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A professor’s final course: his own death

In this 1995 story for the Globe, Jack Thomas wrote about Brandeis professor Morrie Schwartz, who would later become the inspiration for the bestseller “Tuesdays With Morrie.”

Morrie Schwartz photographed in 1995 for a Globe story.Mark Wilson/Globe staff / File

This story was originally published in the Living section of The Boston Globe on March 9, 1995.


After three decades on the faculty at Brandeis, professor Morris Schwartz is teaching his final class, a course without syllabus, without blackboard and without even a classroom, except for the den of his West Newton home, or perhaps the kitchen table, where he meets regularly with students and colleagues for discourses on a subject of unusual intimacy: his approaching death.

“He’s dying in a profound way,” said colleague Maurice Stein, “and what fascinates his friends is that, unlike most people terminally ill who retire into the woodwork, he has blossomed. He’s written 75 aphorisms on dying with dignity, and they’re brilliant. What I’m learning is that there’s a better way to die, that you don’t have to go quietly into the night.”

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Diagnosed last summer with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which has sapped his strength but not his scholarship, Schwartz, at 78, has become a mentor to friends, students and colleagues, young and old, individually and in groups, who make pilgrimages to his home to learn what they can about the grand mystery — death.

“Wait here in the kitchen for him,” says his caretaker.

The next sound is a shuffle . . . shuffle . . . shuffle, and you turn to be greeted by a smiling Schwartz, a Jewish Mr. Chips who is leaning on an aluminum walker as he baby-steps toward the kitchen table.

“Let me sit down before I shake your hand,” he jokes. “Otherwise, I’ll fall down.”

His shrunken body is wrapped in baggy clothes that make no concession to fashion. His hair, wispy and gray, frames a face creased by days of laughter and nights of fear.

Dying men do not waste time, and once introductions are made, Morrie, as he likes to be called, is eager to talk about what Shakespeare called the journey’s end.

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“People are drawn to me because I’m dying in this gradual way. They come here and we get into ultimate issues, what it means to live, how you want to see life end. We’re all curious about death, but we rarely meet someone who is dying and willing to talk about it, and I’m very open. You can ask me anything.”

To know in advance that one is dying — is that a blessing or a curse?

“I guess I’d prefer this, not merely because it extends life, but also because it’s a phase of growth. And even though I’m in a dire situation, I’m not merely accepting physical care from people, I’m also giving something emotionally.”

Asked about the process of bidding farewell to familiar aspects of life, he points across the room to a photograph of himself as a robust young man, dancing.

“I’ve had to say goodbye to dancing, running, reaching. See that thing,” he says, pointing to a telephone directory. “I can’t walk over to get that. And just to get a little less refined, I can’t go to the bathroom by myself. I can’t get dressed by myself. Things you take for granted are harder, take more time or in some cases are impossible.”

He shifts in his chair and adjusts the blanket around his legs. A few feet away is the stationary bicycle he’ll never pedal again, and beside it, his wheelchair.

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The decision to hold what amounted to a memorial service for himself while he was alive came to Morrie in December, after the funeral of colleague Irving Zola, who died unexpectedly at 59.

As Morrie confided to a friend, Irv had been a marvelous man, and more than a thousand people came to his memorial with laudations, all of them too late for Irv to hear.

“I decided I wanted an advance memorial,” Morrie says. “I want to hear it now, while I’m here.”

And so it was arranged. One Sunday in February, at his home, family and friends gathered to tell him what he has meant to them, and he, in turn, expressed his love for them.

“See, I don’t want to have things wait till the end when everybody gathers ’round and mourns my passing at that moment. The dying isn’t that last moment. That’s a misconception. What’s important is the living until that last moment. The last moment is for mourning, and, hopefully, making the passage. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m going to make it as best I can.”

Attending his memorial was a cousin, Marsha Raredon, who wrote a poem.

“Let me read it,” he says, reaching into a drawer. It’s called ‘Archives of Love,’ and if I cry, that’s OK, right?”

He adjusts his eyeglasses, holds the paper to the fading February light and, in halting voice, he reads.

My dear and loving cousin . . .

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In your love and wisdom . . .

He is fighting back tears.

Your heart is ageless.

It has been around for eons

And, like a giant sequoia tree . . .

He begins to weep openly.

“I’m sorry,” he says, taking off his glasses, dabbing his eyes. “Maybe I should let you read it. I knew I’d cry. Do you feel OK about that? I know that men are not supposed to cry.”

Later, over peppermint tea, he telescopes his life: born of impoverished Russian immigrants, he grew up on New York’s Lower East Side, worked at a Harlem grocery store from 6 in the morning to 6 at night for a dollar a day and, at night, rode a trolley to City College of New York, where tuition was free.

Rejected by the Army because of a punctured eardrum, he dabbled at odd jobs for the government, then won a fellowship at the University of Chicago, where he earned a master’s and PhD in sociology. At a class he took on marriage, he met his future wife, Charlotte, and in 1959 accepted an offer to teach at Brandeis.

“We were in the middle of the turmoil in the ’60s and went out on strike against the Vietnam War. I was active, but never engaged in sit-ins. Why? To tell the truth, I was afraid of getting hurt. But I always marched and supported protesters.”

He coughs painfully, then asks for water.

“I’ve only been married once, in 1951, and Charlotte and I have two sons, Jonathan, an assistant manager at Cybersmith in Cambridge, and Rob, a journalist in Japan.”

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He coughs again, hard.

“Excuse me. I feel like I’m choking.”

The signs of disease

The first sign came three years ago.

“I was walking in Boca Raton, and when I saw a can rolling toward me, I tried to jump out of the way. I’d always been thin and lithe, but I stumbled, and I thought, I must be getting old.

“Then — and this is a reminder to pay attention to intuition — for two years, I’d been having a difficult time sleeping, and I wondered why. Was I getting old? In Truro, I was climbing stairs over sand dunes and had to rest three times because my legs were weak. Still, I assumed it was aging. Then, I noticed, at a party, when I began to dance, I stumbled.

“That was 18 months before diagnosis, and on one hand, that’s good. It means the disease is moving slowly. On the other, it means it’s been around a long time.

“Anyway, in March, after two years of clues, what prompted me to go to the doctor was a realization that I was not looking well. The doctor sent me to a rheumatologist, and I had every conceivable test, bone marrow, X-rays, and finally, they decided that maybe it was not muscular, but neurological.

“Last June, at MGH, they tested me for four hours, and the diagnosis was clear, Lou Gehrig’s disease. I was stunned. You don’t like to get a fatal diagnosis, but on the other hand, at least I knew what all that sleeplessness was about.

“How long do I have? Some people die in six months, Stephen Hawking’s had it for 10 years, but most die in three years.

“After the shock, I said ‘expletive.’ I got a bad deal. Now, I could have said I don’t want anything to do with this world. A lot of people take that path. But I said, no, I want to live, and I want to use resources at my disposal to be the best I can.

“What resources? A lot of self-awareness, a lot of interests, a lot of good relationships with people, a good family, an upper-middle-class lifestyle so that I’m not in dire straits economically. I have a lot of things to look forward to, and live for, and I’m going to do it. That was the first thing I did, to make a willful determination to be composed.”

Dialogues about dying

“The last time I weighed myself, three months ago, I was 110 pounds. I know I’m lighter now. My clothes are thinner, my belt goes further. I don’t weigh myself anymore. For one thing, it’s hard to get on the scale, but that’s just an excuse. I mean, who cares? So, I’m 100 pounds or 99. I should start worrying?

“I used to be 5-4, but now I’m probably 5-1, who knows? But I’m trying to accept the Buddhist view that the body is a bag of bones. I have to live in my spirit and relationships. Obviously, I want to take care of my body, and if it hurts, I’ll do something about it. But I can’t do anything about this illness, so why focus on it, except insofar as it gives me more trouble. Pretty soon I won’t be able to use that walker. I’ll be in a wheelchair, and I have to accept what is.”

His aphorisms, or reflections, about death now number 75, and they serve as a foundation for dialogues about dying.

“The reality is that I was a vigorous man, but right now, I’m a person who cannot move, cannot dress, cannot do most physical things without help, and you have to live in your present situation.

When this photo was taken in March 1995, Morrie Schwartz had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease the summer before. His caretaker Connie Luongo helped him into his chair in this photograph.Mark Wilson/Globe staff/File

“In terms of death, I’m on the road to acceptance. There are two ways. You can be like Dylan Thomas and rage, rage, rage at the dying of the light. But I want to die in peacefulness. I want to die feeling a comfort that it’s OK, that it’s part of nature to die.”

As the topic turns to death, he weeps.

“And I’m trying my best to do it. Maybe I’ll be tested like Job. When the time comes, when I lose my arms, if I do, and I’m completely dependent, that will be the test. I’m aware of the possibilities, but you can’t fully prepare. You have to wait.”

What he’ll miss

“What do I notice that’s different? This will surprise you — baby skin! There’s nothing like babies. Friends have brought a few by in recent weeks, and you know, you tend to forget the skin, it’s so gorgeous and smooth and those tiny little ears and tiny little fingers. They just thrill me.

“What else? Music, opera. I hear it more intensely. Do you know what it does to me now? It makes me cry. I like Puccini, ‘Tosca’ and ‘La Boheme,’ Mozart, Beethoven, and now, there’s a penetration to the music I didn’t have before.

“Flowers? I have a little hibiscus in that window that has the most exquisite pink flowers and they last only three days, which makes them symbolic. I notice that plant differently — the intensity of color and also the symbolism that we’re born and we die. The plant helps me accept this as a natural process.”

Asked if he feels frustration to be denied knowledge of future discoveries, he shrugs.

“That’s occurred to me, but it’s of no great moment. If I were to die 10 years from now, there would be something more to be seen or learned, so whenever you die, it’s the same thing. Things I’ll miss are personal. I won’t see my grandchildren. If I lived another five years, maybe I would, whereas if I lived 10 years, I still would not see who is going to be president in 2010. I am curious about world events, but what I regret losing is at the aesthetic level, not material.

“The state of the nation? Horrible, and why? We don’t connect morality with politics. Who tells the truth today? And the Newt Gingrich types exclude the poor, by which they mean blacks, too, and call them morally inferior. From a moral perspective, doing that to a class of people, or even one individual, is blasphemous.

“I have two groups I meet with here. One is political, but the other is a spirituality-death group of half a dozen people, and we’re grappling with this question — what is the ‘right’ way to think of the spirit? None of us are really, quote, God-fearing persons in the conventional sense.

“An anthropomorphic God doesn’t make sense to us, but we believe there’s something powerful in the universe beyond the material stuff. So, we’re grappling with the question of what’s on the other side. Here I am, approaching it, so maybe I can help with the mystery.”

Asked whether a dying man envies those around him who will live, he begins to answer before the question is complete.

“Of course. I envy people who can walk. On the other hand, the illness has helped me see realms I was closed to, and so, while there’s envy, I don’t feel bad about it. I’ve had my life, and my son and your son have not, and they’re entitled to it. But how much am I willing to put up with to keep contact? I don’t know. My doctor says not to worry, that I’ll die before then of lung disease, and I said, ‘Well, thank you.’ "

When tears come

It is at night, alone in bed, when the horror of death sometimes overwhelms Morrie, and he weeps.

“Do I cry? Yes, a lot. Every once in a while I cry with my wife or my son. I have to mourn with them as well as mourn for myself. The fact that I handle this with what I consider courage and dignity is helpful to my family. And I cry with friends. You and I have cried together. That makes us buddies.

“Sometimes, in bed, at 4 in the morning, I let the tears come. I try not to wake my wife, who works every day, but what happens is that I feel the horror that I’m going to deteriorate into a dependent, dysfunctional person. It’s not happening at this moment, but that is my fate. I don’t want to deny it, which is how most people handle it.

“So, I cry. Sometimes one minute, sometimes five, sometimes a half hour. Then I dry my eyes and I’m ready to face the day, or go back to sleep as the case may be. What I’m saying is, honor your feelings. It’s nothing to be ashamed about.”

Fighting fear

On a cold morning in late winter, his guest is a former student, Arachne Stevens, who does not rise to greet him because she is in a wheelchair.

Often they meditate, but today the topic is death.

“I wonder if the brain has a mechanism to help us, because so many people are terrified of death. If they say they’re not, I think they’re lying. I wonder if it’s just a response that helps us go through the passage without being terrified,” she says.

He nods.

“That’s one of the things I’ve learned,” he says. “I’m not quite so terrified. I can look at this with equanimity and appreciation for the time I have, whereas our colleague, Irv, just dropped dead. He didn’t have to face these issues.”

“But Morrie, you’ve worked at reducing fear through meditation, right?” Stevens asks.

“Absolutely, with our meditation teacher. We talk about how to, you know, reduce fear and die with inner peace.”

“Here’s something I never told you,” she says. “One day when I had become impatient at bureaucracies and even angry on the phone, I came here. You’d been on the phone a long time discussing insurance, but you looked happy. You said the people you were dealing with had difficult jobs and that it was your job to treat them kindly. I said to myself, so that’s how you practice spirituality. I mean, I can sit on the meditation cushion all day, but here you were, actually doing it.”

Schwartz spoke with friends and colleagues at his home in Newton in this 1995 photograph. Mark Wilson/Globe staff/FIle

Linking spirit and life

On Valentine’s Day, the afternoon light slants through pine trees and into his study, which is quiet except for two voices seeking answers that have eluded mankind for millennia.

Morrie is facing his meditation teacher, Narayan Liebenson Grady — a young woman tutoring an old man about death.

“I think your defenses have broken down quite a bit,” she says.

“I think my illness precipitated a need to do something about making the connection between spirit and life, something I’d neglected because I was a, quote, modern man, who cared about technology, science and such. Modern man dismisses the spiritual as hokey-pokey. So, I have to make a 180-degree turn and wonder if there’s something there,” Morrie says.

“I would say that you’re aware that you understand less now than you thought you did 10 years ago,” Grady says.

“Less about that domain. I know a lot about myself, the social world, but I know that’s not sufficient, that it’s not knowledge that’s wide, broad or deep enough, and I’m willing to open up to another realm. I’d like to learn.”

“I can rest with that,” she says with a smile.

That last moment

“I haven’t decided about cremation. I said to Charlotte, ‘Do what’s easiest.’ I’m more concerned about my soul, if there is such a thing, which means, in Buddhist thinking, the karma I get. That is, if I do, quote, good things, when I go into my next life, I’ll be closer to enlightenment.”

About that last moment of life, are there fantasies?

“This is an unknown illness, so I can’t know exactly how I’m going to meet my death. Because of asthma, my lungs are apt to go, and then it’s goodbye. I’d prefer that because, hopefully, it’s not a horrible death.

“I do want to die with peacefulness, but maybe I’ll be screaming, or I’ll be blissed out, like Huxley. He took LSD and blissed out. Or Gregory Bateson — his daughter wrote that in his last breath, he wanted to smell a flower. Isn’t that great? So, she gave him a flower and he expired. Or maybe have everybody around me, holding me so that I’m totally loved. Who knows? When the time comes, we’ll find out.

“I saw a film of a woman with this disease and all she could do was move an eyelid. So, what is the quality of life you’re willing to accept? Have I thought of suicide? Of course, but it’s too hard on my family. I know people who committed suicide and their children suffer depression. It might be better for me, but not my family. I couldn’t do that to them.”


And then?

Asked where he thinks we go after death, he shrugs.

“I don’t think we keep the same form. In our group, we all agree there’s some form of higher energy, and that human beings borrow from that energy. When we die, we go back into that energy, but not in this form, because your consciousness is gone. To prepare, some Buddhists sit at the grave where they’ll be buried and meditate on their bones dissolving and dispersing into the universe. So, we disperse and contribute to the universal energy from which we borrowed.

“Now, that may not be a satisfying answer. You’d like to think God was going to cradle you and keep you secure, but that’s too hard to believe, too anthropomorphic.”

He coughs again.

Is there solace in knowing the mystery soon will be solved?

“I’m not eager to find the answer. I’m having too good a time here. But it won’t be resolved, because I won’t be resolved, because I won’t have consciousness. Whatever it is, I won’t know it.

“God? I don’t know what it is. I remember Heywood Broun, the writer. Just before he died, he converted to Catholicism. He must have been scared as hell. I don’t want to grasp onto something just because I’m dying. I want to go out authentically. That’s why I struggle to keep myself open. And if I don’t know, then I accept my not knowingness, and I say, well, that’s as far as I can go.”

Asked to compose the first paragraph of his obituary, he thought for a long moment.

“I’m not a writer, you know, but it might say . . . "

He hesitated again.

“It might say, Morrie Schwartz, 79 years old, died yesterday . . . "

He paused. In his eyes, tears glistened.

" . . . and to the end of his life, he was a teacher.”


Making the most of the last days

A sampling of Morris Schwartz’s “Reflections on Maintaining One’s Composure While Living with a Fatal Illness.”

> Begin by asserting a willful determination to be composed, by which I do not mean keeping a stiff upper lip or holding in your feelings or trying to be self-contained. Composure consists of one or more of these qualities: high spirits, inner peacefulness, courage, dignity, open-heartedness, humor, nobility, life-affirming patience, involvements, self-respect, self-esteem. If you act as if you are composed, you may become self-composed.

> Accept what you are able to do and what you are not able to do. Be clear about each and be flexible in moving from one to the other.

> Anticipate each new crisis so that you can meet it with awareness and understanding and are not surprised by it. However, do not brood about it or get alarmed by it.

> Develop the capacity gracefully to accept frustration, incapacity and inability to do many of the things you were once able to do.

> Develop a new identity (partial) as a disabled person without diminishing your “self.” Recognize that your body is not your “self,” only part of it.

> Accept and indulge your passivity and dependency when necessary. However, be independent and assertive when you can and need to be.

> Accept the past as past without denying or discarding it. Reminisce about it, but don’t live in it. Learn from it, but don’t punish yourself about it or continually regret it. Don’t get stuck in it.

> Be occupied or focused on things and issues that are of interest, importance and concern to you. Remain passionately involved in them.

> Love as much as you can without doing it foolishly or falsely.

> Let your heart be open so that you are deeply touched by your own suffering as well as that of others. Try to be open to every experience, every situation, every thought, every sensation that arises in each moment. Don’t exhaust yourself doing this, but do it as much as you can.

> Bid farewell to all the things you loved and enjoyed that are no longer attainable, and then go on. Don’t look back too often, except to remember the past with warm feelings.

> This is the time to examine ultimate questions: the mystery of birth and death, the meaning of your existence on this planet, the destiny of the human race, the conditions that produced a harmonious universe, what it means to be fully human, the nature of the spirit and soul.

> This is the time to do a life review, to make amends, to identify and let go of regrets, to come to terms with unresolved relationships.

> Take in as much joy as you can whenever and however you can. You may find it in unpredictable places and situations.

> See and accept yourself as part of nature. Remember that it is natural to conclude your living by dying. Accept your mortality and try to leave this life with inner peace.