DEAD MAN LISTENING
Reading is a passion with me. I pick a book/magazine at the doctor’s office and get so engrossed that the irritated receptionist has to blow her ‘horn’ several times before I respond. Then I will carry it in so that I can furtively read whenever my busy doctor gets a call from one of his many patients.
I’m reading a fantastic book at the moment called ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ written by a student of his, Mitch Albom. Here are some nuggets from this runaway bestseller for you to savour.
Morrie Schwatz was a professor who contracted ‘ALS, a brutal, unforgiving illness of the neurological system. It is like a lit candle; it melts your nerves and leaves your body a pile of wax.’
The author used to meet his aging mentor every Tuesday before he succumbed to the disease. At every meeting, he learnt something new. In Morrie’s own words (he wished to have it written on his tombstone!), he was a “teacher to the last”. The professor’s final course: His Own Death.
Morrie used to say, “So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” He started a project where poor people could receive mental health services, read books to find new ideas for his classes, visited with colleagues, kept in touch with old students, wrote letters to distant friends. The most important thing in life, according to Morrie, was to “learn how to give out love, and to let it come in.”
Morrie was eight years old when his mother died. His father, a Russian immigrant, could not read English, so Morrie had to read the death notice ‘like a student in front of the class’. The family had come to America, to escape his father being forced into the Russian Army. They were terribly poor and on public assistance most of the time. Still, despite their circumstances, Morrie was taught to love and to care. And to learn. His stepmother would accept nothing less than excellence in school, because she saw education as the only antidote to their poverty. He studied at night, by the lamp at the kitchen table.
When Morrie was a teenager, his father took him to a fur factory where he worked; he wanted the young boy to get a job there. But there was barely enough work for the adult labourers, and no one was giving it up. This, for Morrie, was a blessing, because he hated the place. Then and there, he made a vow that he kept to the end of his life: he would never do any work that exploited someone else, and he would never allow himself to make money off the sweat of others. He ruled out law, because he didn’t like lawyers, and he ruled out medicine, because he couldn’t stand the sight of blood. So, through default, the best professor Mitch ever had became a teacher.
Every Tuesday, Morrie and Mitch discussed topics like family, emotions, the world, regrets, fear of aging, money, marriage, forgiveness and about the ‘perfect’ day. On money, he had this to say: “Wherever I went in life, I met people wanting to gobble something up. Gobble up a new car. Gobble up a new piece of property. Gobble up the latest toy. And then they wanted to tell you about it. ‘Guess what I got? Guess what I got?’ You know how I always interpreted that? These were people so hungry for love that they were accepting substitutes. They were embracing material things and expecting a hug back.”
His views on marriage were strong. “If you don’t respect the other person, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. If you don’t know how to compromise, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. If you can’t talk openly about what goes on between you, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. And if you don’t have a common set of values in life, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble.” According to him, “the poor kids today, either they’re too selfish to take part in a real loving relationship, or they rush into marriage and then six months later, they get divorced. They don’t know what they want in a partner. They don’t know who they are themselves- so how can they know who they’re marrying?”
Morrie believed in the inherent good of people. But he also saw what they could become. “People are only mean when they’re threatened.” he said once. “And when you get threatened, you start looking out only for yourself. You start making money a god. I don’t buy into this culture. You have to work at creating your own culture. Later, he went on to say “In the beginning of life, when we are infants, we need others to survive, right? And at the end of life, when you get like me, you need others to survive, right? But here’s the secret: in between, we need others as well. Invest in the human family; care about that family the way you care about your own.”
When asked what it would be like when a long-standing friend of his (who was going deaf) visited Morrie (who, in his last stages, would not be able to speak), he said, “We will hold hands and there’ll be a lot of love passing between us. You don’t need speech or hearing to feel that.”
A perfect day for Morrie was “I’d get up in the morning, do my exercises, have a lovely breakfast of sweet rolls and tea, go for a swim, then have my friends come over for a nice lunch. I’d have them come one or two at a time so we could talk about their families, their issues, talk about how much we mean to each other. Then I’d go for a walk, in a garden with some trees, watch their colours, watch the birds. In the evening, we’d all go together to a restaurant with some great pasta, maybe some duck, and then we’d dance the rest of the night. I’d dance with all the wonderful dance partners out there until I was exhausted. And then I’d go home and have a deep, wonderful sleep.”
He died on a Saturday morning, when those he loved had left the room just for a moment-to grab a cup of coffee. Mitch believes Morrie wanted no one to witness his last breath and be haunted by it, the way he had been haunted by his mother’s death notice or by his father’s corpse in the city morgue (his father had been mugged one night and died of a heart attack trying to escape). He wanted to go serenely, and that is how he went.
Before he died, Mitch and Morrie discussed things like his burial arrangements and even a place was chosen for his ashes to be buried. He invited Mitch to visit him at the grave every Tuesday and tell him his problems. When Mitch asked him if he would give answers to them, Morrie just closed his eyes, smiled, and said “Tell you what. After I’m dead, you talk. And I’ll listen.”