He had always been a dancer, my old professor. The music didn’t matter. . . . He used to go to this church in Harvard Square every Wednesday night for something called “Dance Free.” 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. . . . No one there knew he was a prominent doctor of sociology. . . . They just thought he was some old nut.
The author, Mitch, explains that Morrie does not care much about societal rules. He enjoys dancing, so he dances. If others judge him to be weird, he does not care. Notably, he attends these dance sessions solo: Although he is happily married, his more reserved wife, Charlotte, probably would not enjoy this activity. He neither expects her to participate nor denies himself the pleasure of doing so.
“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. . . .
Morrie cried and laughed with them. . . . His “living funeral” was a rousing success.
Shortly after Morrie receives his ALS diagnosis, he attends a colleague’s funeral and notes how he wishes his friend could have heard the kind things said about him. Knowing that he will die soon, Morrie throws himself a living funeral so that he can hear the nice words that his friend Irv missed. Morrie undoubtedly enjoys all of his friends’ tributes as well as the subversion of societal norms, but the event also helps people accept the coming loss and thus start the grieving process in an open and healthy way.
Soon the cameras were rolling in front of the living room fireplace, with Koppel in his crisp blue suit and Morrie in his shaggy gray sweater. He had refused fancy clothes or makeup for this interview. His philosophy was that death should not be embarrassing; he was not about to powder its nose.
While appearing on TV, most people wear makeup to compensate for the bright lights. But in Morrie’s mind, if he looks unwell, that’s only reality, and he does not need to be ashamed of his appearance or the fact that he is dying. In truth, Morrie most likely would have made the same choice even if healthy. He had long been an advocate of authenticity, not caring about superficial appearance or mainstream expectations.
“Ted,” he said, “when all this started, I asked myself, ‘Am I going to withdraw from the world, like most people do, or am I going to live?’ I decided I’m going to live—or at least try to live—the way I want, with dignity, with courage, with humor, with composure.
“There are some mornings when I cry and cry and mourn for myself. Some mornings, I’m so angry and bitter. But it doesn’t last long. Then I get up and say, ‘I want to live . . . ’”
While being interviewed on TV by Ted Koppel, Morrie acknowledges that he does not always feel cheerful and accepting of his coming death. He makes the conscious choice to continue living as fully as possible. By letting the public know that he sometimes struggles, Morrie provides an opportunity for others to potentially follow his example. Otherwise, people might just see him as a superhuman or a saint, someone they cannot emulate.
“The culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it.”
Morrie, true to these words, had developed his own culture—long before he got sick. Discussion groups, walks with friends, dancing to his music in the Harvard Square church. He started a project called Greenhouse, where poor people could receive mental health services. He read books to find more ideas for his classes, visited with colleagues, kept up with old students, wrote letters to distant friends.
Mitch remembers advice Morrie gave him when Morrie was his professor. As Mitch points out, Morrie has long lived the way that he is more publicly advocating now. He kept active, helped others, broadened his mind, and kept up connections with people. These choices may seem like the obvious keys to happiness, but as Morrie notes, few have the strength to create their own culture in the face of mainstream expectations.
“It’s only horrible if you see it that way,” Morrie said. “It’s horrible to watch my body slowly wilt away to noting. But it’s also wonderful because of all the time I get to say good-bye.”
He smiled. “Not everyone is so lucky.”
After Mitch remarks that Morrie’s death seems like a horrible one, Morrie offers a different point of view. Morrie sees both good and bad aspects. He does have plenty of time to say goodbye and, as he is doing via this book, to impart the wisdom he already possessed plus whatever he learns from the experience. However, declaring himself lucky requires a decision to be positive because by many other measures, such as pain, debility, and lost life span, the disease truly appears horrible.
He was eight years old. A telegram came from the hospital, and since his father, a Russian immigrant, could not read English, Morrie had to break the news, reading his mother’s death notice like a student in front of the class: We regret to inform you . . . ” he began.
Mitch describes how Morrie learned of his mother’s death. Not only was the news presented in a dry, compassion-less manner, he then had to break the news to his own father. She had been ill for many years, but since they were not with her at the hospital, losing her must not have been expected, and they probably never said their farewells. Morrie’s appreciation for his long goodbye makes sense given this history.
He had raised his two sons to be loving and caring, and, like Morrie, they were not shy with their affections. Had he so desired, they would have stopped what they were doing to be with their father every minute of his final months. But that was not what he wanted.
“Do not stop your lives,” he told them. “Otherwise, this disease will have ruined three of us instead of one.”
Morrie loves having his family around him. But he asks his sons to continue living their lives even as he is dying. He does not want them to suffer just because he is suffering. Even though they would likely have considered spending that time with their dad a privilege, he knows that watching him suffer would be painful for them. While they do visit frequently, they are not involved in his round-the-clock care.
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 own behind. But then I figured, Forget what the culture says. I have ignored the culture much of my life. . . . And you know what? The strangest thing. . . . I began to enjoy my dependency. . . . 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.
Morrie has always loved physical contact: hugs, dancing, hand-holding. With a distant father and a mother who was ill and then died when he was eight, Morrie probably experienced far less physical care than most children. Here, he explains that after overcoming the embarrassment that comes with dependency, he enjoys the long-lost sensations of childhood. By letting go of a norm imposed on him by society, Morrie grants himself pleasure in an otherwise unpleasant time.
I had a terrible spell. It went on for hours. And I really wasn’t sure I was going to make it. No breath. No end to the choking. At one point, I started to get dizzy . . . and then I felt a certain peace, I felt that I was ready to go. . . . Mitch, it was a most incredible feeling. The sensation of accepting what was happening, being at peace. I was thinking about a dream I had last week, where I was crossing a bridge into something unknown. Being ready to move on to whatever is next. . . . I didn’t. But I felt that I could.
Morrie’s breathing has become increasingly difficult, and he has terrible coughing fits. He describes one coughing fit during which he believed the end had arrived, and he found he was able to accept the idea of letting go. Although he is happy he survived that moment, the experience gives him both peace and satisfaction to know that he should be ready when the time does come. He calls the ability to accept death “what we’re all looking for.”