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Life and Death Matters: Morrie

Heather Pillar | Massachusetts, United States

When Morrie Schwartz learned of his ASL diagnosis, he decided he would like a ‘Living Memorial.” His friends, colleagues and students at Brandeis University hosted the occasion in March 1995. Morrie died on November 4, 1995.
NB: Morrie loved this image and when I asked to document his end of life, this picture helped give me his consent.
We agreed to match his aphorisms with my images for an exhibition - which happened in September 1995, about 5 weeks before his death.
He had 2 other criteria:
His wife was a private person and did not want to be part of the project.
He could call the project off at any time.

Morrie Schwartz, the professor whose last lessons on life and death still resonate today. The mid-1990’s were a time when many American baby-boomers were not considering the inevitable - dying.<>

After Morrie’s death, I began my journey with my family as an international teacher. After having lived in seven countries and traveled for 25 years, I am now back to where I started - home in Massachusetts, USA. Morrie’s aphorisms about acceptance, community and love that apply to living a full and satisfying life resonate with me. Self-care and caring for others is what matters for life- and death.<>

Facing my fears of life and death - that’s what I was doing in the 1990’s with my camera. Inspired by photojournalism and encouraged by my editorial control in smaller publications, I frequently assigned myself projects that intrigued me.<>

I was lucky that two people let me explore their lives when I was at a turning point in my own life. Mary and Morrie were caring collaborators while I fuddled around with camera settings, asked questions and observed their families, friends and support systems - or lack thereof.<>

I identified with Mary, a single-mother navigating the welfare system. She was building her life again after completing a drug rehabilitation program. Mary was two years older than me and her desire to be working and independent, a good mother, and also have an equal partner in life was what I wanted too. I knew that I did not want to be a single mother. Would I regret not having children?<>

As I was questioning if parenthood was in my future, my professor, Maury Stein at Brandeis University introduced me to his friend and colleague, Morrie Schwartz. Morrie was wonderfully open about his philosophy on living and dying as chronicled in four Nightline shows and in the book, Tuesdays with Morrie.<>

“Death ends a life, not a relationship” was one of Morrie’s aphorisms that has stuck with me. He enjoyed the idea of people coming to visit his grave on a peaceful hill overlooking a pond - “You talk and I’ll listen.” We all want someone to listen, to be seen and heard. I loved that Morrie thought of this even in death.<>

I left the USA in 1997 and Mary was in a good place. Through many obstacles, she earned a degree, secured a job and her children were well. I also earned my degree, secured teaching jobs in 7 countries and my family was well.<>

I repatriated in 2020 due to COVID and my family’s needs with the fear of death and unfinished business on my mind. I visited Mary, who died of breast cancer in 2018. I talked - and it helped to know she was listening.<>

I split my time between Massachusetts and Lagos, Nigeria:


(+1)508-292-4048 (also on What's App)

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