In his latest book, “Tuesdays with Morrie,” published by Doubleday, Free Press columnist Mitch Albom writes about the final lessons from his college professor and mentor, Morrie Schwartz. The Free Press is running excerpts today through Thursday.
The last class of my old professor’s life took place once a week in his house, by a window in the study where he could watch a small hibiscus plant shed its pink leaves. The class met on Tuesdays. It began after breakfast. The subject was The Meaning Of Life. It was taught from experience.
No grades were given, but there were oral exams each week. You were expected to respond to questions, and you were expected to pose questions of your own. You were also required to perform physical tasks now and then, such as lifting the professor’s head to a comfortable spot on the pillow or placing his glasses on the bridge of his nose. Kissing him good-bye earned you extra credit.
No books were required, yet many topics were covered, including love, work, community, family, aging, forgiveness, and finally, death. The last lecture was brief, only a few words.
A funeral was held in lieu of graduation.
Although no final exam was given, you were expected to produce one long paper on what was learned.
That paper is presented here.
The last class of my old professor’s life had only one student.
I was the student.
It is the late spring of 1979, a hot, sticky Saturday afternoon. Hundreds of us sit together, side by side, in rows of wooden folding chairs on the main campus lawn. We wear blue nylon robes. We listen impatiently to long speeches. When the ceremony is over, we throw our caps in the air, and we are officially graduated from college, the senior class of Brandeis University in the city of Waltham, Massachusetts. For many of us, the curtain has just come down on childhood.
Afterward, I find Morrie Schwartz, my favorite professor, and introduce him to my parents. He is a small man who takes small steps, as if a strong wind could, at any time, whisk him up into the clouds. In his graduation day robe, he looks like a cross between a biblical prophet and a Christmas elf. He has sparkling blue-green eyes, thinning silver hair that spills onto his forehead, big ears, a triangular nose, and tufts of graying eyebrows. Although his teeth are crooked and his lower ones are slanted back — as if someone had once punched them in — when he smiles it’s as if you’d just told him the first joke on earth.
He tells my parents how I took every class he taught. He tells them, “You have a special boy here.” Embarrassed, I look at my feet. Before we leave, I hand my professor a present, a tan briefcase with his initials on the front. I bought this the day before at a shopping mall. I didn’t want to forget him. Maybe I didn’t want him to forget me.
“Mitch, you are one of the good ones,” he says, admiring the briefcase. Then he hugs me. I feel his thin arms around my back. I am taller than he is, and when he holds me, I feel awkward, older, as if I were the parent and he were the child.
He asks if I will stay in touch, and without hesitation I say, “Of course.”
When he steps back, I see that he is crying.
His death sentence came in the summer of 1994. Looking back, Morrie knew something bad was coming long before that. He knew it the day he gave up dancing.
He had always been a dancer, my old professor. He used to go to this church in Harvard Square every Wednesday night for something called “Dance Free,” where Morrie often danced by himself. They had flashing lights and booming speakers and Morrie would wander in among the mostly student crowd, wearing a white T-shirt and black sweatpants and a towel around his neck, and whatever music was playing, that’s the music to which he danced. He’d do the lindy to Jimi Hendrix. He twisted and twirled, he waved his arms like a conductor on amphetamines, until sweat was dripping down the middle of his back.
Once, he brought a tango tape and got them to play it over the speakers. Then he commandeered the floor, shooting back and forth like some hot Latin lover. When he finished, everyone applauded. He could have stayed in that moment forever.
But then the dancing stopped.
He developed asthma in his 60s. His breathing became labored. A few years later, he began to have trouble walking. At a birthday party for a friend, he stumbled inexplicably. Another night, he fell down the steps of a theater, startling a small crowd of people.
“Give him air!” someone yelled.
He was in his 70s by this point, so they whispered “old age” and helped him to his feet. But Morrie, who was always more in touch with his insides than the rest of us, knew something else was wrong. This was more than old age. He was weary all the time. He had trouble sleeping. He dreamt he was dying.
He began to see doctors. Lots of them. They tested his blood. They tested his urine. They put a scope up his rear end and looked inside his intestines. Finally, when nothing could be found, one doctor ordered a muscle biopsy, taking a small piece out of Morrie’s calf. The lab report came back suggesting a neurological problem, and Morrie was brought in for yet another series of tests.
Finally, on a hot, humid day in August 1994, Morrie and his wife, Charlotte, went to the neurologist’s office, and he asked them to sit before he broke the news: Morrie had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Lou Gehrig’s disease, a brutal, unforgiving illness of the neurological system.
There was no known cure.
“How did I get it?” Morrie asked.
“Is it terminal?”
“So I’m going to die?”
Yes, you are, the doctor said. I’m very sorry.
He sat with Morrie and Charlotte for nearly two hours, patiently answering their questions. When they left, the doctor gave them some information on ALS, little pamphlets, as if they were opening a bank account. Outside, the sun was shining and people were going about their business. A woman ran to put money in the parking meter. Another carried groceries. Charlotte had a million thoughts running through her mind: How much time do we have left? How will we manage? How will we pay the bills?
My old professor, meanwhile, was stunned by the normalcy of the day around him. Shouldn’t the world stop? Don’t they know what has happened to me?
But the world did not stop, it took no notice at all, and as Morrie pulled weakly on the car door, he felt as if he were dropping into a hole.
Now what? he thought.
The fall semester passed quickly. The pills increased. Therapy became a regular routine. Nurses came to his house to work with Morrie’s withering legs, to keep the muscles active, bending them back and forth as if pumping water from a well. Massage specialists came by once a week to try to soothe the constant, heavy stiffness he felt. He met with meditation teachers, and closed his eyes and narrowed his thoughts until his world shrunk down to a single breath, in and out, in and out.
One day, using his cane, he stepped onto the curb and fell over into the street. The cane was exchanged for a walker. As his body weakened, the back and forth to the bathroom became too exhausting, so Morrie began to urinate into a large beaker. He had to support himself as he did this, meaning someone had to hold the beaker while Morrie filled it.
He entertained a growing stream of visitors. For all that was happening to him, his voice was strong and inviting, and his mind was vibrating with a million thoughts. He was intent on proving that the word “dying” was not synonymous with “useless.”
The New Year came and went. Although he never said it to anyone, Morrie knew this would be the last year of his life. He was using a wheelchair now, and he was fighting time to say all the things he wanted to say to all the people he loved. When a colleague at Brandeis died suddenly of a heart attack, Morrie went to his funeral. He came home depressed.
“What a waste,” he said. “All those people saying all those wonderful things, and Irv never got to hear any of it.”
Morrie had a better idea. He made some calls. He chose a date. And on a cold Sunday afternoon, he was joined in his home by a small group of friends and family for a “living funeral.” Each of them spoke and paid tribute to my old professor. Some cried. Some laughed. One woman read a poem:
“My dear and loving cousin …
Your ageless heart
as you move through time, layer on layer,
tender sequoia …”
Morrie cried and laughed with them. And all the heartfelt things we never get to say to those we love, Morrie said that day. His “living funeral” was a rousing success.
Only Morrie wasn’t dead yet.
In fact, the most unusual part of his life was about to unfold.
At this point, I should explain what had happened to me since that summer day when I last hugged my dear and wise professor, and promised to keep in touch.
I did not keep in touch.
In fact, I lost contact with most of the people I knew in college, including my beer-drinking friends and the first woman I ever woke up with in the morning. The years after graduation hardened me into someone quite different from the strutting graduate who left campus that day headed for New York City, ready to offer the world his talent.
The world, I discovered, was not all that interested. I wandered around my early 20s, paying rent and reading classifieds and wondering why the lights were not turning green for me. My dream was to be a famous musician (I played the piano), but after several years of dark, empty nightclubs and broken promises, the dream soured. I was failing for the first time in my life.
At the same time, I had my first serious encounter with death. My favorite uncle, my mother’s brother, the man who had taught me music, taught me to drive, teased me about girls, thrown me a football — that one adult whom I targeted as a child and said, “That’s who I want to be when I grow up” — died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 44. He was a short, handsome man with a thick mustache, and I was with him for the last year of his life, living in an apartment just below his. I watched his strong body wither, then bloat, saw him suffer, night after night, doubled over at the dinner table, pressing on his stomach, his eyes shut, his mouth contorted in pain. “Ahhhhh, God,” he would moan. “Ahhhhhh, Jesus!” The rest of us — my aunt, his two young sons, me — stood there, silently, cleaning the plates, averting our eyes.
It was the most helpless I have ever felt in my life.
One night in May, my uncle and I sat on the balcony of his apartment. It was breezy and warm. He looked out toward the horizon and said, through gritted teeth, that he wouldn’t be around to see his kids into the next school year. He asked if I would look after them. I told him not to talk that way.
He died a few weeks later.
After the funeral, my life changed. I felt as if time were suddenly precious, water going down an open drain, and I could not move quickly enough. No more playing music at half-empty nightclubs. I returned to school. I earned a master’s degree in journalism and took the first job offered, as a sports writer. Instead of chasing my own fame, I wrote about famous athletes chasing theirs. I worked for newspapers and freelanced for magazines. I worked at a pace that knew no hours, no limits. I would wake up in the morning, brush my teeth, and sit down at the typewriter in the same clothes I had slept in. My uncle had worked for a corporation and hated it — same thing, every day — and I was determined never to end up like him.
I bounced around from New York to Florida and eventually took a job in Detroit as a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. In a few years, I was not only penning columns, I was writing sports books, doing radio shows, and appearing regularly on TV, spouting my opinions on rich football players and hypocritical college sports programs. I was part of the media thunderstorm that now soaks our country.