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The Fifth Tuesday We Talk About Family

It was the first week in September, back-toschool week, and after thirty-five consecutive autumns, my old professor did not have a class waiting for him on a college campus. Boston was teeming with students, double-parked on side streets, unloading trunks. And here was Morrie in his study. It seemed wrong, like those football players who finally retire and have to face that first Sunday at home, watching on TV, thinking, I could still do that. I have learned from dealing with those players that it is best to leave them alone when their old seasons come around. Don't say anything. But then, I didn't need to remind Morrie of his dwindling time.

For our taped conversations, we had switched from handheld microphones-because it was too difficult now for Morrie to hold anything that long-to the lavaliere kind popular with TV newspeople. You can clip these onto a collar or lapel. Of course, since Morrie only wore soft cotton shirts that hung loosely on his ever-shrinking frame, the microphone sagged and flopped, and I had to reach over and adjust it frequently. Morrie seemed to enjoy this because it brought me close to him, in hugging range, and his need for physical affection was stronger than ever. When I leaned in, I heard his wheezing breath and his weak coughing, and he smacked his lips softly before he swallowed.

"Well, my friend," he said, "what are we talking about today?"

How about family?

"Family." He mulled it over for a moment. "Well, you see mine, all around me."

He nodded to photos on his bookshelves, of Morrie as a child with his grandmother; Morrie as a young man with his brother, David; Morrie with his wife, Charlotte; Morrie with his two sons, Rob, a journalist in Tokyo, and ion, a computer expert in Boston.

"I think, in light of what we've been talking about all these weeks, family becomes even more important," he said.

"The fact is, there is no foundation, no secure ground, upon which people may stand today if it isn't the family. It's become quite clear to me as I've been sick. If you don't have the support and love and caring and concern that you get from a family, you don't have much at all. Love is so supremely important. As our great poet Auden said, `Love each other or perish.' "

"Love each other or perish." I wrote it down. Auden said that?

"Love each other or perish," Morrie said. "It's good, no? And it's so true. Without love, we are birds with broken wings.

"Say I was divorced, or living alone, or had no children. This disease-what I'm going through-would be so much harder. I'm not sure I could do it. Sure, people would come visit, friends, associates, but it's not the same as having someone who will not leave. It's not the same as having someone whom you know has an eye on you, is watching you the whole time.

"This is part of what a family is about, not just love, but letting others know there's someone who is watching out for them. It's what I missed so much when my mother died-what I call your `spiritual security'-knowing that your family will be there watching out for you. Nothing else will give you that. Not money. Not fame."

He shot me a look.

"Not work," he added.

Raising a family was one of those issues on my little list-things you want to get right before it's too late. I told Morrie about my generation's dilemma with having children, how we often saw them as tying us down, making us into these "parent" things that we did not want to be. I admitted to some of these emotions myself.

Yet when I looked at Morrie, I wondered if I were in his shoes, about to die, and I had no family, no children, would the emptiness be unbearable? He had raised his two sons to be loving and caring, and like Morrie, they were not shy with their affection. Had he so desired, they would have stopped what they were doing to be with their father every minute of his final months. But that was not what he wanted.

"Do not stop your lives," he told them. "Otherwise, this disease will have ruined three of us instead of one." In this way, even as he was dying, he showed respect for his children's worlds. Little wonder that when they sat with him, there was a waterfall of affection, lots of kisses and jokes and crouching by the side of the bed, holding hands.

"Whenever people ask me about having children or not having children, I never tell them what to do," Morrie said now, looking at a photo of his oldest son. "I simply say, `There is no experience like having children.' That's all. There is no substitute for it. You cannot do it with a friend. You cannot do it with a lover. If you want the experience of having complete responsibility for another human being, and to learn how to love and bond in the deepest way, then you should have children."

So you would do it again? I asked.

I glanced at the photo. Rob was kissing Morrie on the forehead, and Morrie was laughing with his eyes closed.

"Would I do it again?" he said to me, looking surprised. "Mitch, I would not have missed that experience for anything. Even though . . . "

He swallowed and put the picture in his lap.

"Even though there is a painful price to pay," he said. Because you'll be leaving them.

"Because I'll be leaving them soon."

He pulled his lips together, closed his eyes, and I watched............

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