Twenty-five years ago this month, my Tuesdays came to an end.
Morrie Schwartz died.
I had been visiting him once a week, on Tuesdays, always Tuesdays, as he battled ALS. It was our last class together.
Two decades earlier, I’d been a college student at Brandeis University, a young, impressionable person, a kid, really, uncertain of myself and my future. Then I discovered a smiling, impish, gray-haired professor named Morrie who took time to get to know me, to walk with me around campus, to share lunches and ask what I thought of things.
I took every class he offered. I wrote my honors thesis with him. I often say Morrie was the first grown-up who made me feel like I could be a grown-up, too.
And grow up I did, but not the way Morrie hoped. I evolved into a very ambitious man. I became so work-obsessed that by my mid-30s, I held multiple full-time jobs, several part-time ones, and was always on the lookout for more.
Then I saw Morrie one night, quite by accident, while flipping TV channels at my home in Michigan. He was on the “Nightline” program, talking with Ted Koppel about what it was like to die.
Die? I didn’t even know he was sick. I had lost touch, thanks to my whirlwind career, with this man who had been my mentor, my inspiration, my guiding force for all four years of college.
Dying? He was dying?
Embarrassed, sheepish, I called his home, not sure if he’d even remember me. He did, of course. We spoke briefly, and he asked if I would consider visiting him in Boston.
I came once.
On a Tuesday.
Then the next Tuesday. Then the next.
And all the Tuesdays Morrie had left in his life.
The need to be held
Those Tuesdays changed my world and my outlook on what really matters. They led to the book “Tuesdays With Morrie,” which led to so many other things. But now I find myself thinking of those visits in light of our nation’s increasing shutdowns due to coronavirus.
People are being told to stay away from friends, to stay away from family, to not gather for the holidays, to avoid anyone who isn’t already in your household.
It is a creeping disconnect of our humanity, the polar opposite of what Morrie and I did every week. Our Tuesdays began with me kissing Morrie on the forehead, then sitting inches away from him for hours, often holding his hand, leaning in to hear his failing voice.
It is, essentially, everything you are not supposed to do in the time of coronavirus. What would I have done if my Tuesdays had fallen in 2020 instead of 1995?
I can’t imagine.
Morrie craved the human connection we are now denied. Although the disease had robbed him of the ability to move, he was always seeking physical touch. Rub his shoulders. Hold his hands.
I once asked why this was so important. “Mitch,” he said, “when you’re a baby — when you come into this world — what’s the one thing you need the most? To be held, caressed and comforted, right?
“Well, I’ll let you in on a secret. When you’re leaving the world, it’s the same thing. You need to be held, caressed and comforted.”
Think of how many people are missing out on that today. They are dwindling in loneliness, cut off behind locked doors in a nursing home, or counting breaths in an isolated hospital room.
If Morrie could not have received visitors, I doubt he would have lasted as long as he did.
And our last class together, like so many classes today, would have been canceled.
Empathy in suffering
There was more that Morrie shared which rings true today. One time I turned on the small black and white TV in his office — he rarely watched anything — and there was news footage from a war-torn country overseas. Morrie began to cry. I asked him why, since he’d never been to that country and didn’t know anyone from it.
“It’s hard to explain, Mitch,” he answered. “Now that I’m suffering, I feel closer to people who suffer than I ever did before.”
This was part of a philosophy Morrie often espoused: “We are more alike than different.” Deep down, we all know this is true. We are born the same way, we die the same way, we breathe, eat, grow and love the same way.
Yet our nation today is all about our differences. We invent sets and subsets, so that our identities can feel unique, and we can insist our grievances are only understood by those exactly like us.
This is silly. Why focus on all the ways humans are different and not on the ways we are the same? I’ve been asked a lot recently how Morrie would have viewed the current divide in America. I answer, “With a broken heart.”
‘You talk … I’ll listen’
There were so many gems Morrie shared with me on those precious Tuesdays in his study — “Death ends a life, not a relationship,” “Forgive everyone everything,” “Don’t let go too soon, but don’t hang on too long,” “Love is the only rational act.”
On our last Tuesday together, he was so weak, his voice so frail, that he mumbled the word “hold” and I took his hands instinctively.
He said he had a favor to ask. He wanted me to visit his grave after he was gone. To bring a blanket, bring some sandwiches, plan on staying for a while.
“Talk to me,” he whispered, “just like we’re talking now.”
I raised my eyes and naively replied, “But Morrie, it won’t be like we’re talking now, because you won’t be able to talk back.”
He pushed up a final smile. “I’ll make you a deal, Mitch. After I’m dead, you talk … I’ll listen.”
You talk, I’ll listen. I have been to that grave many times. And yes, I have spoken with him. It’s not as weird as it sounds. In fact, those “talks” continue to guide me to this day. Twenty-five years later, I am still taking Morrie’s final class.
But for the first time, on the anniversary of his death, Nov. 4, I thought about his last request and realized how much it was also about him, about the primal human need to feel connected, to be visited and spoken to, while we’re on earth and even after we’re gone.
And I realize how tragic it is for the Morries of today and those they have influenced, their children, their grandchildren, their former students, to be denied those connections. To be locked inside somewhere. Think of all we are missing with this virus. Think of all those who will pass before this cursed disease does.
Death ends a life, but not a relationship. I’ve always felt blessed to have had the Tuesdays with Morrie that I did.
Now I feel blessed to have had them when I did.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.
Thank you for this. It captures the need for, and today’s loss of, connection beautifully. Human beings need loving touch in order to be whole and thrive.