images of love & loss
with Morrie Schwartz
Facing my fears of life and death - that’s what I realize I was doing in the 1990’s with my camera and in my life. As a student at Brandeis University, I was fortunate to know Morrie Schwartz, who was wonderfully open about his philosophy on living and dying. Morrie’s lessons were chronicled in four Nightline shows and in the book, Tuesdays with Morrie.
“Death ends a life, not a relationship,” Morrie said. He enjoyed the idea of people coming to visit his grave on a peaceful hill overlooking a pond - “You talk and I’ll listen.” Morrie showed me another way to face death and, in the process, live my life well.
We had agreed to an exhibition pairing my photographs with his aphorisms and I was able to show our work at Brandeis just before he died on November 4, 1995.
I left the USA in 1997 after having earned my degree and went on to live and teach overseas for 25 years. Now back in the US after so long – I return to Morrie’s story which continues to be inspirational.
Morrie's friends and colleagues at Brandeis University arranged a 'Living Memorial" to celebrate Morrie's life while he was living.
Morrie loved this image - its the first one I made of him- and displayed it prominently.
Morrie has friends gather at his home before a group discussion on 'Death & Spirituality."
Over half of wheelchairs break in any given six month period and getting parts to fix them is difficult. Morrie's friends and caregivers help to fix this essential piece of equipment.
In the late 70's and early 80's, Jeannie Lindheim and Morrie were good friends from being in the same groups. Then, 15 years passed. When Jeannie read the Boston Globe article "A Professor's Last Lesson: His Own Death" about her friend, she called him immediately. Delighted to hear from her, Morrie asked if she could come over and she did that very day- a Thursday. It was as if almost no time had passed; they laughed and cried (mostly laughed) almost every Thursday for the next six months.
Narayan, Morrie's meditation teacher suggested that the leap between life and death may not be a wide chasm, but instead - maybe there is a little bridge.
Human touch is a powerful healer that lowers cortisol, a stress hormone, resulting in a sense of relaxation and peace.
Morrie was open-minded about all cultures and paths to healing.
Acupuncturist Jean Ann helps Morrie manage pain by inserting thin needles into strategic points of his body.
Morrie's philosophy of celebrating the life he has left keeps him composed during the times when it is difficult to accept loss of movement due to ALS.
Sociology professors Charlie Derber and Morrie Schwartz have been friends for over 25 years. Morrie believed in seeking out people who touch your heart and investing time and effort in those friendships as frequently as possible.
Morrie called his friends, Phyllis and Debbie, his 'angels.' Their visits always made him feel better.
Morrie's son Rob gives his father one of the many kisses as they spend time together during the last months of Morrie's illness.
Morrie could shave one side of his face but due to deterioration of his muscles from ALS, he needed help for the other side.
Morrie felt it was important to have independence and did the tasks he could do for as long as possible.
Morrie enjoys having his hair washed by Connie, a home health aide, with an assist from his friend Debbie.
Morrie has had time to get affairs in order and his family has had time to think about life without him.
Morrie's son Jonathan spent quality time and many tender moments with his father.
Author Mitch Albom interviewed Morrie on Tuesdays from May to October 1995. The book, Tuesdays with Morrie, became a best-selling book, a movie and a play.
Mitch was Morrie's student at Brandeis University. Mitch took every course that Morrie offered during his time as an undergrad.
The lavalier microphone that Mitch Albom pinned to Morrie's soft, cotton shirts frequently needed to be adjusted for better sound quality. Many parts of these recorded conversations can be heard all these years later on Mitch Albom's podcast: Tuesday People.
Tuesday was always a special day to Mitch and Morrie. Morrie's office hours at Brandeis were on Tuesdays; Mitch came the first time to visit Morrie after learning about his ALS diagnosis on the show Nightline was also a Tuesday.
"We're Tuesday People" Morrie explained to Mitch. They met on fourteen Tuesdays in 1995 and that became the book, Tuesdays with Morrie.
Home health aide Siobhan helps Morrie with some sustenance. Morrie felt that grieving for the loss of physical function is necessary; and to balance that with cherishing the life still left.
Morrie passed peacefully on November 4, 1995. His family had stepped out of the room and he died at home, as he wanted.
It was a cold, grey day. It felt appropriate for the feelings of all the lives Morrie touched. However, we knew that the sun will shine again and life goes on and we are all a little wiser for knowing this professor who lived with love and died with dignity.
This memorial gathering also celebrated Morrie's life and in attendance were Ted Koppel and Mitch Albom. They amplified Morrie's message of love and loss.
In late November 1995, Rob and I visit Morrie's grave marker to pay respects and send love.
In May 1996, Rob visits Morrie's gravesite after the stone is installed.
According to Jewish tradition, while flowers may be a good metaphor for the brevity of life, stones seem better suited to the permanence of memory.
Morrie's widow Charlotte lived a long and productive life, dying peacefully at the age of 98. Morrie and Charlotte are together again.
I visited Morrie and Charlotte in July 2022 after the gravestone was installed. Morrie would say that when coming to visit him - "you talk and I'll listen."
I talked about how our six month collaborative photography project affected me. I try to be kind to myself and others as we all grapple with matters of love & loss.
Why don’t I have a picture of Morrie and me?
Photographer Heather Pillar's visit to Morrie's grave in June 2021, after repatriating to the USA after living and teaching in eight international schools.
I had a camera and tasked myself with photographing Morrie Schwartz during what turned out to be the last six months of his life. I learned about Morrie through my Professor Maury Stein at Brandeis where I worked as the university’s photographer while taking graduate classes in Sociology and Women’s Studies. Stein told my class how Morrie was sharing his life and death process and reflections on what matters with his community. This was January 1995 when Baby Boomers were in full stride. There was no talk of death and dying in America. Death was a private matter as I had recently witnessed with my grandmother who had Alzheimer’s Disease and spent over ten years in a nursing home.
Morrie’s friends and colleagues held a “Living Memorial” at Brandeis so that Morrie could celebrate his life with them before the inevitable funeral. I photographed the event and was moved by the laughter and positivity in the room. It inspired me to consider Morrie’s mission of ‘living while dying,’ living fully, deeply and in the moment instead of in hushed and solitary spaces.
Simultaneously, The Boston Globe article titled, “A Professor’s Final Course: His Own Death” came out. After the umpteenth time Professor Stein discussed his friend’s lessons on life, I suggested to Professor Stein that I document Morrie’s journey. Stein immediately endorsed the idea and suggested I call Morrie, certain that his friend would agree.
Both Maury and Morrie told me that they loved the picture I made at his “Living Memorial.” (on the front cover) I brought him some photos and he put one on his bookshelf where it featured prominently. I was honored. In early April 1995, I met with Morrie and Maury to discuss the project: we would make an exhibition of my photographs to pair with Morrie’s aphorisms. The parameters were that Charlotte, Morrie’s wife, did not want to participate*. She was a private person. Also, Morrie could call off the project at any time. I agreed to these conditions.
At that point in my career, photographing Morrie was quite a departure from chronicling single mothers living on federal assistance - I called the mothers to arrange visits. They didn’t display photos I made of them. By contrast, Morrie was calling me! He was engaging and funny. While in his room, poised with my camera, I tried to never interfere, but rather to witness and chronicle his interactions with friends and family.
I was aware that there were a lot of people coming through the Schwartz home: in addition to family and friends, there were many home health aides, the Nightline camera crew, plus Morrie’s former student Mitch Albom started coming on Tuesdays. The easiest person to ask to step aside to make more room would be me. This is probably why I never even thought about taking a selfie with Morrie. (This was before cell phones and the ubiquitousness of selfies -- but that’s the word I need here -- a self-taken photograph of me with Morrie.)
In those times I was alone with Morrie, he had the selflessness and compassion to ask me about my family, my friends, my love life. Although I tried to be invisible, Morrie made me feel seen. These private conversations with Morrie being present and attentive were a ‘present’ to me.
Morrie told me about his mother dying when he was very young and how it had affected him. Morrie and I were in the room next to where the TV was when the OJ Simpson’s verdict was announced. We talked about it briefly and Morrie had expected that verdict. Morrie had said that we either learn to “love each other or perish.” I remember thinking that seems a bit extreme. But, he was right. We either learn to fear each other, the different and unfamiliar, or we find the courage to learn to love.
I made sure to hold up my end of our deal by installing an exhibition at Brandeis in September 1995. By then, Morrie was working on his book, “Letting Go” and was losing energy. He was physically unable to leave his home and attend, but his spirit filled the exhibition space with love.
Morrie requested that this statement be a part of the exhibition:
* There are no photographs of Morrie’s wife who has been involved in every aspect of his care, providing great comfort, love and support to him. They wished to share these times only between themselves.
Morrie died November 4, 1995. My advocate and collaborator was gone. That day was grey and cold as the inevitable winter season set in. I took a walk at my favorite place, Walden Pond where Henry David Thoreau’s words are carved on a wooden plaque:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Since Morrie’s death, my pictures of him have been in publications and television both nationally and internationally. Some images have won awards. They have not been exhibited as a whole since 1995. Now, it's over 25 years since Morrie's passing. Morrie said he thought people lived on in the minds of family and friends for another 25 years and then memories start to fade. I’m gratified that Mitch Albom, in this book ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ has allowed Morrie’s wisdom to live on as there is still much we all can learn.
After 25 years of living and teaching overseas, I am repatriated back to my home in Massachusetts. I decided to revisit the negatives of my photo sessions with Morrie. Reviewing them in slow, deliberate detail, I’ve been reminded about how to live, and die, with dignity. I, for one, am learning everyday how to live with courage and love.