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The Tenth Tuesday We Talk About Marriage

I brought a visitor to meet Morrie. My wife.

He had been asking me since the first day I came. "When do I meet Janine?" "When are you bringing her?" I'd always had excuses until a few days earlier, when I called his house to see how he was doing.

It took a while for Morrie to get to the receiver. And when he did, I could hear the fumbling as someone held it to his ear. He could no longer lift a phone by himself. "Hiiiiii," he gasped.

You doing okay, Coach?

I heard him exhale. "Mitch . . . your coach . . . isn't having such a great day . . .

His sleeping time was getting worse. He needed oxygen almost nightly now, and his coughing spells had become frightening. One cough could last an hour, and he never knew if he'd be able to stop. He always said he would die when the disease got his lungs. I shuddered when I thought how close death was.

I'll see you on Tuesday, I said. You'll have a better day then.

"Mitch."

Yeah?

"Is your wife there with you?" She was sitting next to me.

"Put her on. I want to hear her voice."

Now, I am married to a woman blessed with far more intuitive kindness than 1. Although she had never met Morrie, she took the phone -I would have shaken my head and whispered, "I'm not here! I'm not here!"-and in a minute, she was connecting with my old professor as if they'd known each other since college. I sensed this, even though all I heard on my end was "Uh-huh . . . Mitch told me . . . oh, thank you . . .

When she hung up, she said, "I'm coming next trip." And that was that.

Now we sat in his office, surrounding him in his recliner. Morrie, by his own admission, was a harmless flirt, and while he often had to stop for coughing, or to use the commode, he seemed to find new reserves of energy with Janine in the room. He looked at photos from our wedding, which Janine had brought along.

"You are from Detroit?" Morrie said. Yes, Janine said.

"I taught in Detroit for one year, in the late forties. I remember a funny story about that."

He stopped to blow his nose. When he fumbled with the tissue, I held it in place and he blew weakly into it. I squeezed it lightly against his nostrils, then pulled it off, like a mother does to a child in a car seat.

"Thank you, Mitch." He looked at Janine. "My helper, this one is."

Janine smiled.

"Anyhow. My story. There were a bunch of sociologists at the university, and we used to play poker with other staff members, including this guy who was a surgeon. One night, after the game, he said, 'Morrie, I want to come see you work.' I said fine. So he came to one of my classes and watched me teach.

"After the class was over he said, `All right, now, how would you like to see me work? I have an operation tonight.' I wanted to return the favor, so I said okay.

"He took me up to the hospital. He said, `Scrub down, put on a mask, and get into a gown.' And next thing I knew, I was right next to him at the operating table. There was this woman, the patient, on the table, naked from the waist down. And he took a knife and went zip just like that! Well . . .

Morrie lifted a finger and spun it around.

" . . . I started to go like this. I'm about to faint. All the blood. Yech. The nurse next to me said, `What's the matter, Doctor?' and I said, `I'm no damn doctor! Get me out of here!' "

We laughed, and Morrie laughed, too, as hard as he could, with his limited breathing. It was the first time in weeks that I could recall him telling a story like this. How strange, I thought, that he nearly fainted once from watching someone else's illness, and now he was so able to endure his own.

Connie knocked on the door and said that Morrie's lunch was ready. It was not the carrot soup and vegetable cakes and Greek pasta I had brought that morning from Bread and Circus. Although I tried to buy the softest of foods now, they were still beyond Morrie's limited strength to chew and swallow. He was eating mostly liquid supplements, with perhaps a bran muffin tossed in until it was mushy and easily digested. Charlotte would puree almost everything in a blender now. He was taking food through a straw. I still shopped every week and walked in with bags to show him, but it was more for the look on his face than anything else. When I opened the refrigerator, I would see an overflow of containers. I guess I was hoping that one day we would go back to eating a real lunch together and I could watch the sloppy way in which he talked while chewing, the food spilling happily out of his mouth. This was a foolish hope.

"So . . . Janine," Morrie said. She smiled.

"You are lovely. Give me your hand."

She did.

"Mitch says that you're a professional singer." Yes, Janine said.

"He says you're great."

Oh, she laughed. N0. He just says that.

Morrie raised his eyebrows. "Will you sing something for me?"

Now, I have heard people ask this of Janine for almost as long as I have known her. When people find out you sing for a living, they always say, "Sing something for us." Shy about her talent, and a perfectionist about conditions, Janine never di............

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