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
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.
Often, in the dead of night, you would wake us up. “I have to go potttt-y.” I would guide you to the bathroom, then stand, yawning, outside. I'd hear you flush, help you wash your hands, then guide you to your bed, which was nice and low so you could tumble into it.
"Is she OK?” Janine would whisper as I crawled in beside her. “She's fine,” I'd mumble, and we'd fall back to sleep. The most precious thing you can give someone is your time, Chika, because you can never get it back. When you don't think about getting it back, you've given it in love. I learned that from you.
About your bed: It may sound funny, but when you arrived, we didn't know where to put you. It wasn't like we'd had months to plan. Our house, which we had lived in for nearly 25 years, was as set in its form as we were. The guest bedrooms were downstairs. We couldn't have you that far from us. We got a large air mattress, draped it in sheets and colorful blankets, and set it in the open space between our bed and the wall. The first night you slept with us, I got up to use the bathroom and forgot your bed was there. I tripped and went stumbling to the floor, cursing.
I got used to it. I'd remind myself in the darkness to take four extra steps before turning left, and reverse my field on the journey back. I also made a habit of leaning over you in each direction, checking on your small form, splayed between pillows, your soft breathing so different from mine.
Do you remember the day I came home to find you and Janine laughing mischievously? And Janine said, “Chika, how does Mister Mitch sound when he sleeps?” And you made a loud snoring noise that suggested an animal coughing up a hair ball? And I grinned stupidly and said, “Great, now there's a second set of ears on me."
Well, of course, that was true. A second set of ears, a second set of eyes and arms and legs, a second bed that we had to walk around. This is what changes hand in hand with time: space.
Before you, Chika, we were a pair. Now we were a trio. Our car went from a couple in the front seats to you and Janine in the back and me behind the wheel, like a chauffeur.
Three seats for a movie. Three seats in a shoe store or a waiting room or a dentist's office. And three seats at the Beaumont Hospital radiation clinic in Royal Oak, Michigan, on a Monday morning, where a nurse came out and greeted us and asked if you were ready to get a “special helmet,” and you shrugged and said, “OK.” We stood and walked together, all of us holding hands, one, two, three, down a long hallway and into the fray.
We lost you to the brain tumor two years later, even though the doctors had predicted you would live only four or five months. The three of us had traveled the world, looking for a cure. In time, you lost the ability to walk, and I had to carry you from place to place. Once, when I had to go to work, you protested, insisting that I stay and play. “I can't, Chika,” I said. “This is my job.” You crossed your arms. “No, it's not,” you said. “Your job is carrying me!"
Of course, you were right. We are all here to carry our children. It is an honorable and often magnificent weight—no matter when in life a person is chosen to bear it.
From the forthcoming book Finding Chika: A Little Girl, an Earthquake, and the Making of a Family by Mitch Albom. Copyright © 2019 by Mitch Albom. Reprinted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers