Posted by: adeepershadeofsoul | March 5, 2010

Morrie & Our Death Denying Culture

I just finished reading a wonderful book called Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom.  This book is the account of a middle-aged man who one night while watching television, discovers that his favorite professor from college has contracted a terminal disease and is dying.  He decides to pack up and fly across the country to go and spend some precious time with his beloved professor before his inevitable death from this incurable disease.  Professor Morrie sits with him on Tuesdays and talks to him about the big things in life i.e. love, family, marriage, aging, greed, fear, society, culture, and death.  It was a very touching story about a student and his teacher giving him one final lesson.

For this blog post I want to focus on only one of the topics that the professor expounded upon.  It is the ultimate of inevitabilities, yet the vast majority of human beings do not want to discuss it or even think about it.  The topic is death.  Here’s what Professor Morrie said about death and how we should view it:

“Learn how to die, and you learn how to live.” So what exactly does he mean by this statement?  He goes on to explain:

“Everyone knows that they’re going to die, but nobody believes it.  If we did, we would do things differently.”

Hmmm interesting…he continues:

“To know you’re going to die, and to be prepared for it at any time…that’s better.  That way you can be more involved in your life while you’re living.”

More involved in your life while you’re living?  Wow! Simply stated, yet very meaningful.  He continues:

“Everyday…ask…is today the day?  Am I ready?  Am I doing all I need to do?  Am I being the person I want to be?”

What powerful questions!  The Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him used to encourage us to make much remembrance of the destroyer of pleasures (death).  Remember it often, and when we do that, it helps us to stay focused and use our time wisely.

Professor Morrie goes on:

“…most of us all walk around as if we’re sleepwalking.  We really don’t experience the world fully, because we’re half asleep, doing things we automatically think that we have to do.”

What he meant by that was that we spend so much of our lives doing things that we think are extremely important when in reality they are not…for example: Working tirelessly so that we can buy that “item” we wanted or to get that promotion we want, all at the expense of precious time spent with family and friends, or spent in contemplation and prayer.

The student in the book (the author Mitch Albom) responds:  And facing death changes that?  Professor Morrie says:

“Oh yes, you strip away all that stuff and you focus on the essentials.  We are too involved in materialistic things and they don’t satisfy us.  The loving relationships we have, the universe around us, we take these things for granted.”

I couldn’t agree more.

In order to pass this message of the finality of life across more clearly, the author describes in heart wrenching detail the physical demise of his former professor.  As the book moves along, the physical state of his professor gets worse and worse and the author makes it a point to describe this slow withering away in great detail.  The beginning of the book describes a man who loves to dance and go for long walks with his students.  The end of the book describes a man who can’t walk, breathe properly, nor feed or clean himself.  Probably the most poignant of these descriptions as a reader, is when the professor concedes that he can no longer clean himself after his excretions.  He concedes to these physical limitations, yet still refuses to feel sorry for himself or lose his positive spirit.

At first, I wondered why the author goes into so much detail in physically describing Professor Morrie’s demise, but after some reflection I realized why.  One of the main points that the professor tried to get across to the author, his last student, is that we should accept the fact that we’re going to die.  As we are all well aware, we live in a death-denying culture.  We live in a culture in which everyone dreams of being young again and staying young for eternity; a culture in which we take our old and decrepit and put them in buildings by themselves so we do not have to be witnesses to their demise.

But in doing these things we are merely denying our own destinies.  We are not allowing ourselves to witness the realities that will one day face us as well.  Essentially, we are making it harder for ourselves for when we get old, and we’re building a culture that neither appreciates the wisdom of the elders nor sets a place for them at the table.  We take our old and put them in an institution far from our view, so we don’t have to see their illnesses and their physical limitations and therefore we don’t have to think about our own end.

Is this the kind of culture that we want to establish as Muslims here in the West?

I certainly don’t think so.

One of the best things that my parents did for my siblings and me was to bring my grandparents from overseas to live with us during their old age.  My grandparents moved in with us, because for the most part they could no longer take care of themselves.  In our culture nowadays, this would seem like a huge burden!  But for me as a nine year old kid, this was a great blessing.

I remember, like it was yesterday, holding my grandmother’s hand and being so surprised by the looseness of her skin and the large veins that were protruding out.  I would sit there and stare at the blotches of discoloration on her face wondering if they were always there or if they were just a result of her old age.  One day I asked my mom to show me an old picture of my grandmother when she was young, so she found one and when she showed it to me I as a nine year old boy understood right at that moment what millions of adults in our country fail to accept and embrace; that if Allah (God) keeps us alive long enough, we are all going to have wrinkles and blotches on our skin one day i.e. we’re all going to face a slow physical withering away.

I remember, as time went by I had to help my grandmother get out of bed and I always looked forward helping her in whatever way I could.  Sometimes my insistence on helping her actually became a burden, since a 9 year old boy moves at a slightly different pace than a woman in her 60’s.  I would be holding her hand and trying to force her to run with me to our destination.  Of course, she could not do so, but I tried anyway.  I remember my grandmother’s beautiful smile and in particular I remember a look that she gave me when I placed my Yankees baseball helmet on top of her head (yes, over her hijab) and took a picture with my arms wrapped around her.

My grandfather, like my grandmother, also had deteriorating health, so I had to begin helping him do basic menial things that we take for granted everyday, like bathe.  He could no longer stand in the shower, nor reach all parts of his body, so he used to sit down in the tub with a cover over the lower half of his body and I had to apply the soap to his back, which he could no longer reach himself, and his hair (yes, I said soap on his hair….that’s what he wanted me to do…I don’t think he was used to shampoo…btw he had the softest hair that I’ve ever felt to this day…but don’t try using soap on your hair because I have J….and apparently the whole “washing the hair with soap leading to softer hair” thing only worked for the previous generations).

What I’m trying to get at, is that I cherish those experiences so much and it’s because of those experiences that I understood early on in my life what old age meant and what it entailed.

The greatest lesson I learned was when my beloved grandmother woke up one morning completely discombobulated.  She didn’t know where she was, what day it was or even who she was.  I stood there quietly at the doorway of her bedroom watching as the paramedics were asking her questions that she could not answer.  When my mom saw me standing there watching the scene unfold, she immediately reprimanded me and told me to leave the room.  The last time I saw my grandmother alive was when she was being rolled out of my house on a stretcher into the ambulance that was parked in our driveway.

The next afternoon, as I sat on the school bus looking out of the window about to get to my stop, I saw many cars parked outside of my house and I immediately knew what happened.

I attended my grandmother’s funeral; saw her body being lowered into the ground and her grave being covered by dirt.  I prayed for her and said goodbye.

The reason that I mention all of this is not just to simply reminisce on the life of my grandparents; rather it is to show that the elders of our society can play a great part in our lives.  They can teach us lessons in life as well as in their deaths; lessons that last a lifetime.

It is because of my grandparents and my experiences with them that I can now easily accept and understand death as a part of life.

I do not want our society to become one that does not value its elders.  I do not want to accept a culture in which people do not tend to the needs of the elders when they need us, as they tended to our needs when we needed them.

I still see my grandmother in my dreams to this day.  I’ve had a recurring dream in which I walk into a room and I see my grandmother standing there and I immediately run to her and give her a hug.  I ask her how she’s doing and she tells me she’s doing well.  I tell her that I miss her and she gives me that same smile that warmed my heart twenty some odd years ago.

I pray that Allah (God) blesses my beautiful grandparents with a peaceful existence in their graves and Gives them a place in heaven.

I pray that Allah blesses me with the ability to see them and hug them again in heaven.

I pray that Allah gives us the wisdom to take care of our elders and to learn from them.



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