Morrie receives his death sentence in the summer of 1994, but he knows that something bad is coming before that, when he has to give up dancing. The text moves backwards in time to describe how Morrie always loved to dance, to all sorts of music, and how it didn't matter to him how well he danced or how good he looked doing it. Mitch describes Morrie's previous weekly trips to a church for Wednesday night "Dance Free," and describes Morrie's comfort in the crowd of mostly students. Morrie was regarded by other attendees as nothing more than a strange old man who danced crazily.
Morrie finds fulfillment and happiness in movement, and dance specifically. He dances because it makes him happy, not because of a desire to look good in front of others. This introduces how Morrie interacts with the greater culture—by using the parts of it that make him happy, and ignoring the parts that don’t. When he is no longer able to dance, it is obvious to Morrie that something is wrong with him.
Morrie develops athsma in his sixties, which forces him to stop dancing. One day while on a walk along the river, he begins choking and is rushed to the hospital for a shot of adrenaline. Soon after, Morrie experiences several falls. He also begins to dream he's dying, and he is certain that something else is wrong with him. He goes to see doctors and undergoes a variety of tests. Finally, in August of 1994, the doctor tells Morrie and his wife, Charlotte, that he has ALS and is going to die in the relatively near future. As they leave the hospital, Charlotte is thinking about how they're going to pay for Morrie's treatment and how much time they have left. Morrie is stunned that life is continuing to go on around him. He feels a sense of despair, and asks himself "now what?"
Morrie's body is beginning to give out, and moving is becoming difficult. His dreams of dying foreshadow what he knows will come—death, by way of a disease that progressively takes away movement. Introducing Charlotte at this time, when Morrie is receiving terrible news, underscores the importance of family in Morrie's life.
Over the next several weeks, ALS begins to take over Morrie's body. First, he becomes unable to push the brakes in his car, and has to stop driving. He then has to purchase a cane and can no longer walk unassisted. Morrie then finds that he has trouble dressing and undressing himself for his weekly swims, so he hires Tony, his first home care worker. In the pool locker room other swimmers pretend to not stare at Tony helping Morrie, but Morrie senses that the visible aspects of his disease draw so much interest that it means the end of his privacy. That fall, Morrie teaches his final course at Brandeis. On the first day of class, he addresses his students and tells them that this is the first year that there's a risk for them in taking it. He tells them that he is fatally ill and may not live through the semester, and that if they wish to drop the course he will understand. From this point on, there is no longer any secret about Morrie's condition.
By showing the progression of the disease through how Morrie can or cannot move, a relationship is set up between movement and death. Due to his decreasing mobility, he is becoming increasingly dependent on family and community, as well as hired help. However, as we'll see later, Morrie believes that death (just like dancing) shouldn't be embarrassing. He is in some cases unable and in others unwilling to hide what is going on, and he embraces that. Because of Tony's help in the locker room, Morrie can no longer be just another person changing, and by making it clear to students that his death is imminent, he becomes not just another professor, but a dying one.
Mitch describes the usual progression of ALS, and comments that while Morrie's doctors guess he has two years to live, Morrie knows he has less time. Morrie decides that he is going to make the best of his time left, and makes a plan to treat himself as a kind of research subject and textbook on death that can be shared with others, since everybody is eventually going to die.
Even as Morrie's life becomes more focused on managing his condition, he continues to see many visitors. As his body weakens and moving back and forth to the bathroom becomes difficult, he begins to have to ask friends to hold a beaker for him to urinate into. Morrie is unembarrassed, and usually his friends are willing to help. During these visits, Morrie encourages his friends to continue to call on him and share their lives and their problems. He tells them that this is how they can help him, rather than just sharing sympathy.
Here, Morrie asserts to his friends that he values community and engagement with the living over sympathy and wallowing in sadness about his death. We see Morrie's belief that death shouldn't be embarrassing play out through asking his friends to help him urinate.
As the new year arrives, six months after his diagnosis,Morrie begins to have to start using a wheelchair. One of his colleagues dies suddenly, and Morrie is very depressed after the funeral because his colleague never got to hear all the nice things that were said at the funeral. Inspired, Morrie hosts his own "living funeral" with friends and family. Morrie gets the chance to tell everyone how much they mean to him, and they get to do the same. One woman in attendance reads a poem she wrote in Morrie's honor, comparing him to a "tender sequoia."