Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom recounts the afternoons he spent with his old college professor, Morrie Schwartz, after discovering that Morrie was dying from ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease). For anyone interested in the study of death and dying, the book is a tremendous resource. When we speak about death speculatively or theoretically, many of us fantasize about living a long healthy life and then dying quite suddenly in one's sleep. Morrie's medical condition provides the polar opposite, a slow wasting away, often in agonizing pain. Albom describes the effects of the ALS later in the book:
His legs needed constant tending (he could still feel pain, even though he could not move them, another one of ALS's cruel little ironies) and unless his feet dangled just the right number of inches off the foam pads, it felt as if someone were poking him with a fork. In the middle of conversations, Morrie would have to ask visitors to lift his foot and move it just an inch, or adjust his head so that it fit more easily into the palm of the colored pillows. Can you imagine being unable to move your own head? (Albom 131)
The horrifying way in which Morrie's situation contradicts most people's wish for a quiet swift death, however, is not received by Morrie with horror. Instead, Morrie (as befits an educator) treats the ALS as basically a learning experience, and tries to offer it up to Mitch in the same way. In some sense, of course, what Morrie is learning is that the subjective experience of such things is different from the perception of them as an outsider: to anyone who cannot move his own head, it must seem like something horrifying an unimaginable. But Morrie is quick to observe to Mitch that there are no innate qualities to the experience he is undergoing -- the most important aspect is still his own subjective perception of the experience, which is something he has control over:
Take my condition. The things I am supposed to be embarrassed about now -- not being able to walk, not being able to wipe my ass, waking up some mornings wanting to cry -- there is nothing innately embarrassing about them. It's the same for women not being thin enough, or men not being rich enough. It's just what our culture would have you believe. Don't believe it. (Albom 155)
In other words, what is most disturbing to the outsider about Morrie's death does not seem that way to Morrie himself. As he would tell Ted Koppel in his "Nightline" interview, "My dignity comes from my inner self." (Schwartz 2007). He refuses to be embarrassed, perhaps because the sorts of things he is undergoing is the sort of thing everyone might potentially undergo. A baby can't walk or wipe its ass either, and we were all babies once.
The experience of having a baby is, in fact, one that Morrie singles out as being the most meaningful in life: he believes having children is the only route to "learn how to love and bond in the deepest way." I personally disagree with this statement, largely because I think there are many different ways to form communal bonds, and biological bonds are only one. Does this statement apply to people who can only adopt children? Does it apply to LGBT people who don't automatically engage in child-rearing practices, but who do form intense social communities that care for each other? In reality, I think the better lesson about how to love and bond in a deep way is given by Morrie when he discusses the issue of trust. Here, he tells Mitch "You see, . . . you closed your eyes. That was the difference. Sometimes you cannot believe what you see, you have to believe what you feel. And if you are ever going to have people trust you, you must feel that you can trust them, too -- even when you're in the dark. Even when you're falling." (Albom 61). In some sense, human existence with or without children is like falling in the dark: the bonds we make, we make because we trust people to catch us, as they trust us to catch them. This experience might be qualitatively different with a child, because a child has no choice but to trust his or her parents. But I think it is possible to take such a leap of faith willingly with people that one is not necessarily related to.
This difference in strategies for life -- in which something like child-rearing might be considered more optional than Morrie seems to consider it -- can also be expanded to take into account different cultures and religions. Albom notes that "Morrie borrowed freely from all religions" and also that "the things that he was saying in his final months on earth seemed to transcend all religious difference" because "death has a way of doing that" (Albom 81-2). For example, Morrie offers Albom some wisdom from the Buddhist tradition: "do what the Buddhists do. Every day have a little bird on your shoulder that asks, Is today the day? Am I ready? Am I doing all I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be?..Is today the day I die?" (Albom 81). This is interesting because, in some sense, every culture has a built-in notion that makes it easier for the dying to let go. In the Hindu tradition, for example, the famous text of the Bhagavad-Gita involves a young prince, Arjuna, being taught the lessons of life and death by the god Krishna: one of the lessons, however, is about the concept of Maya, which is the notion that the world is fundamentally an illusion, and this includes our sense of death as a finality. Very few people are able to live day-to-day imagining that life is basically no more real than a dream, however when we are dying it must be an acceptable thought, to know that death might have no more substantial effect than sleep.
I know that my own experience of loss resembles to a certain extent the story of what happens to Morrie. I lost a grandparent to Alzheimer's disease, which has the same slow wasting effect that ALS has -- but worse than ALS, it wipes out the mind. Morrie is able to continue learning even as he atrophies, which seems like some sort of compensation: ALS permits Morrie to argue that "Aging is not just decay, you know. It's growth. It's more than the negative that you're going to die, it's the positive that you understand you're going to die, and that you live a better life because of it." (Albom 118). The difficulty with Alzheimer's, however, is that aging does basically become decay: you have essentially said goodbye to a grandparent a long time before that grandparent actually physically dies. In the case of my grandmother, a complicated case of diverticulitis compounded with a bowel obstruction left my mother and her sisters in a difficult position: should they submit this woman, who no longer even recognized who they were and who, when lucid, was often engaged in terrifying paranoia about what was taking place at the assisted living facility, to surgery that might not work? In the end the decision was made to discontinue her feeding tube and not pursue the surgery. When I tell this story to friends, it somehow sounds barbaric in describing the details, so I have to explain: yes, it is very strange to be told that your grandmother will be taken off a feeding tube, so you can plan for her to die in about a week to ten days. However, that does not seem so weird when she has been suffering from Alzheimer's for years: that already puts you in the position of knowing that the end is coming and is inevitable, and instead the question becomes whether or not it would be more merciful for something like pneumonia to end the suffering. I'm not even certain that it was suffering for her -- much of the time she seemed blank or ignorant. But it was a story that was very different from Morrie, who experiences grievous pain and physical decline, but who remains intelligent and conversational until the very end. Morrie tells Ted Koppel that dignity comes from his inner self -- but it is terrifying to contemplate ways of dying that strip the individual of that inner self first.
Albom, Mitch. Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, and Life's Greatest Lesson. New York: Broadway Books, 2002. Print.
Schwartz, Morrie. "Morrie: Lessons on Living (with Ted Koppel) -- 8." YouTube. Video. Accessed 3 March 2014 at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dyPKXZSFSP0
Most of us have read of people discussing the way they'd like to die, or, perhaps, have been a part of that conversation. One common thought is that it would be best to live a long, healthy…