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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Mitch Albom meets Eileen and we understand why it's important to start living

By Ted Slowik

Mitch Albom knows a thing or two about living. He's inspired millions of people and helped them to appreciate the gift of life, deepen their faith and act in the service of others.

Albom's book "Tuesdays with Morrie" is the best-selling memoir of all time. Albom chronicled his conversations with his college professor, Morrie Schwartz, who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or "Lou Gehrig's Disease." It's a cruel disease that ravages one's body but leaves the mind intact. 

Morrie refused to feel sorry for himself, though, and continued to do all he could to help others up to the very end. Morrie said wise things, like, "Learn how to die, and you learn how to live."

"So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they're busy doing things they think are important. This is because they're chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning," Morrie tells Mitch at one point.

On Saturday, Naperville's Anderson's Bookshops brought Albom to North Central College for an author talk and signing of his new book, "The First Phone Call From Heaven." As PR director at the college, I was prepared for anything: the over-enthusiastic fan, the deeply moved reader overcome with emotion in expressing gratitude to Albom for his work.

When your job is to work events like this, you learn to read situations well. Safety and security are always on your mind, but it's best to not let that show. You want to make sure the famous guest is comfortable, and you try to see that patrons all have an enjoyable experience.

So I was ready when a patron approached me in the theater lobby about a half hour before the event asking about wheelchair access in the century-old former church building where the event was held. She was part of a large group of family supporting a woman named Eileen, who has advanced ALS. Eileen can move her eyes but not much else, though machines help her breathe and even speak. (Think Stephen Hawking.)

It turns out that Eileen is pen pals with Mitch, and they had arranged to meet. I helped make sure the family got into the building OK. Mitch and his assistant Rosie arrived at the same time, so I also helped get them settled in the green room then took them up to meet Eileen.

It's really great when celebrities care about their fans and turn out to be the most down to earth people you could imagine. In this business there are divas and prima donnas and artists who obviously want no close contact with the public whatsoever, and your job is to respect that. On the other hand the ranks of the rich and famous include some of the nicest people you'll ever meet. Mitch is one of those.

Mitch spent a good 20 minutes visiting with Eileen before the event, and when he began his talk he started by telling the audience about Eileen and the effort it took for her to be there. The sound of Eileen's respirator could be heard continuously during his talk, and Mitch hoped the other patrons weren't bothered by the noise.

Of course everyone was very nice to Eileen, including one couple who gave up their seats so Eileen's family could tend to her in a space large enough to accommodate her wheelchair. 

Mitch gave a great talk, then signed books with personal greetings for everyone who wanted one. Eileen was at the front of the line, and her family had many bought many books because his writing had touched them so personally. I was on hand if needed when Mitch asked if someone could record a video of Elaine "reading" a one-minute review she had written. I gladly offered to do it with my iPhone.

"I loved it," she began. "Miracles are possible. Even for those who doubt, for those who are broken and angry. Hope. This is a story about love and healing and many things, but most of all it is to have hope. Be open to the miracles in your life. And now Mitch your voice is in all who read your beautiful words."

In the video (which you can see here), Mitch thanks her and tenderly leans in and kisses Eileen twice on her forehead. He writes in "Tuesdays with Morrie" about the value of physical contact. For someone who has sold more than 33 million books to actually demonstrate that is truly special.

Mitch is humble about his talent, his charities (he visits Haiti every month for a few days to check up on an orphanage he founded) and his success. He's a great human being and a great writer. 

If you aren't already familiar with his work you should check it out. His books just might change your life.