He tells my parents how I look every class he taught. He tells them, “You have a special boy here.” Embarrassed, I look down 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 remembers his graduation day and the last time he saw Morrie before reuniting years later. Although they have not been in touch for sixteen years, the fact that Mitch bought Morrie a personalized gift, as well as the fact that he took all of Morrie’s classes, shows that Morrie truly held an unusually important place in Mitch’s life at that time. Given this closeness, the fact that they lost contact seems surprising.
I stopped renting. I started buying. I bought a house on a hill. I bought cars. I invested in stocks and built a portfolio. I was cranked to a fifth gear, and everything I did, I did on a deadline. I exercised like a demon. I drove my car at breakneck speed. I made more money than I had ever figured to see.
After changing career goals, Mitch quickly achieves success as a sports journalist, in part because of his breakneck pace of work. With his work success comes financial success, which he uses in the standard ways: buying cars, real estate, and investments. Mitch represents the classic American success story. He does not spend that money on vacations. He does not stop to enjoy these achievements. He merely continues to work hard.
I buried myself in accomplishments, because with accomplishments, I believed I could control things, I could squeeze in every last piece of happiness before I got sick and died, like my uncle before me, which I figured was my natural fate.
Mitch lost his favorite uncle to pancreatic cancer when Mitch was in his early twenties and his uncle in his forties. In fact, Mitch was living with his uncle at the time, so he witnessed his uncle’s suffering and demise. Here, Mitch reveals that as he was convinced he too would die young, he chose to live at top speed. At the time, to him, living well meant achieving success and being recognized for his accomplishments.
For all the time we 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.
On his way to visit Morrie for the first time in sixteen years, Mitch is also on the phone, working. At the time (the mid-1990s), talking on the phone while driving was an unusual activity, unlike today. Mitch’s multitasking shows both that he feels driven to work constantly and also that he has not given himself time to prepare emotionally for his reunion with Morrie.
What happened to me? I asked myself. Morrie’s high, smoky voice took me back to my university years, when I thought rich people were evil, a shirt and tie were prison clothes, and life without freedom to get up and go—motorcycle beneath you, breeze in your face, down the streets of Paris, into the mountains of Tibet—was not a good life at all. What happened to me?
Visiting with Morrie for the first time since college reminds Mitch of the person he was back then, the person Morrie so warmly remembers and may assume Mitch remains. Mitch suddenly realizes that he has changed radically since college. He now cares about money, is tied down to a job—or jobs—and would consider walking away from work highly irresponsible. Suddenly, Mitch views the path he has taken with something other than pride.
I felt confused and depressed. Although the TV and radio work were nice supplements, the newspaper had been my lifeline, my oxygen; when I saw my stories in print each morning, I knew that, in at least one way, I was alive. Now it was gone. And as the strike continued—the first day, the second day, the third day—there were worried phone calls and rumors that this would go on for months. Everything I had known was upside down.
The unions at Mitch’s main employer, the Detroit Free Press, are striking, and Mitch suddenly finds himself out of work for the first time in his adult life. Without work, his life feels lacking in meaning, which naturally makes him depressed. He also does not have an end date to give him something to look forward to. Questioning his self-worth and identity, Mitch feels naturally drawn back to Morrie, an expert on how to find meaning in life.
For all the noise I make with my friends, I am still not comfortable talking about my feelings in front of others—especially not classmates. I could sit in the quiet for hours if that is what the class demanded. On my way out, Morrie stops me: “You didn’t say much today,” he remarks. I don’t know. I just didn’t have anything to add. “I think you have a lot to add. In fact, Mitch, you remind me of someone I knew who also liked to keep things to himself when he was younger. . . . Me.”
Mitch recalls an interaction with Morrie when he was Morrie’s student. Surprisingly, Morrie suggests that he, too, used to be reticent to share his feelings: Up to this point, the Morrie readers have seen shares his feelings easily. While Mitch may not have opened up right away, in recalling this moment Mitch shows that he remembers being offered the potential to become a different, more open person.
I was ripped with guilt for what I felt I should be doing for him and fueled with anger for his denying me the right to do it. So once again, I dove into work. I worked because I could control it. I worked because work was sensible and responsible. And each time I would call my brother’s apartment in Spain and get the answering machine . . . I would hang up and work some more.
Mitch always expected to develop pancreatic cancer like his uncle, but instead, Mitch’s brother, Peter, got sick. Peter lives in Europe and does not want his family involved as he fights the disease, which frustrates Mitch’s urge to help. Mitch’s default mode is working because he can control work, and work offers him immediate returns, both financial and emotional. However, Mitch seems to recognize that work won’t truly solve his problem.
I sat at the far end of his chair, holding his bare feet. . . . I had a small jar of lotion, and I squeezed some into my hands and began to massage his ankles. It was another of the things I had watched his helpers do for months, and now, in an attempt to hold on to what I could of him, I had volunteered to do it myself. . . . [A]t this point, anything I could do to make him happy, I was going to do.
Mitch has changed over the months of visiting Morrie, gradually becoming more comfortable with the physical aspects of Morrie’s care, as he describes here. Mitch feels surprised by his own increasing comfort with Morrie’s physical needs and with intimacy in general. The change occurred gradually as he and Morrie spent time together talking about Morrie’s impending death, among other topics. Mitch may gradually have realized that, in the face of death, embarrassment is a waste of time.
Not long after Morrie’s death, I reached my brother in Spain. We had a long talk. I told him I respected his distance, and that all I wanted was to be in touch—in the present, not just the past—to hold him in my life as much as he could let me. “You’re my only brother,” I said. “I don’t want to lose you. I love you.” I had never said such a thing to him before.
Mitch’s conversations with Morrie have made him comfortable expressing his emotions openly, as Morrie encouraged. And losing Morrie so soon after reuniting with him probably also makes Mitch even more worried about losing his brother without having the chance to renew their closeness. At the same time, Morrie helped Mitch see that he can’t push his own emotional needs onto Peter. With his new sensitivity, Mitch expresses himself to Peter sincerely and thus effectively.