There is a small stack of books in the lunchroom at my office topped by a paper sign that says “Free” (it used to be a larger stack but it seems people, myself included, have been taking advantage of this anonymous book donor’s offer). One of the books was a small, unassuming paperback of Mitch Albom’s bestseller Tuesdays with Morrie. I knew the book was famous, I knew its size was perfect for easy carriage in my work bag, and I liked the look of it. So I took it, and I read it, and I guess I’m glad I did.
The book is both a memoir of the author’s relationship with his subject, and a series of life lessons imparted by the author’s late professor (and beloved friend) Morris “Morrie” Schwartz, collected on weekly (Tuesday) visits as Morrie’s body succumbed to ALS, a fatal and debilitating illness with no cure.
To be frank, a triumph of literature this ain’t. The language is so simple a fifth grader could read it. The book offers no literary surprises, no elegance, and only a very loose structure to keep it all together. As I began reading, I thought, how simplistic. How sentimental. How weird (this one was in reference to Morrie’s strange teaching methods in his sociology courses at Brandeis University). And yet….and yet.
This is a book the author approaches with no ego, only a tremendous love for his friend and respect for the ways in which he chose to live and chose to die. Yes, the book is simple. Yes, the book is emotional. But Albom is so earnest about this project, so sincere in his desire to share what his professor taught him, that Tuesdays with Morrie, the pair’s “final thesis” together, managed to win me over despite my snobbish cynicism.
I won’t bother sharing Morrie’s lessons here. To list them out as separate from the conversations that engendered them really would over-simplify them, and make them appear to be nothing more than the usual “love thy neighbour, love thyself” philosophies we encounter on motivational posters and internet memes and in self-help books every day. The fact of the matter is that nothing Morrie had to say about life was anything I had not already heard or read before. The important thing is that he said them while he was dying, while his body was literally decaying from the legs up. Facing imminent death preceded by incredible pain and complete helplessness, Morrie still believed in the importance of love, gratitude, and forgiveness, and believed that he was a lucky man.
For me the significant and profound parts of the book are not to be found in what Morrie said, but in the ways in which Albom’s interactions with him in his dying months demonstrate the principles he wished to share. During his first Tuesday with Morrie, Albom is sheepish, not having seen his old professor in more than a decade (despite promising, after graduation, to keep in touch). By the final weeks of Morrie’s life Albom is massaging cream into Morrie’s feet (paralyzed by ALS but still, cruelly, perfectly able to feel pain and discomfort). He is helping his friend get comfortable in his chair (no small feat once Morrie is unable to move his body on his own), learning to hit his professor’s frail back to help dislodge the phlegm that threatens to choke him. Albom learns not to be disgusted by the smell of his friend’s dying body, or by the colostomy bag that sits on the floor beneath his chair. He hugs his friend, holds his hands. He kisses his old prof’s cheeks, without embarrassment or awkwardness. No money, status symbol, or prestigious career could have given Morrie the love he received at the end of this life. It was there for him because he was loving.
As I look forward to my wedding in August and the marriage that will follow it, I think about what it truly means to love and support another person, as if their joys were my joys and their pain were mine. I think about the fact that there is no way of knowing what the future will bring and although I hope for a bright one, there will almost certainly be dark times (not too dark if I’m lucky). Throughout the book, Morrie continuously, almost feverishly, quotes the poet W. H. Auden: “Love each other or perish,” Morrie says, and I’m beginning to understand it now. We enter life completely dependent upon the care of others, and many of us will exit in the same condition. Without love, how could any of us survive?
Now that I’m finished reading the book I understand why its language is so simple. Tuesdays with Morrie is an accessible book, and it should be. I don’t know if I will ever read it again (it was quite sad) but I’ve decided to keep it around. One day, maybe I’ll have a teenager I can give it to. I can say, “Here, read this book. It’s not long and it’s not hard. When you’re done, you tell me if your allowance is so important.” I look forward to it.