The newspaper near his chair has a photo of a Boston baseball player who is smiling after pitching a shutout. Of all the diseases, I think to myself, Morrie gets one named after an athlete.
You remember Lou Gehrig, I ask?
“I remember him in the stadium, saying good-bye.”
So you remember the famous line.
Come on. Lou Gehrig. “Pride of the Yankees”? The speech that echoes over the loudspeakers?
“Remind me,” Morrie says. “Do the speech.”
Through the open window I hear the sound of a garbage truck. Although it is hot, Morrie is wearing long sleeves, with a blanket over his legs, his skin pale. The disease owns him.
I raise my voice and do the Gehrig imitation, where the words bounce off the stadium walls: “Too-dayyy …I consider myself …the luckiest maaaan …on the face of the earth …”
Morrie closes his eyes and nods slowly.
“Yeah. Well. I didn’t say that.”
Morrie had lost his battle. Someone was now wiping his behind.
It took some getting used to, he admitted, because it was, in a way, complete surrender to the disease. The most personal and basic things had now been taken from him — going to the bathroom, wiping his nose, washing his private parts. With the exception of breathing and swallowing his food, he was dependent on others for nearly everything.
I asked Morrie how he managed to stay positive through that.
“Mitch, it’s funny,” he said. “I’m an independent person, so my inclination was to fight all of this — being helped from the car, having someone else dress me. I felt a little ashamed, because our culture tells us we should be ashamed if we can’t wipe our behind. But then I figured, Forget what the culture says. I have ignored the culture much of my life. I am not going to be ashamed. What’s the big deal?
“And you know what? The strangest thing.”
“I began to enjoy my dependency. Now I enjoy when they turn me over on my side and rub cream on my behind so I don’t get sores. Or when they wipe my brow or massage my legs. I revel in it. I close my eyes and soak it up. And it seems very familiar to me.
“It’s like going back to being a child again. Someone to bathe you. Someone to lift you. We all know how to be a child. It’s inside all of us.
“The truth is when our mothers held us, rocked us, stroked our heads — none of us ever got enough of that. We all yearn in some way to return to those days when we were completely taken care of — unconditional love, unconditional attention. Most of us didn’t get enough.
“I know I didn’t.”
I looked at Morrie and I suddenly knew why he so enjoyed my leaning over and adjusting his microphone, or fussing with the pillows, or wiping his eyes. Human touch. At 78 he was giving as an adult and taking as a child.
Later that day, we talked about aging. Or maybe I should say fear of aging — another of the issues on my what’s-bugging-my-generation list. On my ride from the Boston airport, I had counted the billboards that featured young and beautiful people. There was a handsome man in a cowboy hat, smoking a cigarette, two beautiful young women smiling over a shampoo bottle, a sultry looking teenager with her jeans unsnapped.
Not once did I see anyone who would pass for over 35. I told Morrie I was already afraid of being over the hill, much as I tried desperately to stay on top of it. I worked out constantly. Watched what I ate. Checked my hairline in the mirror. I had gone from being proud to say my age to not bringing it up.
Morrie had aging in better perspective.
“All this emphasis on youth, I don’t buy it,” he said. “Listen, I know what a misery being young can be. All these kids who came to me with their struggles, their strife, their feelings of inadequacy, their sense that life was miserable, so bad that they wanted to kill themselves …
“And in addition to their miseries, the young are not wise, they have very little understanding about life. Who wants to live every day when you don’t know what’s going on? When people are manipulating you, telling you to buy this perfume and you’ll be beautiful, or this pair of jeans and you’ll be sexy
— and you believe them! It’s such nonsense.”
Yes, I said, but if aging were so valuable, why do people always say, “Oh, if I were young again.” You never hear people say “I wish I were 65.”
He smiled. “You know what that reflects? Unsatisfied lives. Unfulfilled lives. Lives that haven’t found meaning. Because if you’ve found meaning in your life, you don’t want to go back. You want to go forward.
“Listen, you should know something. All younger people should know something. If you’re always battling against getting older, you’re always going to be unhappy, because it will happen anyhow.”
He closed his eyes with a peaceful look, then asked me to adjust the pillows behind his head. His body needed constant attention to stay comfortable. It was propped in the chair with white pillows, yellow foam and blue towels. At a quick glance, it seemed as if Morrie were being packed for shipping.
“Thank you,” he whispered as I moved the pillows.
No problem, I said.
“Mitch, what are you thinking?”
I paused before answering. OK, I said, I’m wondering how you don’t envy younger, healthier people. How do you keep from envying …
“Mitch, it is impossible for the old not to somehow envy the young. But the issue is to accept who you are and revel in that.”
He exhaled and lowered his eyes, as if to watch his breath scatter into the air.
“The truth is, part of me is every age. I’m a 3-year-old, I’m a 5-year-old, I’m a 37-year-old, I’m a 50-year-old. I’ve been through all of them, and I know what it’s like. I delight in being a child when it’s appropriate to be a child. I delight in being a wise old man when it’s appropriate to be a wise old man. Think of all I can be! I am every age, up to my own. Do you understand?”
“How can I be envious of where you are — when I’ve been there myself?”
Tomorrow: The tenth Tuesday