truth, if it hadn’t been for Morrie’s need, I would have given up.
Instead, I kept knocking on doors until we found a publisher, Doubleday, that wanted to take the book. When I told Morrie he didn’t have to worry anymore about burdening his family with debt, he cried (something he did fairly often). And I felt something funny inside me, something Morrie knew very well: the joy of helping another person.
I often say, for me, that was the end of Tuesdays With Morrie, because I had finally done one nice thing for a man who had done countless nice things for me. Perhaps, as thick-headed as I’d been, some of Morrie’s teachings were finally seeping in.
But if I was done with the idea, it was only getting started with me. The book that began, in 1997, with a meager 20,000-copy print run, has swelled to an unimaginable reach — nearly 50 countries and more than 40 languages. And like any good teacher who forces you to look at life differently, the book changed me.
I went from being a 100-hour-a-week sports journalist to someone asked to speak at funerals, at hospice groups, at universities, at the bedside of dying patients. Instead of people stopping me at airports yelling, “Who’s going to win the Super Bowl?” I’d get stopped by questions like, “My mother just died from cancer, and the last thing we did was read ‘Tuesdays With Morrie’ together. Can I talk to you?”
Such encounters change you. They should change you. They make you realize how fleeting life can be, how precious our human connections really are, how vacuous so much of what we pursue and obsess over really is.
In that way, I guess, I am Morrie’s eternal graduate student, destined to retake his last class every year.
But it did not stop there.
What matters, what is true
Morrie’s favorite little allegory was about two waves, flopping around, having a great time, until one of them spots the coastline.
“This is terrible,” the first wave says.
“What is?” says the second.
“We’re going to hit the shore. You don’t understand. All of us waves are going to be nothing.”
“No, you don’t understand. You’re not a wave, you’re part of the ocean.”
When Morrie’s life ended, when his wave hit the shore, he did indeed filter back into the human ocean. And his teachings have affected millions. His words are being taught in classrooms as far away as the Philippines and as near as a high school in Grand Blanc, where I recently Skyped with a class studying “Tuesdays With Morrie” as part of its curriculum.
All these lessons being learned — and Morrie isn’t even here to teach them. What I’ve realized is that the effect you have in this world is not in your wealth or your place on a magazine’s Top 100 list; it’s in every soul you touch and every young one you teach.
It is the reason you often read me writing about children in Detroit, or an orphanage/mission I operate in Haiti. I am drawn to children, as a middle-age man, the way I was drawn to Morrie as a younger one.
Maybe that’s the way Morrie was drawn to me.
In the afterword for the new edition of “Tuesdays,” I mention a little Haitian girl that my wife and I have been taking care of for nearly two years. She is afflicted with DIPG, a terrible brain tumor that is virtually always fatal. It’s the same thing that took young Chad Carr in 2015.
Her name is Chika, she is 7 years old, one of our kids at the orphanage, and while modern medicine was able to give her months of wonderful reprieve where she laughed and danced and sang and enthralled us, she is in very dire straits now.
And once more in my life, I find myself sitting beside a soul who has little time left. Once more, I am missing work to be at a bedside — not just on Tuesdays, but every day of the week. And once again, I am learning about love, meaning and sacrifice.
Maybe this is my role in life. Maybe it’s just coincidence. But 20 years after it was published, I reread the last words of “Tuesdays With Morrie”:
“The teaching goes on.”
It is so true.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.