The narrator, Mitch Albom, gives a brief introductory explanation of his weekly meetings each Tuesday with Morrie, his former college professor. He depicts these meetings as a continuation of his studies with Morrie, each of them a separate class on the meaning of life. The class had been held in Morrie's home, in his study, where he had watched a pink hibiscus plant shed its leaves. This plant serves as an important symbol throughout the book. Mitch reflects that no grades had been given, and that no books had been required for his final class with Morrie. A funeral, he says, had been held in place of a graduation, and his final thesis paper is the book that follows.
In a flashback, Mitch remembers his graduation from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. On a hot Saturday afternoon in the late spring of 1979, hundreds of graduating students sit on the main campus lawn in blue nylon robes. After he receives his diploma, Mitch approaches Morrie, his favorite professor, and introduces him to his parents. Mitch describes Morrie as a very small, fragile-looking older man with crooked teeth and a big smile. Morrie tells Mitch's parents that their son has taken every one of his classes, and that they have a "very special boy," a compliment that embarrasses Mitch. Before he leaves, Mitch presents Morrie with a tan briefcase that he has had engraved with Morrie's initials. Mitch wants to give a special gift to Morrie so that they will never forget one another. Morrie hugs Mitch and tells him to keep in touch, which Mitch promises to do. When they break from the hug, Mitch notices that Morrie is crying.
Morrie's "death sentence" had arrived in the summer of 1994, when he had given up dancing. He had loved to dance, regardless of what kind of music was being played. In his health, he would go to a church in Harvard Square each Wednesday night for an event called "Dance Free," which catered mainly to students and other young people. Morrie, a distinguished doctor of sociology, would go in sweat pants and a T-shirt, and dance all night until he was soaked with sweat.
However, when Morrie had developed asthma in his sixties, the dancing stopped. One day as he was along the Charles River, a cold gust of wind had left him breathless, and he was rushed to the hospital and injected with adrenaline. A few years later, he had trouble walking and fell down the stairs at a theater. Most had seen these health problems as common symptoms of old age, but Morrie had known that it was something more serious, as he had dreams of dying and was weary all the time. Doctors had found nothing wrong from his blood and urine samples, though after testing a muscle biopsy, had diagnosed Morrie with a neurological problem.
On a hot day in August of 1994, Morrie and his wife, Charlotte, had been told by his doctor that he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Lou Gherig's disease, an incurable illness which attacks the neurological system and causes loss of muscle control. The doctor had patiently answered Morrie and Charlotte's questions for nearly two hours, and had given them informational pamphlets to study. Morrie had felt as if the world had come to an end.
Shortly thereafter, Morrie could no longer drive, or walk without the help of a cane. He had swam regularly, though he had needed his home care worker, Tony, to dress and undress him. That fall, Morrie had taught his last course at Brandeis. He had told the class that there was a chance he might not make it to the end of the semester, and that he would understand if any students should want to drop the class.
Mitch compares ALS to a lit candle, saying it "melts your nerves and leaves your body a pile of wax." Your soul, he says, is awake, though your body is completely deadened. Morrie's doctors guessed that it would take two years for his body to deteriorate completely, though Morrie had known it would be less, and had decided that his own death will be his final project. In time, Morrie cannot even go to the bathroom by himself, which would be embarrassing for most people, though, eventually, it is not for Morrie. After attending a colleagues' funeral, Morrie is depressed that the deceased never get the opportunity to hear the good things said about them at their funerals. Thus, he decides to hold a "living funeral" for himself, which is a great success. One woman reads a poem about a "tender sequoia" that moves Morrie to tears.
In nearly every chapter of the book, Mitch flashes back to his days at Brandeis University. These flashbacks provide a clear picture of Mitch during his youth, a picture that starkly contrasts the money-hungry businessman he has grown to be in his adulthood. The flashbacks also help to explain why Mitch feels compelled to see his professor, as he knows that he can help him to regain the goodness and faith he possessed during his college years. Also important is the background information that the flashbacks provide about the relationship between Morrie and Mitch prior to Mitch's adult conversion. Thus, the reader is able to juxtapose their former relationship with the one they have rekindled.
In his flashback to his graduation from Brandeis, Mitch's feelings of love and admiration for Morrie, his favorite professor, are unmistakable. It is clear that the two men have shared a unique relationship, which is gradually revealed in the flashbacks. The tears Morrie sheds when Mitch gives him the briefcase indicate his unabashed emotion, which intensifies with the onset of his disease. Morrie is a man who embraces emotion instead of stifling it, and throughout the book, he encourages Mitch to do the same. The briefcase itself is symbolic of the rare relationship that Mitch and Morrie share. Their relationship has transcended the typical professor-student relationship, which is normally distant and professional, to become an intimate, loving friendship. Mitch and Morrie have chosen to go beyond the typically impersonal relationship of a student and his teacher; they are similar to the business-like leather briefcase that has been engraved with a personal emblem unlike any other.
Morrie's personality is further revealed when Mitch relays the story of his former professor's wild nights at "Dance Free" in Harvard Square. Morrie is an old man with an exceptionally youthful, enduring spirit, which perseveres throughout his illness and will play a key role in his Tuesday lessons with Mitch. When the body that contains Morrie's youthful spirit is prescribed an expiration date by medical professionals, Morrie surely feels as if a part of him has been killed, as he can no longer enjoy even dancing, his long-time favorite hobby. Upon learning of his illness, Morrie wonders why the world does not stop and acknowledge his illness. He is perturbed at the sight of men and women going about their daily routine, namely because his routine has been capped. Life as he knows it is essentially over, and the story that follows tells of how Morrie copes with his own death sentence.
Morrie is a very honest man, and throughout the book, must rely on his friends, family, and aides to do nearly everything for him, even the most personal necessities, such as undressing, which Tony must do for him in the pool locker room. Despite this dependency, Morrie is not embarrassed, as he rejects the cultural laws that deem natural functions and natural needs inappropriate or taboo. When Morrie tells his students that he will understand if they choose to drop his class, he is acknowledging the modern culture's fear of death, which he takes strides to overcome.