Five People You Meet in Heaven
by Mitch Albom
review by John Tintera
It's been almost a decade since Ted Koppel invited Morrie Schwartz, a college professor from the Boston area, to be a guest on his show, Nightline. Koppel interviewed Morrie in Morrie's home, introducing America to the little man with an indomitable spirit who was quickly dying from ALS. That broadcast set in motion a chain of events that led to the publication in 1997 of what has become a phenomenal publishing success, Tuesdays with Morrie, by erstwhile sportswriter Mitch Albom. As captured by Koppel and Albom, Morrie's story—more his spirit—stands in contradiction to the greed, selfishness, and the quest for everlasting youth that our mass culture foists upon us 24 hours a day. I truly believe that the popularity of Tuesdays with Morrie, which does not spare any of the clinical details of Morrie's dying, denies the myth that Americans care only about themselves and their own problems.
Now, exactly six years after the first publication of Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom is back with his follow-up, The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Like Morrie, Five People looks at the life of a real person, Edward “Eddie” Beitchman, the author's uncle. Eddie, like Morrie, is a little man, but the resemblance ends there. Unlike Morrie, whose confidence about the goodness of life thrives in the face of death, Eddie is bitter about his life. He's bitter about his father; bitter about having spent his life in a dead-end job at an amusement park; bitter about the too-early death of his beloved wife; bitter about the leg wound he suffered in World War II which causes him to limp through all of his remaining days. Then one day, during his 83rd summer, Eddie is killed in a freak accident involving one of the rides at the amusement park.
The book opens with a minute-by-minute recounting of Eddie's last hour before death. It's a typical summer morning with Eddie following his routine of inspecting the various rides in the park, amusing the children who recognize him with animals shaped from pipe cleaners, and baiting a fishing line and dropping it from a hole in the pier. Eddie spends his last moment on earth rushing to save a little girl from being crushed by the cab of a “free fall” ride whose cable has been severed and is hurtling through the air. It's the same object that kills Eddie.
From the retelling of Eddie's last moments, the biography turns into Albom's imaginative rendering of Eddie's first days in heaven—who he meets there and what they teach him about the meaning of his life on earth. On paper, the plot sounds like a recipe for a book on a quick trip to the discount rack, but Albom imbues the story with so much realism and storytelling aplomb that it never has a chance to become schmaltzy. The five people Eddie meets are a freak from the amusement park's freak show when Eddie was a child; the captain of Eddie's platoon in the war; the woman for whom the pier is named where Eddie worked (she gives Eddie some telling insights about his father); Eddie's wife; and a surprise character who ties the whole book together and teaches Eddie his most important lesson. The stories told by the five people include scenes of attempted rape, murderous rage, parental neglect, and inadvertent manslaughter. All of them directly or indirectly involve Eddie and provide him with a perspective on his life that he lacked during his lifetime. By re-imagining Eddie's life from the perspective of heaven, Albom sends his readers a clear message—the suffering we experience in this life has a larger context, if not an ultimate meaning. Or, to paraphrase something that the freak tells Eddie, life may not be fair, but that does not mean there's not a reason for what happens to us.
Getting to the point, as Albom clearly has, where a person is ready to admit that there is a significant pattern or design behind the circumstances and events of our lives requires a leap of faith. Hard-bitten by life, yet not willing to totally throw in the towel, Eddie, at least from the perspective of his nephew, was never quite able to make that leap. As such, he epitomizes a tendency toward quiet resignation I think all of us have to a certain extent, or at least from time to time—a tendency no doubt exasperated by our increasing loss of job security and rising unemployment, the wars in Palestine and Iraq, and the ever-present fear of terrorism. While there are many people in the religious establishment who might pooh-pooh Albom's faith as lacking doctrinal substance (that is if any are paying attention), it strikes me as being not only genuine but also worthy of notice by those whose business it is to help others along on their spiritual path.
In addition to a kind of elemental faith, Albom also offers us a chance to pause from our busy lives as breadwinners, parents, teachers, healers, consumers, prayers, and the countless other hats we don in the course of a day, to reflect on our own mortality and that of our loved ones. My favorite part of Five People is its invitation to consider what you might call the minor characters of your life—the co-workers from three jobs ago, nearly-forgotten schoolmates and teachers, and acquaintances from your present circumstances. In addition, both books offer a solid vision of a communitarian ideal, one that is not unlike the ideal set forth by Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan. At one point, Albom quotes Morrie as saying, “If you're surrounded by people who say ‘I want mine now,' you end up with a few people with everything and a military to keep the poor ones from rising up and stealing it.” When Eddie meets his army captain in heaven, he's told,
Sacrifice…we all make them. But you were angry over yours. You kept thinking about what you lost…. Sacrifice is part of life. It's supposed to be. It's not something to regret. It's something to aspire to. Little sacrifices. Big sacrifices. A mother works so her son can go to school. A daughter moves home to take care of her sick father.
Although Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven probably won't be remembered 100 years from now, they offer a soothing balm to some of the harshest ailments of our present moment. On the one hand you've got a mail box—both real and virtual—filled with advertisements for things you don't need; telemarketers hounding you on your days off and at dinner time; and a prevailing attitude that we should all go on shopping sprees to jumpstart the economy after terrorist attacks. On the other hand, you exercise three times a week and can't lose weight; you work harder than you've ever worked, your company is doing well, and you still only get a 3 percent cost of living increase;and your parent, spouse, or best friend is someone who never smoked or drank, yet is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. All the ads on television may speak of a land where the women are thin and beautiful and the men dark, rich and handsome, but that's not the reality of our lives. Albom's books acknowledge our fears and frustrations and offer a generous helping of consolation. As Morrie says, “The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in.”
I suppose it's inevitable that someone in Hollywood will come along and attempt to make movies out of these wonderful little books. Of course, the ugly details of Morrie's death and the unpleasant aspects of Eddie's life will be re-written and whitewashed. If so, then more's the pity since the strength of these books lies in their ability to capture reality as all of us (except perhaps the most charmed—and the most dull) really know it. I know that I'm already wondering who might be in heaven waiting to tell me their story; and I hope that, when my time comes, I can bow out with the same kind of courage and dignity that marked the last days of Morrie Schwartz.
©2004 John Tintera
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