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Mitch Albom Reflects on 'Finding Chika'

Award-winning author and his wife found a new purpose later in life by taking care of ailing Haitian girl

Mitch Albom and family
Mitch Albom

After an earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, a Detroit pastor approached one of the city's most famous personalities, asking for help with an orphanage in that devastated country. Mitch Albom, the longtime sportswriter-turned-author of Tuesdays with Morrie and other best sellers, agreed to do what he could through his charitable foundation. He eventually took control of the facility. “I still can't really figure out why I said I would run it,” Albom says of what's now called the Have Faith Haiti Mission & Orphanage; it houses almost 50 children.

Chika Juene entered Albom's life three years later. She'd been born three days before the earthquake, and her mother later died. Most kids going through the Port-au-Prince mission's interviews would stare nervously at the ground. Chika seemed annoyed, impatient. Albom stuck out his tongue at her, and she gave it right back. “I knew then that she was brave,” he notes. “I didn't know how brave she would need to be later.”

Two years on, Chika was diagnosed with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), a rare brain tumor. It's considered deadly, especially where medical resources are scarce. So in 2015, Albom and his wife, Janine, in their late 50s and with no children of their own, brought 5-year-old Chika into their home so she could seek treatment in the U.S. They grew into an unorthodox but loving family. Albom chronicles their experience in Finding Chika: A Little Girl, an Earthquake, and the Making of a Family (an exclusive book excerpt below).

"We were parents in grandparents’ bodies,” Janine says. “We want to tell everyone that it's never too late to open your heart, to love children and to love each other.” — Brian Bennett

Book Excerpt

Do you remember the first morning you woke up at our house? I was already down in my office, because mornings are when I write. Suddenly, my phone rang; it was my wife, calling from the bedroom. In a raspy, just-woke-up voice, she said, “Chika is hungry for breakfast. Can you help her?"

I came upstairs and led you to the kitchen, and we found eggs and butter and some cheese and tomatoes. I showed you the frying pan, the burner, the bowl, the cutting board. You stood on your tiptoes and helped move the spatula around. I poured you juice. We said our prayers.

And I watched you eat.

And I watched you eat some more.

To say it was “leisurely” is a big understatement. You chewed. You looked out the window. You put down your fork and yawned. You picked up your fork. You had another bite. You swayed back and forth to some internal rhythm and looked out the window again. It took nearly an hour. I would compare this to the pace at which I eat breakfast, except I don't eat breakfast.

But the next morning, when I heard your feet thumping down the steps at 7 a.m., I rose from my desk, met you at the door, lifted you and raced you up to the kitchen.

A child is both an anchor and a set of wings. My old way of doing things was gone.

I laugh at that memory, as it is so small. I share it because, from the moment we unpacked your clothes, our pace and space were forever altered.

With a child, time is no longer your own. All parents will tell you this. But perhaps because it happened to Janine and me later in life—after 20 years of it just being the two of us—the difference was jolting.

When we decided you were not going back to Haiti, not until we found a way to beat this awful disease, we brought you home from the hospital with two stuffed animals, a bandage on your neck and a suitcase full of hopeful naivete. We didn't realize the scope of this undertaking: that we were ushering in a child and a challenge, a full-time search for a cure to something that, two weeks earlier, we had barely heard of.

You had a pace. The disease had a pace. From that point forward, all we thought we knew about time would change, from the way we used to spend it to the way we cherished it.

"Do you know how old I am, Chika?” You used to guess, “Thirty!” and when I said no, you tried, “A hundred!” Relative age must be so mysterious to children, who count their time in half years. With most of them, I've observed, there are only kids and grownups. The numbers don't really matter. I was 57 when you came to live with us, and Janine was 59, young enough to maintain our routines, old enough to bristle at changing them. Janine was faster at adapting than I was. I think she was always, in some fashion, preparing for this day.

When I was younger, I was afraid of becoming a father. I saw how it ate up the hours. I worried that I wouldn't give it the proper time and I'd wind up being a bad dad. Also, to be totally honest, I thought it would hinder my career. I was advancing fast and wanted to keep up that pace. Ambition is not something I ever warned you about, Chika, but I have learned it can overtake you gradually, like clouds moving across the sun, until, consumed by pursuing it, you get used to a dimmer existence.

When Janine and I married, she knew all this. But she believed in a better version of me, a more generous one, and I wanted to live up to that. Still, hoarding time becomes a habit. I remember once, when we were trying to have children, I raised the idea of hiring an au pair to help take care of them. Janine rejected it. She got angry, actually, which she rarely did. I wondered why she wouldn't welcome the help, blind to the hurt that her husband was already planning time away from a baby we didn't have.

I was a foolish man in many ways, Chika, when I look back on things.

And then, you, with your unhurried ways. You were 5 years old, but such a curious 5 years old, as if the pages of your life had been stacked but not yet turned. You took your time reading. You took your time dressing.

"Those red socks are good,” I'd say, watching you study them. “Mmmm, no. I think I want the green ones."

"The green ones are good."

"No, wait! The blue!”

With little choice, we slowed to your rhythm. I had to decelerate to match your awe, to hit the brakes in my life, to beg out of dinners because of your bedtime, to be late for work because of places I needed to take you.

And we found ourselves studying you in a growing fascination. We'd nudge each other as you clapped for a movie, or danced around the table without knowing we were watching. If you nodded off in my arms, I'd hold you while Janine stroked your hair. I don't know how many hours we spent just looking at you, Chika, but there were many, and they were cherished.