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This Old Man

Jane and Aunt Joan


Times photo -
JOANNA B. PINNEO

Jane and her Aunt Joan fold clothes at Joan's house, where Jane often does her laundry. Joan told Mick he could spend his final days at her house in St. Petersburg, so he could be near the kids.


By ROY PETER CLARK
Special To The Times

No one could figure out how or why he did it, but Mick Morse, dying of AIDS, returned to Spain after New Year's Day of 1993.

On Jan. 30, Jane writes this entry in her journal: "Got through the holidays - don't know how but know that I'm relieved that they are over. Mick looks awful - thinner, slouched, slow gait, & wrinkly & old."

Her anger and frustration boil to the surface: "I don't mean this to be heartless," she writes, "but I wish it was over."

Jane did not know it yet, but her Aunt Joan had done what no one else dared do: confront Mick before he left for Spain about the imminence of his death. Joan had experience as a hospice worker with the dying and could see in Mick's face and body the signs of the last days.

Joan waited until she was alone with Mick.

"Mick, you may not like to hear what I'm going to say, but I'm going to say it anyway. I'm going to ask you a question. You know you're terminal. I know you're terminal. Where are you planning on dying?"

"Well, that is the question," said Mick.

"Your kids really need to be near you," said Joan. "And you know you're welcome to come here and die."

"Oh, I couldn't."

"Well, wait a minute," said Joan. "You know I always have a hospice patient. So you can be it."

Mick admitted that he had no place to go but that his work required his return to Spain.

From there he wrote Aunt Joan and Uncle Ralph a letter. "The positive support that you have given all of us has made it much easier for us to deal with this entire situation," he writes. "I am really proud of the way the kids are holding up, and I hope that what I am seeing, a certain emotional toughness, is really true. I guess only time will tell."

It was typical of Mick to be proud of the "emotional toughness" of his children. To him it was the essential ingredient of the Morse Code.

Mick also informs Joan and Ralph that he has ordered two magazines from a publishers' sweepstakes, what he calls "the Ed McMahon trap," hoping that a "pile of money" will find its way to his family. If not, Jane will have to settle for Redbook and the girls for Seventeen.

Mick concludes that, however exhausting his recent journey, he looks forward to a return visit to Florida in February.

At that time, Mick would attend two recruiting fairs in the United States, one at the University of Northern Iowa and another in Orlando. These annual events were like a dating service, in which young American teachers, looking for jobs overseas, would interview with American School administrators from around the world. Despite his ill health, Mick was still headmaster of the school in Bilbao, Spain.

For years Gilbert Brown had been Mick's boss at the American School in Rio de Janeiro, an experienced administrator with colleagues and contacts around the world. He has heard the story of what happened to Mick on his final journey across America.

Mick flew from Spain to the United States and into Waterloo airport, near Cedar Falls, Iowa, and found himself in the middle of a blizzard. He must have remembered such weather from his Michigan boyhood, but his years in Brazil and Spain had, as they say, "thinned his blood."

One headmaster in attendance was Dennis Klumpp, who had replaced Mick in Rio. Early one morning, Dennis was making his way across the campus quadrangle when he saw a frail old man, virtually immobile in the teeth of the bone-chilling wind and driving snow. The man took tiny steps forward, but seemed to lack the energy to fight the storm. Dennis rushed over to assist him.

The man looked up. It was Mick Morse.

Dennis asked Mick why he was headed for the conference site so early.

"I move a lot slower these days," said Mick. "I've got to get an early start if I'm going to make it on time."

About a week later, a similar scene occurred at the recruiting fair in Orlando. Two former colleagues of Mick stood in a hotel lobby. They were approached by a frail old man, weighing perhaps 90 pounds, who was looking for a meeting room. The two men offered directions and realized only later that the old man was really their old friend: Mick Morse, age 53.

Looking back, everyone wonders why Mick was allowed to continue working, why a school would send a dying man into a blizzard on a recruiting trip. Gilbert Brown, a veteran of administrative wars, thinks he knows.

Mick was headmaster in Bilbao, so the only people who could control him, or fire him, or encourage him to take sick leave were members of his School Board. "The tendency of these overseas schools is to be conservative, careful, slow to action, to do whatever you can to keep the ship from rocking. No one had the strength to tell him not to go to the U.S. and recruit."

Brown believes that if Mick's secrets had been known, that he had AIDS, or that he may have been gay, it would have meant immediate discharge. In such conservative settings, there were "no circumstances in which an openly gay man could be in charge of a school."

But at least Mick was back in the United States now. He could see his family again. He rented a car and drove from Orlando to St. Pete. He called his daughter Meghan. Could they all meet for dinner on Feb. 15 to celebrate her birthday? Jane agreed to drive the kids over to Aunt Joan's. They could have dinner with their dad. But she wanted no part of it. No part of Mick.

Mick arrived on the 15th to discover that there was no birthday party planned and that Jane would not co-operate on a simple invitation for a family dinner. He had come so far, an excruciating odyssey from Spain to America, through an Iowa blizzard, and now nothing. He drove back to Orlando.

Two days later, a Sunday afternoon, Jane took her laundry over to Ralph and Joan's house. Their washer and dryer were in a corner of the garage. The garage door was opened. Jane was folding her laundry, chatting with her cousin Jeff. She looked up. A car was parked across the street. About 50 feet away. She did not recognize the car, or the driver, an old, old man. He did not move. He just sat, and stared at Jane.

"Jeff," she said, "who is that old man staring at us?"

And then, "Oh my God. It's Mick."

THE SERIES: This is the 24th installment of a 29-part story.
Next: Chapter 25, The Silver Bell


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