December 15, 2018

Life and Death with Morrie

Mitch Albom,highly decorated sportswriter for the Detroit Free Press, has probedevery subject from Dennis Rodman to Latrell Sprewell. Yet hisbest-selling book, “Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man,and Life’s Great Lessons,” finds him tackling an even more demandingsubject: death.

Watching “Nightline” one evening, Albom wasstunned to discover that his former Brandeis University professor,Morrie Schwartz — with whom Albom shared a close relationship as astudent in the 1970s — is the topic of conversation. Schwartz wasdying of Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).

Keeping a vow he had made 18 years prior to thethen-60-year-old sociology professor, Albom decided to visit the oldman in his suburban Boston home one Tuesday afternoon. Every Tuesdaythereafter — a total of 14 — became set aside for Morrie and Albomto meet together — talking, laughing, living.

Those meetings became their “last class together,”with the book being Albom’s final thesis — and tribute — to hisfallen professor.

“I didn’t want it to be a death book. I wanted itto be a life book,” said Albom, who was in Los Angeles last month fora speaking engagement at Sinai Temple. “So, every time I felt myselfgetting sad, I would steer away from that.”

With Morrie dispensing his wisdom on life — anddeath — and Albom providing the warm comfort of an open ear, the twodeveloped a kindred spirit of sorts.

Albom, who, at the impressionable age of 20, hadto watch his uncle die, said that he was “stupid about death” at thetime, refusing to ask his dying uncle the types of questions thatweighed on his mind lest he become too close to a man who would soonbe leaving him.

With Morrie, things would be different.

“It was hard to go every week and watch somebodydie, but I looked forward to it,” said Albom, who admits that he feltjaded and confused about his career — and his life — beforereuniting with Morrie. “It was hard, but it was great that we wereable to talk up until the end, and I could ask all the questions Iever had about death.”

What did he feel about dying? Was he scared? Wouldhe do anything differently, given the chance? (“No, nothing. I lovedmy life — and my death,” answered Morrie, who was, by then,bedridden.) What’s it like waking up, knowing in a week or two, youwon’t?

In time, all his questions would be answered.Albom decided to make the last 14 weeks of Morrie’s life (“Coach,” hecalled him) their last class together. The book, an account of theirmeetings together, was initially written (a joint decision by Morrieand Albom) to defray some of the mounting medical costs that Morriefeared would leave his family encumbered after his death.

After Morrie’s death, however, the book, whichAlbom finished in nine months, bore new meaning for its author. Thementor’s final wish was that the young sports journalist visit him atthe cemetery “to talk.” Incredulous, Albom asked how he could hold aconversation with somebody who was, well, dead.

“You talk, I’ll listen,” said Morrie.

“And that is the essence of the book,” said Albom,who, since rediscovering Morrie, has rebuilt relationships withbrothers and sisters with whom he had lost touch. (His youngerbrother, stricken with brain cancer seven years ago, lives in Spain,and Albom recently visited him after not seeing each other for overfive years.) “If you lead your life as he did — with people, makingmemories with people — then when you’re gone, you’re not completelygone, because you spent your time while you were here putting yourvoice into their lives.”

Never particularly religious, Albom finds himselfgoing to synagogue nowadays, helping with charity benefits and doingthe sorts of things that, before meeting Morrie, he would have deemeda waste of time: “Work. Work. Work. It’s all I did.” Now, Judaism hasa renewed influence on Albom, who, along with wife Janine, lives inMichigan. He said that he now savors his newfound connection to hiscultural background.

“I don’t worry about things so much anymore,” hesaid. “Work isn’t nearly as important as it used to be, because I’mspending more time with my family. Morrie taught me, taught us all,the beauty of life and the dignity of death. I’ll always rememberthat. In fact, for the very first time, me and my wife are trying tohave children.”

Avi Lidgi is a free-lance writer in LosAngeles