by | Nov 12, 1995 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

BOSTON — The worst part of dying this way, he said, was that he couldn’t dance. Morrie loved to dance. For years he went to a church hall not far from Harvard Square, where once a week they would blast music and open the door to anyone, dance however you wanted, with whomever you wanted. Morrie danced by himself. He shimmied and fox-trotted, he did old dances to modern rock music. He closed his eyes and fell into the rhythm, twirling and spinning and clapping his hands. There, among the college students, this old man with twinkling eyes and thin white hair shook his body until his T-shirt was soaked with sweat. He was a respected sociology professor with a wife and two sons. He had written books. He had lectured all over. But on these nights, he danced alone like a shipwrecked child. He wasn’t embarrassed. He never got embarrassed. For him, the whole thing was a sort of introspective journey.

It would not be his last.

Dancing ended for Morrie Schwartz in the last few years, as did nearly every other physical activity; driving, walking, bathing, going to the bathroom, even wiping tears from his eyes. He was hit with Lou Gehrig’s disease, a killer that takes the pieces of your life the way a dealer takes the cards off the blackjack table. Your nerves die, your muscles go limp. Your arms and legs become useless. Even swallowing is a chore. By the end, the only thing untouched is your mind. For most people, this is more a curse than a blessing.

Most people.

“My disease,” Morrie once said, lying in the chair in his West Newton, Mass., study, “is the most horrible and wonderful death. Horrible because, well, look at me” — he cast his eyes down on his ragged, shrunken body —
“but wonderful because of all the time it gives me to say to good-bye. And to figure out where I’m going next.”

“And where is that?” he was asked.

He grinned like an elf.

“I’ll let you know.” The art of dying

This is the story of a small, courageous man, who was handed a death sentence and decided, rather than retreat, to take everyone with him, right to the final step, to descend into the dark basement and yell back over his shoulder why we shouldn’t be afraid. It was a decision made initially for those closest to him, his wife, his sons, his colleagues at Brandeis University, and his students. He didn’t want them to shun him, or to feel sorry for him. So he transformed his horror into something familiar.

He made dying his final class.

He wrote every day, while his hands still worked, until he had 75 reflections about living with a fatal illness. He taught these to classes and discussion groups who crowded in his house. He spoke about accepting death as part of nature, about maintaining your composure, about using death as the ultimate lesson.

“Learn how to die,” he said, “and you learn how to live.”

Before it was over, his message would spread from that quiet house in suburban Boston to the farthest reaches of the broadcast world — thanks largely to three appearances with Ted Koppel on ABC’s “Nightline.” Koppel, like most visitors, met Morrie one day and was hooked. After the programs aired, people flooded Morrie with letters, and some actually flew across the ocean to spend a few minutes by his side. As death approached, and he went from a walker to a wheelchair to eating through a straw, some began to see him as mystical, a human bridge between this world and the next. Others simply felt comforted by his smile in the face of our worst nightmare.

As his days on Earth dwindled, his influence grew.

He influenced me.

But then, he always had. July My college mentor

“Have a bagel.”

He pushed the plate across the table awkwardly, his fingers flicking like a robot on a weak battery.

I knew Morrie Schwartz before he ever got sick. He was my favorite professor in college, my mentor, my friend. In my four years at Brandeis back in the ’70s, I spent countless hours in his classroom, or hanging around his office.

“What are you going to do with yourself?” he would ask me.

“Be a musician,” I would answer.

“Fine. Good. But whatever you do, be as human as you can. Never lose your humanity. Don’t be like so many of your fellow students now. All they want to do is make money.”

He shuddered at that thought. A gentle, impish professor who wore yellow turtlenecks, corduroy pants and Rockport shoes — his fashion sense was nonexistent — Morrie Schwartz taught sociology at Brandeis since 1959. He taught about mental health — he had cowritten a breakthrough book in that area — and he taught about human relationships and, later, the nuclear threat. He was one of those teachers for whom the ’60s were the right idea. He loved freedom of expression; he hated greed and war. Once, during the Vietnam era, he gave all his students A’s to help them avoid the draft.

Morrie took me in the way he took in hundreds of confused college kids in his nearly four decades of teaching, serving as adviser, philosopher and surrogate parent. I enrolled in every class he taught. Wrote my honors thesis with him. When I graduated in 1979, I purchased a leather briefcase with his initials engraved in the front. It was the only time I ever gave a teacher a present.

“I love you,” he told me the day I graduated.

“God, Morrie,” I said, embarrassed, “you’re such a cornball.”

He laughed and said that one day, he would get me to open up, maybe even to cry. A student again

“Have a bagel,” he said again.

“OK, OK, I’ll have a bagel.”

I took a bite, and he smiled, then he lifted his fork gingerly to his mouth. He could only eat soft food now, a vegetable cake and some soup. Chewing was hard. Swallowing was harder. He had health care workers to push his wheelchair and to lift him onto the toilet and back off again. He could no longer bathe himself, and he needed help getting dressed.

“You know the biggest thing I dread?” he whispered. “When I can’t wipe my own rear end. For some reason, that really bothers me.”

He sighed.

“But that’s coming. Pretty soon I think.”

Embarrassing? That was Morrie. No secrets. Nothing off- limits. It had been 16 years since I’d seen him. He was 78 now. When his face appeared on
“Nightline” — “Tonight, a college professor teaches us how to die” — I was stunned. I flew in to visit, and he greeted me in a wheelchair, a blanket over his knees despite the summer heat. His hair was thinner and his skin paler than I remembered, but I would have known him from a mile away. The son of poor Russian immigrants, Morrie was blessed with a crescent smile that crinkled his eyes and made everyone feel like family.

“Ah, my old friend,” he said, lifting his hands for a hug.

I hugged him, and felt how thin he had become. There was little meat on his bones. His voice sounded scratchy. Later I would learn that the disease was already quite advanced. Morrie had first sensed something wrong back in 1992, when he couldn’t sleep. Next he had difficulty breathing — which he first attributed to his asthma — then a hard time walking any long distance. Once, at a friend’s birthday party, he tried to dance and he stumbled. Another time he walked up a flight of stairs and had to rest before he could come down.

Doctors kept saying it was a muscle problem. They X-rayed him. They tested his bone marrow. Finally, he found a doctor who suggested it was a neurological problem. Different tests were taken. And a new verdict was reached.

“Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,” the doctor said. “ALS. Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

Morrie remembered the ballplayer from his youth in New York City. He also remembered that he died.

“It’s fatal?” Morrie asked.

Yes, he was told.

Is there any known cure?

No, there is not.

“I had two ways to go at that point,” he recalled now. “I could be angry at the world, want nothing to do with it, say, ‘Why me?’ Or I could say,
‘Maybe this gives me something new to share.’

“I chose the latter. What I’m trying to do is to live as fully and as deeply as I can in my time left. Just because I’m dying doesn’t mean I have to be taking. I can be giving, too.

“You know, some wise old yogi said, ‘Everyone knows they’re going to die, but nobody believes it.’ “

He raised his eyebrows. “Well, I believe it now. I know I will die. I just want to decide how. Raging? Screaming and kicking? Or maybe quietly, holding the hands of people I love? I’m not sure.”

He lifted the cake to his mouth, and chewed in a mushy mess. I smiled to myself. Back in college, we teased him behind his back for the sloppy way he ate. He was so enthusiastic, talking before he swallowed. I still can see him yakking through an egg salad sandwich, the little pieces of spit and egg spraying from his mouth as he talked. He was such a lovable slob. The whole time I knew him I had two overwhelming urges: to hug him, and to give him a napkin.

And here, in the kitchen of his final months, nothing had changed.

And everything had changed.

“So, you’ll come back?” he said, after we’d talked for hours and I readied to go.

“Sure, every week,” I joked.

“OK then, every week,” he said briskly. “For you, I’ll put aside the time. You were always one of the good ones.”

I left, flattered and confused. But I returned the very next week.

And every week thereafter.

I was officially enrolled. August
‘Life is with people’

The pine trees outside his office window were thick with green leaves. August was steamy. You could hear the lawn mowers off in the distance, and the sounds of children enjoying their summer vacation.

“Close the door, it’s a little cold,” he said.

I closed the door. But it was not cold. Morrie was in his special reclining chair in his office, which, by pressing a button, would rise or drop so his aides could lift him easier. The wheelchair now was difficult to take. His legs were useless, and he couldn’t lift his arms any higher than his face. The cost of being cared for at home was astronomical, and the insurance only covered a portion. So the disease was not only stealing his body, but most of his savings.

Still, he would not go to a hospital. And he would not be kept alive by machines. “That’s not life,” he said. “Life is with people.”

He smiled when I entered — as he smiled every week — and I rubbed my cheek against his soft face. I heard his breathing, which was noticeably labored.

“Still following the news?” I said, noticing the newspaper beneath his reading glasses.

“I try to,” he said.

“Why bother?”

I realized immediately how bad that sounded.

“Well, it’s true, I won’t be here much longer. On the other hand, in a strange way, I feel more connected now to the people in this world who are suffering, the people getting chased out of their homelands, the people being murdered.

“When death is real for you, it’s real for others, too.”

Did any one news story affect him more than others?

“Bosnia. Sometimes, I look at TV and the pictures of those poor people, and I begin to cry and I can’t stop.”

Morrie always had been able to feel others’ pain, perhaps because he’d had so much of his own. He was raised in New York, in the back of a Lower Eastside candy store. His father — who would die after being robbed by muggers — worked as a part- time furrier, and made barely enough money to get by.

His mother only survived until Morrie was 8. She was ill and spent most of those years resting on the bed or couch. One day she went to the hospital and didn’t come back. A telegram arrived at the store. Morrie had to read it to his immigrant father.

Mother was dead.

Seventy years later, he still cried.

“It’s why I can never have enough holding or touching now,” he said during one of our visits, as the tears began again. “Do you know what it’s like, not to have your mother as a little boy?”

He made up for it now with the love of adults. When people learned Morrie was sick, they came to his house as if making a pilgrimage. Colleagues. Former s


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