The narrator, Mitch Albom, gives a brief introductory explanation of his weekly meetings each Tuesday with Morrie, his former college professor. He depicts these meetings as a continuation of his studies with Morrie, each of them a separate class on the meaning of life. The class had been held in Morrie's home, in his study, where he had watched a pink hibiscus plant shed its leaves. This plant serves as an important symbol throughout the book. Mitch reflects that no grades had been given, and that no books had been required for his final class with Morrie. A funeral, he says, had been held in place of a graduation, and his final thesis paper is the book that follows.
In a flashback, Mitch remembers his graduation from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. On a hot Saturday afternoon in the late spring of 1979, hundreds of graduating students sit on the main campus lawn in blue nylon robes. After he receives his diploma, Mitch approaches Morrie, his favorite professor, and introduces him to his parents. Mitch describes Morrie as a very small, fragile-looking older man with crooked teeth and a big smile. Morrie tells Mitch's parents that their son has taken every one of his classes, and that they have a "very special boy," a compliment that embarrasses Mitch. Before he leaves, Mitch presents Morrie with a tan briefcase that he has had engraved with Morrie's initials. Mitch wants to give a special gift to Morrie so that they will never forget one another. Morrie hugs Mitch and tells him to keep in touch, which Mitch promises to do. When they break from the hug, Mitch notices that Morrie is crying.
Morrie's "death sentence" had arrived in the summer of 1994, when he had given up dancing. He had loved to dance, regardless of what kind of music was being played. In his health, he would go to a church in Harvard Square each Wednesday night for an event called "Dance Free," which catered mainly to students and other young people. Morrie, a distinguished doctor of sociology, would go in sweat pants and a T-shirt, and dance all night until he was soaked with sweat.
However, when Morrie had developed asthma in his sixties, the dancing stopped. One day as he was along the Charles River, a cold gust of wind had left him breathless, and he was rushed to the hospital and injected with adrenaline. A few years later, he had trouble walking and fell down the stairs at a theater. Most had seen these health problems as common symptoms of old age, but Morrie had known that it was something more serious, as he had dreams of dying and was weary all the time. Doctors had found nothing wrong from his blood and urine samples, though after testing a muscle biopsy, had diagnosed Morrie with a neurological problem.
On a hot day in August of 1994, Morrie and his wife, Charlotte, had been told by his doctor that he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Lou Gherig's disease, an incurable illness which attacks the neurological system and causes loss of muscle control. The doctor had patiently answered Morrie and Charlotte's questions for nearly two hours, and had given them informational pamphlets to study. Morrie had felt as if the world had come to an end.
Shortly thereafter, Morrie could no longer drive, or walk without the help of a cane. He had swam regularly, though he had needed his home care worker, Tony, to dress and undress him. That fall, Morrie had taught his last course at Brandeis. He had told the class that there was a chance he might not make it to the end of the semester, and that he would understand if any students should want to drop the class.