AS DEATH IMPENDS, PERSPECTIVE ON LIFE BECOMES CLEARER

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

— Henry Adams

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.

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,” I 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?

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,” 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.

The Professor

He was 8 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.

Now, at 9 years old, he felt as if the weight of a mountain were on his shoulders.

The Fourth Tuesday

We Talk About Death

“Let’s begin with this idea,” Morrie said. “Everyone knows they’re going to die, but nobody believes it.”

He was in a businesslike mood this Tuesday. The subject was death, the first item on my list. Before I arrived, Morrie had scribbled a few notes on small white pieces of paper so that he wouldn’t forget. His shaky handwriting was now indecipherable to everyone but him. It was almost Labor Day, and through the office window I could see the spinach-colored hedges of the backyard and hear the yells of children playing down the street, their last week of freedom before school began.

On the plane ride in, I had read about a woman who had shot her husband and two daughters as they lay sleeping, claiming she was protecting them from “the bad people.” In California, the lawyers in the O.J. Simpson trial were becoming huge celebrities.

Here in Morrie’s office, life went on one precious day at a time. Now we sat together, a few feet from the newest addition to the house: an oxygen machine. It was small and portable, about knee-high. On some nights, when he couldn’t get enough air to swallow, Morrie attached the long plastic tubing to his nose, clamping on his nostrils like a leech. I hated the idea of Morrie connected to a machine of any kind, and I tried not to look at it as Morrie spoke.

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

So we kid ourselves about death, I said.

“Yes. But there’s a better approach. To know you’re going to die, and to be prepared for it at any time. That’s better. That way you can actually be more involved in your life while you’re living.”

How can you ever be prepared to die?

“Do what the Buddhists do. Every day, have a little bird on your shoulder that asks, ‘Is today the day? Am I ready? Am I doing all I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be?’

“The truth is, Mitch,” he said, “once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”

But everyone knows someone who has died, I said. Why is it so hard to think about dying?

“Because,” Morrie continued, “most of us all walk around as if we’re sleepwalking. We really don’t experience the world fully, because we’re half-asleep, doing things we automatically think we have to do.”

And facing death changes all that?

“Oh, yes. When you realize you are going to die, you see everything much differently.”

He sighed. “Learn how to die, and you learn how to live.”

I noticed that he quivered now when he moved his hands. His glasses hung around his neck, and when he lifted them to his eyes, they slid around his temples, as if he were trying to put them on someone else in the dark. I reached over to help guide them onto his ears.

“Thank you,” Morrie whispered. He smiled when my hand brushed up against his head. The slightest human contact was immediate joy.

“Mitch. Can I tell you something?”

Of course, I said.

He nodded toward the window with the sunshine streaming in. “You see that? You can go out there, outside, anytime. You can run up and down the block and go crazy. I can’t do that. I can’t go out. I can’t run. I can’t be out there without fear of getting sick. But you know what? I appreciate that window more than you do.”

Appreciate it?

“Yes. I look out that window every day. I notice the change in the trees, how strong the wind is blowing. It’s as if I can see time actually passing through that windowpane. Because I know my time is almost done, I am drawn to nature like I’m seeing it for the first time.”

He stopped, and for a moment we both just looked out the window. I tried to see what he saw. I tried to see time and seasons, my life passing in slow motion. Morrie dropped his head slightly and curled it toward his shoulder.

“Is it today, little bird?” he asked. “Is it today?”

Wednesday: The fear of aging

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