People often say that when a person you love dies, you never forget them. It’s true that we never forget their existence. But what’s also true is that other details, like the sound of their laugh or the smell of their hair, can slip from your memory — unless, of course, you hear or smell something just like it. Forgetting is expected in these circumstances, both as a measure of subconscious self-protection, and simply because it’s increasingly tough to remember as the years go on. Yet in his new memoir, Finding Chika, Mitch Albom writes about his memories of Chika, his little girl, with such searing detail, it’s like she’s right in front of him. And that’s because, in a way, she is.
“Chika never stays for long,” the best-selling author of Tuesdays With Morrie writes. “She first appeared eight months after she died, the morning of my father’s funeral.” Throughout the book, an apparition of Chika visits Albom again and again; in the doorway, on the couch, or in his office, talking to him while he writes. “It’s not a ghost thing,” he tells me one Friday afternoon when I ask him to explain what it all means. “It’s just that when things are quiet, I can hear my own memories coming from my heart, and we have these little discussions.” Those discussions are interspersed throughout the memoir’s pages. “I wanted everybody to hear Chika’s voice,” he explains.
Chika came into Albom’s life in 2013, when he got a call from his colleague at Have Faith Haiti Mission, the orphanage he began managing in 2010 after the earthquake devastated Haiti, saying that Chika’s face was “drooped” and she was “walking funny.” When a local neurologist found a mass on her brain and said, “No one in Haiti can help her,” Albom and his wife, Janine, took her to their home in Detroit. There, they learned she had diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), a rare, debilitating disease with a long-term survival rate of zero. Doctors gave her four months to live, but Chika survived for 23.
Albom tried to “memorize” Chika while she was still alive; there are photos and videos and notepads scribbled with the miraculous things she said. “When time came to actually write the book, I had all of that. I even had the dates on it, and I was able to match the dates with photos that we had from those days,” he tells Thrive. The resulting memoir, which Albom says he was compelled to write “two days after she died,” is many things: a warning about ambition, informed by his own early work habits, a lesson on caring for the sick, and an ode to the little girl who joined the Albom family.
Here, Thrive talks to Albom about grief, fatherhood, and the privilege of supporting others.
Most writers I know, and those that I read about, are pretty strict in their routines — and yours shifted when Chika arrived. How did you balance it all: writing your weekly column, meeting your book deadlines, and taking care of Chika?
It wasn’t in that order. It was taking care of Chika, and then everything else. So everything else had to suffer. My columns were late, my deadlines were missed, I didn’t get that thing done that I thought I was going to do, or that idea that I thought I was going to turn into something. Children don’t come with a suitcase full of extra time. They come with an empty suitcase demanding that you fill it up with your time. It was a wonderful lesson to learn, actually. It made me a better person. I fumbled a lot of things that had been in my arms to make room for her, and that’s perfectly fine.
You write about ambition in the book, and how it can lead to regret, or can stop us from getting close to things that matter. What advice do you have for people who may be blocked, on an emotional level, by their ambition?
You have to get out of your routine. I wrote in the book that ambition sneaks up on you like clouds that move in the sky. You never notice the first cloud or the second cloud. You just sort of notice one day that, “Hey, I can’t see the sun anymore.” That’s what ambition does to you. It blocks out the light and you get used to this world where the sky’s the same all the time. Before I started writing Tuesdays with Morrie, I fit every type A personality. I once counted — it was 90 hours a week that I worked, and that’s no exaggeration. I was doing five newspaper columns a week, five days of radio a week; I lived in Bristol, Connecticut for three days every week launching ESPN2. I never said no to anything because I thought, “Well, if I say no, they won’t ask me again.” But you have to get out of your routine. Like in my case, with Chika, I was going along doing my life as it was, and then the earthquake happened in Haiti. I saw people covered in white dust and people digging through rubble trying to find relatives, and then you’re there. Something will reveal itself to you: “Whoa. I need to do something different than just work seven days a week.” If you can put yourself into that kind of environment, your heart will take over. I trust that most people’s hearts are pretty good. It’s just they can get crusted by, “Gotta get the work in. Gotta get the paycheck. Gotta pay the mortgage.” You need to get somewhere where the sun can kind of break through that.
Some of the chapters in the book are based on lessons Chika taught you, and the sixth is called “when a marriage becomes a family.” Can you tell me more about what you mean by that?
Early on in our marriage, when we first talked about kids, there was a part of me that was immaturely worried about, “My wife is going to be all over the baby and the baby will be more important than me.” It was so stupid. I had so much more love for my wife and more appreciation for my wife when Chika came into our lives. It was like a richer marriage. It’s like we had gone from two dimensional to three dimensional — which now that I think about it, those numbers actually match up, because we went from two to three. You learn that there’s more to your marriage than just the two of you, and it really enriches it if you’re married to the right person.
While Chika was still alive, you and your wife read that many couples wind up divorcing after losing a child. Are there things you two are doing to prevent that, or to help you get through this challenging time together?
The reason that we’re still together is because we knew about that likelihood. You fall into these patterns. You start arguing over the treatment, about what we should do or shouldn’t do, or what she should have or shouldn’t have. You can’t fight the disease, so you have to fight each other. But we realized that we’re not the enemy to one another. So we would quickly say, “OK. That’s my fault. I’m sorry. I know,” and it would dissipate. By the time we actually lost her, we were prepared.
And then, in the last moments of her life, we were together. One time we had her on the bed; I was on one side, and Janine was on the other side. She said, “Mr. Mitch, Miss Janine,” and we said, “What?” And she said, “Kiss.” We leaned over her, she was in the middle, and we kissed, and she said, “Now you can live happily ever after.” We knew how much that she liked that, so in her final moments, we did the same thing. I was on one side, and Janine was on the other, and we held her between us and told her how much we loved her and that it was okay. I think about that moment now because we were all three together. It wasn’t one of us being closer, or one of us holding her and the other one watching. It was the three of us — and because we did that together, I think that’s the reason Janine and I are still together now. We grieve together, we laugh together, and we remember memories together. We’ve managed to get through it. It’s not easy, and there’s always a void, but you have to have that void be out there and not in here. Because otherwise, you start looking for the other person to fix it, and they can’t. Nothing can, and I think we both know that.
Your writing has always hit a chord with people who are going through loss, and I imagine that Finding Chika will provide people with the same sort of support that, say, Tuesdays With Morrie, does. Your readers don’t know you, but they’re drawing so much strength from you, and I wonder if you ever feel that pull. And if you do, how do you protect yourself from feeling drained by everybody’s pain?
Until I was 37 years old, all I did was write about sports. All anybody ever wanted from me was to know who was going to win the Super Bowl, or who was going to win the World Series. People would stop me in airports and say, “Who’s going to win the Super Bowl?” and I would keep going up an escalator and go, “Patriots!” But then after Tuesdays with Morrie came out, people would stop me and say, “My mother just died of cancer. The last thing we did was read your book together. Can I talk to you about her?” Well, you can’t go, “Patriots,” and just keep going. You have to stop. And this happens to me every single day of my life. I recognize that I’ve become a person who they feel comfortable sharing with because I’ve written about things like that. That doesn’t mean I always have the answers. Amy Tan, who’s a good friend of mine, we’re in a little band together, and I sent Amy the manuscript for Tuesdays with Morrie before it came out because I didn’t know anybody except her who wrote books like this. Everybody I knew wrote sports books. She wrote back to me and said, “You’re about to become everybody’s rabbi,” and she was very prophetic. That has sort of happened, and you have to try to live up to that. You can’t just walk away from people when they’re baring their souls to you. So I’ve gotten used to it, and I actually think it’s a privilege.
What about on the days where you don’t feel like talking, where it doesn’t feel like a privilege?
You suck it up, because it’s important to the person you’re talking to. We have this thing called the “young gentleman’s club” for the boys at the orphanage who are 13 years and older. Sometimes it’s so hot, and you’re so tired, and you put in a tough day, but you have the club. You’ll sit down, and one of the boys will say, “Mr. Mitch, what is the difference between lust and love?” And it may not be what you wanted to talk about, or have the energy to talk about, but it’s important. And I think that if you’re going to be a person who wants to talk about what’s important in life, then you can’t be a person who walks away from what’s important in life when other people want to talk about it. It just comes with the territory.
In the book, while reflecting on some playful moments with Chika, you write, “If I could change anything from those moments, it would be to stay in them a little longer. Immerse ourselves so we never forget. I rarely use the world ‘rejoice’ in daily life, but it is the word I’m looking for here.” What wisdom are you hoping to impart here?
Sometimes, when we have a sad situation in our life — whether it’s with a child, or adult, a spouse, whatever — we tend to just get lost in all those terrible details. And we forget that in between, there are great moments. We’d be driving to the doctors, and Chika would start singing, “Doe, a deer, an email deer,” and we’d say, “No. It’s female,” and she’d say, “No it isn’t. It’s my mouth, and I can say whatever I want.” That’s just as memorable as the doctor’s appointment — more memorable, now. I wish that we had turned around and just grabbed that moment and just hung onto it, and said, “OK. Let’s never forget this. We can forget what the doctor’s going to say, because at some point it isn’t going to make a difference, but let’s never forget this moment.” If people could sort of rejoice in those little moments, whether someone’s sick in their life or whether it’s just regular life, you’d find that there’s a lot more of those moments than you think.
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