In March of 1995, a limousine carrying Ted Koppel, the host of ABC-TV’s
“Nightline,” pulled up to the snow-covered curb outside Morrie’s house in West Newton, Massachusetts.
Morrie was in a wheelchair full-time now, getting used to helpers lifting him like a heavy sack from the chair to the bed and the bed to the chair. He had begun to cough while eating, and chewing was a chore. His legs were dead; he would never walk again.
Yet he refused to be depressed. Instead, Morrie had become a lightning rod of ideas. He jotted down his thoughts on yellow pads, envelopes, folders, scrap paper. He wrote bite-sized philosophies about living with death’s shadow:
“Accept what you are able to do and what you are not able to do,” “Accept the past as past, without denying it or discarding it,” “Learn to forgive yourself and to forgive others …”
One friend, a fellow Brandeis professor named Maurie Stein, was so taken with the words that he sent them to a Boston Globe reporter, who came out and wrote a long feature story on Morrie. The headline read: A PROFESSOR’S FINAL COURSE: HIS OWN DEATH.
Next thing you knew, there were cameramen in Morrie’s living room and Ted Koppel’s limousine was in front of the house.
Several of Morrie’s friends and family members had gathered to meet Koppel, and when the famous man entered the house, they buzzed with excitement — all except Morrie, who wheeled himself forward, raised his eyebrows, and interrupted the clamor with his high, sing-song voice.
“Ted, I need to check you out before I agree to do this interview.”
There was an awkward moment of silence, then the two men were ushered into the study. The door was shut.
“Man,” one friend whispered outside the door, “I hope Ted goes easy on Morrie.”
“I hope Morrie goes easy on Ted,” said the other.
Inside the office, Morrie motioned for Koppel to sit down. He crossed his hands in his lap and smiled.
“Tell me something close to your heart,” Morrie began.
Koppel studied the old man. “All right,” he said cautiously, and he spoke about his children. They were close to his heart, weren’t they?
“Good,” Morrie said. “Now tell me something about your faith.”
Koppel was uncomfortable. “I usually don’t talk about such things with people I’ve only known a few minutes.”
“Ted, I’m dying,” Morrie said, peering over his glasses. “I don’t have a lot of time here.”
Koppel laughed. All right. Faith. He quoted a passage from Marcus Aurelius, something he felt strongly about.
“Now let me ask you something,” Koppel said. “Have you ever seen my program?”
Morrie shrugged. “Twice, I think.”
“Twice? That’s all?”
“Don’t feel bad. I’ve only seen ‘Oprah’ once.”
“Well, the two times you saw my show, what did you think?”
Morrie paused. “To be honest?”
“I thought you were a narcissist.”
Koppel burst into laughter.
“I’m too ugly to be a narcissist,” he said.
The program aired on a Friday night. It began with Ted Koppel from behind the desk in Washington, his voice booming with authority.
“Who is Morrie Schwartz,” he said, “and why, by the end of the night, are so many of you going to care about him?”
A thousand miles away, in my house on the hill, I was casually flipping channels. I heard these words from the TV set — “Who is Morrie Schwartz?” — and went numb.
It is our first class together, in the spring of 1976. I enter Morrie’s large office and notice the seemingly countless books that line the wall, shelf after shelf. Books on sociology, philosophy, religion, psychology. There is a large rug on the hardwood floor and a window that looks out on the campus walk. Only a dozen or so students are there. Most of them wear jeans and Earth Shoes and plaid flannel shirts. I tell myself it will not be easy to cut a class this small. Maybe I shouldn’t take it.
“Mitchell?” Morrie says, reading from the attendance list.
I raise a hand.
“Do you prefer Mitch? Or is Mitchell better?”
I have never been asked this by a teacher. I do a double take at this guy in his yellow turtleneck and green corduroy pants, the silver hair that falls on his forehead. He is smiling.
Mitch, I say. Mitch is what my friends called me.
“Well, Mitch it is then,” Morrie says, as if closing a deal. “And, Mitch?”
“I hope that one day you will think of me as your friend.”
As I turned the rental car onto Morrie’s street in West Newton, a quiet suburb of Boston, I had a cup of coffee in one hand and a cellular phone between my ear and shoulder. I was talking to a TV producer about a piece we were doing. My eyes jumped from the digital clock — my return flight was in a few hours
— to the mailbox numbers on the tree-lined suburban street. The car radio was on, the all-news station. This was how I operated, five things at once.
“Roll back the tape,” I said to the producer. “Let me hear that part again.”
“OK,” he said. “It’s gonna take a second.”
Suddenly, I was upon the house. I pushed the brakes, spilling coffee in my lap. As the car stopped, I caught a glimpse of a large Japanese maple tree and three figures sitting near it in the driveway, a young man and a middle-aged woman flanking a small old man in a wheelchair.
At the sight of my old professor, I froze.
“Hello?” the producer said in my ear. “Did I lose you? …”
I had not seen him in 16 years. His hair was thinner, nearly white, and his face was gaunt. I suddenly felt unprepared for this reunion — for one thing, I was stuck on the phone — and I hoped that he hadn’t noticed my arrival, so that I could drive around the block a few more times, finish my business, get mentally ready. But Morrie, this new, withered version of a man I had once known so well, was smiling at the car, hands folded in his lap, waiting for me to emerge.
“Hey?” the producer said again. “Are you there?”
For all the time we’d spent together, for all the kindness and patience Morrie had shown me when I was young, I should have dropped the phone and jumped from the car, run and held him and kissed him hello.
Instead, I killed the engine and sunk down off the seat, as if I were looking for something.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m here,” I whispered, and continued my conversation with the TV producer until we were finished.
I did what I had become best at doing: I tended to my work, even while my dying professor waited on his front lawn. I am not proud of this, but that is what I did.
Now, five minutes later, Morrie was hugging me, his thinning hair rubbing against my cheek. I had told him I was searching for my keys, that’s what had taken me so long in the car, and I squeezed him tighter, as if I could crush my little lie. Although the spring sunshine was warm, he wore a windbreaker and his legs were covered by a blanket. He smelled faintly sour, the way people on medication sometimes do. With his face pressed close to mine, I could hear his labored breathing in my ear.
“My old friend,” he whispered, “you’ve come back at last.”
He rocked against me, not letting go, his hands reaching up for my elbows as I bent over him. I was surprised at such affection after all these years, but then, in the stone walls I had built between my present and my past, I had forgotten how close we once were. I remembered graduation day, the briefcase, his tears at my departure, and I swallowed because I knew, deep down, that I was no longer the good, gift-bearing student he remembered.
I only hoped that, for the next few hours, I could fool him.
Inside the house, we sat at a walnut dining room table, near a window that looked out on the neighbor’s house. Morrie fussed with his wheelchair, trying to get comfortable. As was his custom, he wanted to feed me, and I said all right. One of the helpers, a stout Italian woman named Connie, cut up bread and tomatoes and brought containers of chicken salad, hummus, and tabbouleh.
She also brought some pills. Morrie looked at them and sighed. His eyes were more sunken than I remembered them, and his cheekbones more pronounced. This gave him a harsher, older look — until he smiled, of course, and the sagging cheeks gathered up like curtains.
“Mitch,” he said softly, “you know that I’m dying.”
“All right, then.” Morrie swallowed the pills, put down the paper cup, inhaled deeply, then let it out. “Shall I tell you what it’s like?”
What it’s like? To die?
“Yes,” he said.
Although I was unaware of it, our last class had just begun.
Tuesday: The professor