A Journalist's Final Edit: Bringing Death Out of the Shadows
Before Ted Koppel and Mitch Albom talked to Morrie Schwartz about his own impending death, it was Boston Globe journalist Jack Thomas who helped launch a conversation about what a life well-lived looks like.
There's something comforting about reading my hometown newspaper, the Boston Globe, even though I haven't lived there for more than 40 years. Among the journalists I've counted on was one who served as the Globe's national correspondent, TV critic, columnist and ombudsman.
You always knew stories that began, "By Jack Thomas" were going to be worth reading.
Case in point, on the morning of March 9, 1995, I was skimming the Globe in the ABC News Washington Bureau when this headline stopped me cold: "A Professor's Final Course: his own death."
As I read Jack Thomas' compelling profile about Morrie Schwartz, the terminally ill Brandeis University professor, suffering from ALS (or Lou Gehrig's disease), I thought back to a conversation I had with my boss at the time, Nightline anchor Ted Koppel, about Americans' aversion to talking openly about death. So I shared this story with him.
Koppel thought Morrie could be the perfect person to take death out of the shadows. They would do three interviews over the next six months.
By chance, Morrie's former student, sportswriter Mitch Albom, caught Koppel's first interview with Morrie. Albom was horrified to learn that his favorite professor was dying. He would go on to visit Morrie every Tuesday for seven months until he died. To help Morrie's family pay his medical expenses, he wrote a book about his weekly visits.
"Tuesdays with Morrie" would go on to become the best-selling memoir in the history of publishing. It was translated into dozens of languages and even spawned a made-for-TV movie with Jack Lemmon, in his final role, as Morrie. And a play, based on the book, is still being staged around the world.
And it was all because of Jack Thomas, the man who introduced the world to Morrie Schwartz.
In a sad twist of fate, Thomas has once again written about death, but this time, it's about his own terminal diagnosis.
Written with his usual grace and flair, Thomas makes no mention of his own role in launching a global conversation about death that has continued for more than a quarter century.
So, I must.
If not for Jack Thomas, Ted Koppel likely would have never interviewed Morrie Schwartz and Mitch Albom would not have written "Tuesdays with Morrie."
Thomas gave permission for Next Avenue to republish his essay, which originally ran in the Boston Globe Magazine.
Thomas told me that he applauds those who "open up the topic of death that Americans might more adequately come to understand its importance during the lives of every one of us."
I Just Learned I Only Have Months to Live. This is What I Want to Say
I've been a journalist for more than 60 years. So after doctors delivered the news, I sat down to do what came naturally, if painfully: Write this story
By Jack Thomas
AS A TEENAGER, I often wondered how my life would change if I knew that I would die soon. Morbid, perhaps, but not obsessed. Just curious. How does a person live with the knowledge that the end is coming? How would I tell family and friends? Would I be depressed? Is there an afterlife? How do you get ready for death, anyhow?
I've taken a college course in Kübler-Ross's stages of grief and written papers for philosophy classes about Deists, Darwinists, and the afterlife. Sometimes I agree with one side, sometimes another. I was raised Episcopalian, though I didn't turn out to be a very good one. Unlike Roman Catholics, Jews, and atheists, we Episcopalians are very good at fence-sitting. We embrace all viewpoints, and as a result, we are as confused as the Unitarians.
Several years ago, in pursuit of a degree at Harvard, I took a seminar in writing. We had to compose an essay each week and submit it to each classmate, so that each essay underwent scrutiny in class, not only by the professor, but also by 12 colleagues eager for the professor's approbation.
One week, I imagined that I had been told by doctors that I would die within a few months. In my essay, I pulled out all the stops. I described whom and what I'd miss. I hoped for a comfortable afterlife, and wondered if, after death, I could still hear favorite music, choose savory foods, and even whether the Globe would arrive on time.
The essay worked, perhaps because even then, at age 70, I was already an old fogey compared to my classmates. As I approached the classroom, I noticed a young woman holding the door open for me, and I quick-stepped so as not to detain her.
"How are you, Jack?" she asked.
"Fine, how are you?"
"No," she said, tenderly.
"I mean, really. How are you?"
I realized at once that she had taken the essay literally.
Editing the final details of one's life is like editing a story for the final time. It's the last shot an editor has at making corrections, the last rewrite before the roll of the presses.
Fellow students, believing my essay to be truth, were laudatory and compassionate. Throughout the semester, thinking that I soon would die, classmates judged my writing with mercy. I never had the courage to tell them I was healthful.
Now, however, destiny is about to get even with me.
After a week of injections, blood tests, X-rays, and a CAT scan, I have been diagnosed with cancer. It's inoperable. Doctors say it will kill me within a time they measure not in years, but months.
As the saying goes, fate has dealt me one from the bottom of the deck, and I am now condemned to confront the question that has plagued me for years: How does a person spend what he knows are his final months of life?
Atop the list of things I'll miss are the smiles and hugs every morning from my beautiful wife, Geraldine, the greatest blessing of my life. I hate the notion of an eternity without hearing laughter from my three children. And what about my 40 rose bushes? Who will nurture them? I cannot imagine an afterlife without the red of my America roses or the aroma of my yellow Julia Childs.
We told each of the three children individually. John Patrick put his face in his hands, racked with sobs. After hanging up the telephone, Jennifer doubled over and wept until her dog, Rosie, approached to lick away the tears but not the melancholy. Faith explained over the telephone that, if I could see her, she was weeping and wondering how she could get along without her dad. Now, she is on the Internet every day, snorkeling for new research, new strategies, new medications. My wife cries every morning, then rolls up her sleeves and handles all doctor appointments and medication. Without her . . . I cannot imagine.
Till now, life's been grand. I was blessed to write for a newspaper, a career H. L. Mencken described as the life of kings. I was a teenager when I began to work for the Globe as a copy boy in sports, followed by beats as police reporter, State House reporter, city editor, editorial writer, Washington correspondent, national correspondent, television critic, feature writer, and ombudsman. My first story was in 1958, so publication of this essay today marks the eighth decade that my writing has appeared in the Globe.
In every newsroom, death has a full-time job, and so, like most reporters, I've written a lot about it, about murders, suicides, and fatal accidents. I've written too many obituaries for my family, friends, and colleagues.
Not every story about death has been depressing. I interviewed a man in Florida who was 104 years old. When I arrived at his nursing home, he was not, as I had imagined, sitting around in a bathrobe, drooling. He had dressed in a sports jacket, as he did every day, and was reading a book about Civil War history. I have decided not to lumber through Bruce Catton's centennial history of the Civil War — 1,680 pages in all — but I did admire that old man from Florida.
I also interviewed a sweet woman, 101 years old, who was annoyed at God, and she intended to give him a piece of her mind. Her greatest grief was not her pending death, but the fact that she had outlived her four sons. "I can't imagine what God had against me that he would take them before me," she said. From the mantel of her fireplace, with trembling hand, she lifted a photograph of each son and kissed it.
EDITING THE FINAL DETAILS of one's life is like editing a story for the final time. It's the last shot an editor has at making corrections, the last rewrite before the roll of the presses. It's more painful than I anticipated to throw away files and paperwork that seemed critical to my survival just two weeks ago, and today, are all trash. Like the manual for the TV that broke down four years ago, and notebooks for stories that will never be written, and from former girlfriends, letters whose value will plummet the day I die. Filling wastebasket after wastebasket is a regrettable reminder that I have squandered much of my life on trivia.
The final months would be a lot easier if I could be assured that, after death, we'd get a chance to see people who have died already. I'd like to shake hands with my best friend, my father, who died in 1972 and whom I've missed every day since. I owe him an apology. When I was 12, I stole 50 cents from his trousers, two quarters. The guilt was suffocating, though, and 10 days later I replaced his 50 cents, and I added an extra 25 for interest and atonement.
The only thing we argued about was politics. He was an ardent Republican. I am a boring liberal. When my son was born in 1994, the doctor held him by his ankles, upside down, as they do in movies, and announced that it was a boy. "I know that," I said, nervously. "Is he a Democrat?"
Later that year, at Mount Auburn Hospital, as my mother neared death, I asked: "Where do you think we go after death?"
"I don't know," she said, voice aquiver, "but I think I am going on a long trip, and I think I am going to see your father."
"If you see Dad, tell him we finally got rid of that S.O.B. Nixon."
As usual, she leaped to his defense.
"Don't talk about your father that way."
SOME PEOPLE GROW into adulthood confused about a career, but I was lucky. From age 14, I wanted to be a newspaperman. Although my father never graduated from high school and worked long hours for a meager salary as a machinist, and although my mother raised five children and mopped floors nights at Filene's, and although our family lived at the edge financially and dressed in hand-me-downs, the one thing never in short supply at our house was the newspaper — four a day, the Boston Post, the Globe, the Boston American, and the Daily Record.
In my working-class Boston neighborhood, at age 14, I delivered the weekly newspaper, the Dorchester Argus, and the daily Hearst tabloid, the Record, paying 3.4 cents per copy and selling each for a nickel, a profit of 1.6 cents per paper, plus whatever tips I could finagle. On the porch in front of my father's boarding house, I practiced folding the tabloid Record into thirds, without creasing it too much, so that when I tossed it high toward a front porch, with a spin, the newspaper would open flat, with the headline facing the customer as she opened the door to retrieve it.
I am now so early into this new hell that I have no pain, although that is coming, surely, and no symptoms except moments of utter exhaustion.
I've had the privilege of having spent more than 60 years working for newspapers. There was not a day when it wasn't a pleasure to go to work. Any doubts I had about newspapering as a career were dissolved on my paper route one Friday night in March 1953. I picked up my bundle of 45 copies of the Record that were tossed from a truck into the doorway of Berry's hardware store and I was startled at the biggest, blackest headline I had ever seen: "STALIN DEAD."
Newspaper bag over my shoulder, I began my one-hour route, crossing the railroad tracks in Port Norfolk, a neighborhood where the teenage gang took pride in calling themselves Port Rats. So eager were people for their evening newspaper and details of Stalin's death that many were waiting for me on their front porch.
To me, every daily newspaper was a wonder — all those stories, local, national, global, all written on deadline, with photographs, analysis, columns, editorials, comics and crossword, not to mention all that news about the Red Sox, Celtics, and Bruins — if that isn't a miracle, what is?
The Stalin story required coordination among correspondents in Moscow, telegraphers transmitting their stories, and among others in Boston, at the Record, foreign editors, photo editors, copy editors, compositors, pressmen, truck drivers and the least significant cog in the entire process, me, although I was the luckiest, because it was I who handed the newspaper to the grateful reader, and it was I who heard the words, "Thank you."
DOES THE INTENSITY of a fatal illness clarify anything? Every day, I look at my wife's beautiful face more admiringly, and in the garden, I do stare at the long row of blue hydrangeas with more appreciation than before. And the hundreds and hundreds of roses that bloomed this year were a greater joy than usual, not merely in their massive sprays of color, but also in their deep green foliage, the soft petals, the deep colors and the aromas that remind me of boyhood. As for the crises in Cuba and Haiti, however, and voting rights and the inexplicable stubbornness of Republicans who refuse to submit to an inoculation that might save their lives — on all those matters, no insights, no thunderbolts of discovery. I remain as ignorant as ever.
I am now so early into this new hell that I have no pain, although that is coming, surely, and no symptoms except moments of utter exhaustion and, in the past three months, a loss of 20 pounds. After decades of turning down desserts, candies, and pastries to control my weight, it now seems cruel to be pressured to eat more food for which I have less appetite.
As my life nears the finish line, the list of things I'll miss grows.
I'll miss my homes in Cambridge and Falmouth. I'll never again see the sun rise over the marsh off Vineyard Sound, never again see that little, yellow goldfinch that perched atop a hemlock outside my window from time to time so that both of us could watch the tide rise to cover the wetland.
Never again will I stretch out on the sand with a drink and stare in amazement at a sky filled with diamond stars. How is it possible that there could be more than 100 thousand million stars in our Milky Way, let alone who can say how many millions upon millions more in other galaxies, and yet, among them all, there is no planet that supports life? Imagine how newspapers will report that discovery!
After I die, I'm not expecting the world, but this business about the afterlife is more complicated than what they describe in the Bible.
I wish the afterlife were arranged so that I could hear Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 again and Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, especially the one in D for two violins and cello. In the afterlife right away, I'd test whoever's in charge immediately by requesting "Till We Meet Again" with George Lewis, who played the clarinet with as much dexterity and imagination as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, yet never received the same fame because he was Black.
And then, I hope for a playlist that includes Nina Simone's "The Laziest Gal in Town" and everything by Sarah Vaughan, especially "Easter Parade" with Billy Eckstine, and while we're at it, let's throw in Bessie Smith singing "Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jellyroll Like Mine."
All of us who, like me, are blessed with a pause before death, spend some time reliving the better moments. I enjoy recalling that I played pool against two of the greatest, Willie Mosconi in Denver, and in Boston, Minnesota Fats, who was the inspiration for the Jackie Gleason role in The Hustler. I lost both games, never had a shot. Willie and Fats ran the table, and Fats did it from a wheelchair.
After I die, I'm not expecting the world, but this business about the afterlife is more complicated than what they describe in the Bible. The experts say more than 100 billion humans have died. If you're looking for a buddy to have a beer, like jazzman Dave McKenna or writer Jerry Murphy or possibly Peter Falk who played Columbo, how are you going to find him in a mob of 100 billion people?
Speaking of music, if I bump into the great jazzman Earl "Fatha" Hines, who played with Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five back in the 1920s, you can bet your life I'm going to remind him that one night in the '60s, between sets at Sandy's jazz club in Beverly, I was the short guy who bought him that Heineken.
The same with Julia Child. One doesn't "bump" into Julia, exactly, but if I see her at a local restaurant, if they have local restaurants, I'll find a way to mention that I'm the guy who wrote in the Globe that we should run away together, that I would peel potatoes, cut onions, and do dishes if only I could put my feet under her table forever. I'll recite for Julia the response she wrote to me in a letter: "How flattering to be invited to run away with a younger man. However, my husband has a black belt in karate and so, in the interest of your continued good health, if nothing else, I must decline."
I KNOW THAT AFTER I DIE, I probably ought to forget all the treats of this life, like Lobster Savannah dinners on an expense account at an Elysium such as Locke-Ober, and with my luck, there's probably some rule against chilled Hendrick's martinis with a lemon twist. There will be no more nights of winnowing the hours away listening to Bob Winter's piano at the Four Seasons. There'll be no more lazy afternoons on Boston Harbor aboard my little sailboat, The Butterfly, and no more surprise telephone calls from buddies like Dave Manzo in Boston, Alan Pergament in Buffalo, and Jim Coppersmith in Marblehead, who never hang up without saying, "I love you, Jack."
As death draws near, I feel the same uncomfortable transition I experienced when I was a teenager at Brantwood Camp in Peterborough, New Hampshire, packing up to go home after a grand summer. I'm not sure what awaits me when I get home, but this has certainly been an exciting experience. I had a loving family. I had a great job at the newspaper. I met fascinating people, and I saw myriad worldwide wonders. It's been full of fun and laughter, too, a really good time.
I just wish I could stay a little longer.
Journalist Jack Thomas lives and writes in Cambridge. Send comments to [email protected].
Editor’s note: This essay by Jack Thomas was originally published in the Boston Globe Magazine in July, 2021.