IN HIS FINAL DAYS, A TEACHER TO THE LAST

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

I don’t want to hear about tombstones.

“Why? They make you nervous?”

I shrug.

“We can forget it.”

No, go ahead. 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.

The tenth Tuesday

I brought a visitor to meet Morrie. My wife.

He had been asking me since the first day I came. “When do I meet Janine?”
“When are you bringing her?” I’d always had excuses until a few days earlier, when I called his house to see how he was doing.

It took a while for Morrie to get to the receiver. And when he did, I could hear the fumbling as someone held it to his ear. He could no longer lift a phone by himself.

“Hiiiiii,” he gasped.

You doing OK, Coach?

I heard him exhale. “Mitch …your coach …isn’t having such a great day . .
.”

His sleeping time was getting worse. He needed oxygen almost nightly now, and his coughing spells had become frightening. One cough could last an hour, and he never knew if he’d be able to stop. He always said he would die when the disease got his lungs. I shuddered when I thought how close death was.

I’ll see you on Tuesday, I said. You’ll have a better day then.

“Mitch.”

Yeah?

“Is your wife there with you?”

She was sitting next to me.

“Put her on. I want to hear her voice.”

Now, I am married to a woman blessed with far more intuitive kindness than I. Although she had never met Morrie, she took the phone — I would have shaken my head and whispered, “I’m not here! I’m not here!” — and in a minute, she was connecting with my old professor as if they’d known each other since college. I sensed this, even though all I heard on my end was “Uh-huh…Mitch told me …oh, thank you . . .”

When she hung up, she said, “I’m coming next trip.”

And that was that.

Now we sat in his office, surrounding him in his recliner. Morrie, by his own admission, was a harmless flirt, and while he often had to stop for coughing, or to use the commode, he seemed to find new reserves of energy with Janine in the room. He looked at photos from our wedding, which Janine had brought along.

“You are from Detroit?” Morrie said.

Yes, Janine said.

“I taught in Detroit for one year, in the late ’40s. I remember a funny story about that.”

He stopped to blow his nose. When he fumbled with the tissue, I held it in place and he blew weakly into it. I squeezed it lightly against his nostrils, then pulled it off, like a mother does to a child in a car seat.

“Thank you, Mitch.” He looked at Janine. “My helper, this one is.”

Janine smiled.

“Anyhow. My story. There were a bunch of sociologists at the university, and we used to play poker with other staff members, including this guy who was a surgeon. One night, after the game, he said, ‘Morrie, I want to come see you work.’ I said fine. So he came to one of my classes and watched me teach.

“After the class was over he said, ‘All right, now, how would you like to see me work? I have an operation tonight.’ I wanted to return the favor, so I said OK.

“He took me up to the hospital. He said, ‘Scrub down, put on a mask, and get into a gown.’ And next thing I knew, I was right next to him at the operating table. There was this woman, the patient, on the table, naked from the waist down. And he took a knife and went zip — just like that! Well . . .”

Morrie lifted a finger and spun it around.

” …I started to go like this. I’m about to faint. All the blood. Yech. The nurse next to me said, ‘What’s the matter, Doctor?’ and I said, ‘I’m no damn doctor! Get me out of here!’ “

We laughed, and Morrie laughed, too, as hard as he could, with his limited breathing. It was the first time in weeks that I could recall him telling a story like this. How strange, I thought, that he nearly fainted once from watching someone else’s illness, and now he was so able to endure his own.

Connie, one of Morrie’s helpers, knocked on the door and said that Morrie’s lunch was ready. It was not the carrot soup and vegetable cakes and Greek pasta I had brought that morning from Bread and Circus. Although I tried to buy the softest of foods now, they were still beyond Morrie’s limited strength to chew and swallow. He was eating mostly liquid supplements, with perhaps a bran muffin tossed in until it was mushy and easily digested. His wife, Charlotte, would puree almost everything in a blender now. He was taking food through a straw.

“So …Janine,” Morrie said.

She smiled.

“You are lovely. Give me your hand.”

She did.

“Mitch says that you’re a professional singer.”

Yes, Janine said.

“He says you’re great.”

Oh, she laughed. No. He just says that.

Morrie raised his eyebrows. “Will you sing something for me?”

Now, I have heard people ask this of Janine for almost as long as I have known her. When people find out you sing for a living, they always say, “Sing something for us.” Shy about her talent, and a perfectionist about conditions, Janine never did. She would politely decline. Which is what I expected now.

Which is when she began to sing:

“The very thought of you

and I forget to do

the little ordinary things that everyone ought to do …”

It was a 1930s standard, written by Ray Noble, and Janine sang it sweetly, looking straight at Morrie. I was amazed, once again, at his ability to draw emotion from people who otherwise kept it locked away. Morrie closed his eyes to absorb the notes. As my wife’s loving voice filled the room, a crescent smile appeared on his face. And while his body was stiff as a sandbag, you could almost see him dancing inside it.

“I see your face in every flower,

your eyes in stars above,

it’s just the thought of you,

the very thought of you,

my love . . .”

When she finished, Morrie opened his eyes and tears rolled down his cheeks. In all the years I have listened to my wife sing, I never heard her the way he did at that moment.

“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?

“Yes.”

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 myself 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.”

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