“Tuesdays with Morrie” author Mitch Albom elicited furtive sniffles from some and ruined the mascara of others in Chizuk Amuno Congregation’s auditorium when he spoke Sunday about his new book, “Finding Chika: A Little Girl, an Earthquake, and the Making of a Family.”
His multi-media presentation — part talk, part slide show, part video — introduced Chika, a precocious four-year-old living in Albom’s Haitian orphanage whose brain tumor diagnosis prompted Albom and his wife to fold her into their family as they helped her find treatment in America and beyond.
Chika ended up living two more years, longer than the four months doctors had predicted. Albom told attendees the experience of bringing Chika into their home and their lives taught him: “You are never too old to become a family.” Albom said that since he and his wife married later in life, kids weren’t in the cards for them and they embraced their roles as “the fun aunt and uncle.” Chika upended their world and forged them into “a family of three.”
Albom, whose book “Tuesdays With Morrie” became the world’s best-selling memoir, drew an audience that overfilled the auditorium, some of whom drove hours to attend.
Becky Ford, who lives in the D.C. area, arrived ninety minutes early to secure a front-row seat to see her favorite author. Finer said Albom’s books helped her cope with her best friend’s death from pancreatic cancer. “Tuesdays With Morrie” remains her favorite Albom book, but Finding Chika has become a “close second” because, she said, “you can see how his perspective has matured” since Morrie’s publication 20 years ago.
Before Albom took the stage, Krieger Schechter’s lower school choir set the evening’s emotional tone, serenading Albom and attendees with a rendition of Nat King Cole’s “L.O.V.E. (L is For the Way You Look at Me)” — one of Chika’s favorite songs.
If, after their performance, you were still unaware of the emotional tidal wave roaring toward you in the Chizuk Amuno Auditorium, Albom pointed directly toward it in his opening words. He was, he told the audience, “here to speak about someone who is going to be an empty chair at my table.”
The Alboms began their journey of “Finding Chika” after the 2010 Haitian earthquake, which killed 300,000 people and rendered a million homeless. Chika was three days old.
Albom found a way to get into Haiti to help relief efforts and found “mass chaos in the streets.” Amidst the carnage, rubble and “stench of corpses from half a mile away,” two children took his hands and led him to the orphanage he would revisit nine more times and ultimately, find himself running.
Today, 10 years later, Albom visits the 52 children in his care every month. The orphanage school teaches the children in English and French. Albom secured American college scholarships for all qualifying students so the kids can return to serve their community after a formal education.
“These are precious children, folks,” Albom told attendees as he showed slides and videos of the kids. But among them, Chika “stood out” to Albom. The youngest at the orphanage, Chika “told everyone what to do.”
Then, she began to exhibit worrying neurological symptoms. After finding and paying $750 cash to use the only MRI machine in Haiti, Albom was told by the doctor: “there is nobody in Haiti who can help her.”
Albom then took her home with him to Michigan, to the neurologists at University of Michigan CS Mott Children’s Hospital. But there, after running a battery of tests, the doctor sighed. “I have learned,” said Albom, “that a doctor sighing is never a good thing.” Chika had an aggressive cancer known as DIPG, which was, the doctor explained, a “four letter word for death.”
If she’s going to fight, Albom told him, “we’re going to fight.”
For the next two years, they traveled around the country and the world chasing cures. “We started traditionally, and ended untraditionally.” Along the way, says Albom, he and his wife found a family.
“Although Chika didn’t resemble us,” he said, “we could not have loved her any more than if she did.”
As Albom shared videos of spunky, funny Chika solving math problems, singing, sledding and playing, he shared the lessons Chika taught him in her too-short life. How tough and courageous children can be. How Chika unveiled for Albom and his wife entirely new sides to their personalities and marriage. How Chika found wonder in the simplest of things — from hot running water to a little grey duck that waddled around Disneyland, stealing the show from all the expensive rides and man-made spectacles. How she changed everyone she met.
Albom, who told attendees he was sharing Chika’s story to raise money for his Haitian orphanage, maintained far more composure than his audience during the talk. In the front row, one mother consoled her tearful daughter. Attendee Lara Nicolson of Phoenix dabbed her eyes and marveled at the emotional strength it took Albom to fully love and embrace a critically sick child, knowing loss was likely imminent.
As attendees flooded the lobby to have their books signed by Albom, people seemed to exhibit more gentleness, kindness, and patience with one another than they might have otherwise while squeezed into a crowd this size.
This was Chika’s gift to Baltimore: a shared experience that brought a community together to celebrate and grieve a young life while finding new appreciation and love for their own.