New Mitch Albom book excerpt: 'Finding Chika' tells his family's devastating love story
Mitch Albom's new memoir is an account of the little girl who changed the world for many through joy, laughter and heartbreak.
In 2013, author and Free Press columnist Mitch Albom admitted a young girl named Chika Jeune into the orphanage he operates in Port Au Prince, Haiti.
Little Chika was born three days before the massive earthquake of 2010, and miraculously survived it, despite her cinder block house collapsing. Albom said she was “born tough.”
Then, when she was 5 years old, Chika was diagnosed with DIPG, an inoperable Stage IV brain tumor. Mitch and his wife, Janine, brought Chika to the U.S. in hopes of better medical care and an eventual return to Haiti. Instead, it became a two-year, around-the-world journey to find a cure.
Along the way the trio found something else: they had become a family.
“Finding Chika,” to be released this week with all proceeds going to the Have Faith Haiti Mission & Orphanage, is Albom’s account of the joy, laughter, heartbreak and insight that Chika brought to so many lives. Twenty-two years after publishing “Tuesdays with Morrie” and 10 years after “Have a Little Faith,” this book marks Albom’s return to memoir non-fiction. In this exclusive excerpt for the Free Press, which includes an edited selection of passages from the book, we see how Chika changed the world for so many people around her, and why it is never too late to love a child.
“Why aren’t you writing, Mister Mitch?”
Chika is lying on the carpet in my office. She flips onto her back. She plays with her fingers. She comes here in the early morning, when the light is still thin at the window. Sometimes she has a doll or a set of Magic Markers. Other times, it’s just her. She wears her blue pajamas, with the My Little Pony cartoon on the top and pastel stars on the bottoms.
In the past, Chika loved to choose her clothes each morning after brushing her teeth, matching the colors of the socks and the shirts.
But she doesn’t do that anymore.
Chika died last spring, when the trees in our yard were beginning to bud, as they are budding now, as it is spring again. Her absence left us without breath, or sleep, or appetite, and my wife and I stared straight ahead for long stretches until someone spoke to snap us out of it.
Then one morning, Chika reappeared.
“Why aren’t you writing?” she says again.
I stare at the empty screen.
She makes a grrr sound, like a cartoon tiger.
Don’t be mad.
Don’t be mad, Chika.
Don’t go, OK?
She taps her little fingers on the desk, as if she has to think about it.
Chika never stays for long. She first appeared eight months after she died, the morning of my father’s funeral. I walked outside to look at the sky. And suddenly, there she was, standing beside me. I said her name in disbelief — “Chika?” — and she turned, so I knew she could hear me. I spoke quickly, believing this was a dream and she would vanish at any moment.
That was then. Lately, when she appears, I am calm. I say, “Good morning, beautiful girl,” and she says, “Good morning, Mister Mitch,” and she sits on the floor or in her little chair, which I never removed from my office. You can get used to everything in life, I suppose. Even this.
I glance at the calendar. Can it really be a year since she’s gone? It feels like yesterday. It feels like forever.
All right, Chika, I say. I’ll start writing.
“Yay!” she squeals, shaking her fists.
One condition. You have to stay here while I do. You have to stay with me, OK?
I know she cannot do what I’m asking. Still, I bargain. It’s all we really want, my wife and I, since Chika has been gone; to be in the same place with her, all the time.
“Tell me my story,” Chika says.
And you’ll stay?
All right, I say. I will tell you the story of you and me.
“Us,” she says.
“Us,” I say.
Once upon a time, Chika, I came to your country. I wasn’t there the day you were born. I arrived a few weeks later, because a really bad thing happened. It was called an earthquake. An earthquake is when —
"— Mister Mitch. Stop.”
What’s the matter?
“Don’t talk like that.”
“Like I’m a baby.”
But you’re only 7.
You’re not 7 anymore?
She shakes her head.
How old are you?
What should I do?
“Talk like a grown-up. Like you talk to Miss Janine.”
She takes my wrists and guides them back to the keys. I feel the warmth of her little hands and I revel in it. I have learned I cannot touch Chika, but she can touch me. I am not sure why this is. I don’t get the rules. But I am grateful for her visits and hungry for every little contact.
I start again.
I wasn’t there the day you were born, Chika. I arrived in Haiti a few weeks later, to help after a terrible earthquake, and since you tell me I should talk like a grown-up, then I can say it was seismic enough in 30 seconds to wipe out nearly 3% of your country’s population. Buildings crumbled. Offices collapsed. Houses that held families were intact one moment and puffs of smoke the next. People died and were buried in the rubble, many of them not found until weeks later, their skin covered in gray dust. They never did get an accurate count of those lost, not to this day, but it was in the hundreds of thousands. That’s more people killed in less than a minute than in all the days of the American Revolution and the Gulf War combined.
It was a tragedy on an island where tragedy is no stranger. Haiti, your homeland, is the second poorest nation in the world, with a history of hardship and many deaths, the kind that come too soon.
But it is also a place of great happiness, Chika. A place of beauty and laughter and unshakable faith, and children — children who, in a rainstorm, will hook arms and dance spontaneously, then throw themselves to the ground in hysterics, as if they don’t know what to do with all their joy. You were happy there in that way once, even very poor.
* * *
The story of your birth was told to me as follows: on Jan. 9, 2010, you entered this world inside a two-room cinder block house by a breadfruit tree. There was no doctor present. A midwife named Albert delivered you from your mother’s womb. From all accounts, yours was a healthy birth, you cried when you were supposed to, you slept when you were supposed to.
And on your third day of life, Jan. 12, a hot afternoon, you were sleeping on your mother’s chest when the world shook as if the dirt held thunder. Your cinder block house wobbled and the roof fell off and the structure split open like a walnut, leaving the two of you exposed to the heavens.
Perhaps God got a good look at you, Chika, because He didn’t take you that day, and He didn’t take your mother, even though He took so many others. Your home was destroyed, but you were both left intact — naked to the sky, but intact. All around, people were running and falling and praying and crying. Trees lay on their sides. Animals hid.
You slept that night in the sugarcane fields, on a bed of leaves, under the stars, and you slept there for many days that followed. So you were birthed into the soil of your homeland, Chika, all its roiling rage and beauty, and maybe that is why you sometimes roiled and raged yourself, and were so beautiful.
You are Haitian. Although you lived in America and died in America, you were always of another place, as you are now, even as you sit here with me.
Once, late at night, Miss Janine and I were crouched next to your bed and you said to us, quietly, “How did you find me?” I thought it was such a sad question that I could only repeat it. “How did we find you?” And you said, “Yes.” And we said, “You mean how did you come to us?” and you said yes, again. But I think you meant it the way you said it, because life before the orphanage was foggy in your memory, like being in a misty forest, so “How did you find me?” makes sense, because to you, I suppose, it felt as if you were found.
But you were never lost, Chika. I want you to know that. There were people who loved you before we loved you. Your mother, Resilia, from what I have been told, was a tall, strong woman with a broad face and a stern expression, like you have sometimes when you do not get your way.
She had a friend named Herzulia, and they would take walks together and laugh about men and eventually your mother got involved with a man of her own, an older man with sad eyes whose first name was Fedner and whose last name was Jeune, which is your last name, too. Jeune, in French, means “young,” so it suits you.
Your mother and Fedner had two girls who preceded you, your older sisters, and when your mother got pregnant with you, she told Herzulia that you would be her last child. Together they chose an elegant name for you, Medjerda, although very soon everyone was calling you Chika. Someone said it was because you were a stocky baby. Someone else said Chika is a term of endearment. It doesn’t really matter. We have names we are given and names that just attach to us, and Chika was yours.
And had your mother been right, had you been her last child, she might be alive and I might never have met you.
But she and Fedner had one more baby after you, two years later, a boy. He arrived in the hottest month of the year, August, in the early hours before the sun came up. Albert, the midwife, was again present, but this time something went wrong.
Your new brother lived.
Your mother died.
Free Press columnist Mitch Albom, who operates the Have Faith Haiti orphanage where young Chika lived, brought her to America after she got sick, thinking a short treatment would allow her to return to live among her fellow children. Detroit Free Press
I know it makes no sense to have birth and death in the same bed, Chika, but that is what happened, and that was the last you saw of your birth family for a long time.
Herzulia carried you off after the funeral. She said your mother had chosen her as your godmother and had insisted, “If I ever die, you must take Chika.” So she did. She took you and two sets of your clothes and together you rode off in the back of a Haitian tap-tap bus.
Those clothes were all you got to keep from your first home, Chika. It is not a lot, I know. I can only say that God was merciful by not letting you remember those days. Your mother was buried in a large grave with other people, and there is no marker for her anywhere, nothing with her name that you can visit or pray over, although you can always pray wherever you are, you know this from your teachings.
* * *
Your next home did not last long. Less than a year. It was a single-room apartment in a cinder block structure that you shared with Herzulia’s family. There was no bathroom inside. At night, when the electricity went off, it was total darkness, and in the mornings, you would carry dirty bedsheets up the stairs to the rooftop, a dangerous undertaking for a child not yet 3 years old. A woman saw you doing this and grew concerned for your safety. She suggested to Herzulia that you might be better off in an orphanage. She knew of one not far away, in the section of the city known as Delmas 33.
That is the orphanage I have operated since 2010, the year of the earthquake, the place you called misyon an, “the mission,” specifically, the Have Faith Haiti Mission, a rectangular piece of land behind a high gray gate on Rue Anne Laramie, a terribly potholed street that gathers water like a small lake when it rains.
And that, Chika, was the beginning of providence moving our lives together, or the continuance of it, I should say, since the Lord doesn’t get ideas partway through a life.
* * *
When Herzulia brought you to us, she said she had three children of her own and no money. As we talked you watched in silence, Herzulia occasionally straightening your dress.
Here is what I remember the most. After a while, you crossed your arms, as if you were getting impatient, and I looked at you and you looked back, and I stuck out my tongue and you stuck out yours, and I laughed and you laughed in return.
Most new children, when brought to our mission, are shy and nervous and look away if I catch their glance. But you went eye-to-eye with me, right from the start.
And even though I knew so little about you, Chika, I could tell that you were brave, and I knew that being brave would help you in this life.
I did not know how much.
* * *
It is August of 2013. I have been operating the orphanage for three years. We have functional water, healthy food, and many new children. And while much of Haiti remains a mystery to me, coming here every month has made certain things routine.
I land at the Port-au-Prince airport, go through passport control, shuffle past a small Haitian band, descend the escalator, which, per usual, is not working. Alain Charles, our Haitian director, stands at the bottom. We retrieve the bags and push out the doors, which is like entering a tunnel of burning air. Sweating men in button-down shirts grab at my luggage and yell, “Hello, sir! . . . I help you, sir!”
As we weave through heavy traffic, we pass piles of earthquake rubble, still visible after three years, and mounds of trash, some of it on fire. A stray goat. A skinny dog. Potholes that could swallow a vehicle whole. Finally, with a horn honk, a security guard opens the gate of our orphanage.
And suddenly, the whole world changes. I hear the most wonderful sound — squealing children — running my way. They are led by our newest arrival, Chika Jeune, who has only been here a few weeks. The others yell, “Mister Mitch!” but she doesn’t really know me yet. Still, she seems determined to be first. She raises her arms, so I lift her up. I am often amazed by how little a child needs to know you to want your embrace.
“And how are you, Chika Jeune?”
She doesn’t answer. She speaks no English.
“Sak pase?” I try, a Creole expression akin to, “What’s up?”
She grins and grabs my neck and buries her head.
“It’s OK,” I say, “you’ll talk later.”
“Can I have a piece of paper?”
I hand her a yellow pad.
“Can I have something to draw with?”
I hand her a marker.
“Mister Mitch? Did I ever teached you something?”
Teach me. Yes. You taught me many things.
She slaps the pad and marker on my desk.
“Now I am the teacher! You have to write what I teached you! And don’t stop” — she wags a parental finger — “until you are finished!”
“Because then I can stay.”
Wait, I say. Forever?
But she is gone.
In the early months of operating the orphanage, Chika, I was determined to protect our kids from anything, just as I was determined to protect you. I had to consider things I never thought about before, like how slippery the floors were, or how potholed the concrete was where the kids played soccer, or how to intercept tiny toys that could be swallowed, or containers of diesel fuel for the generator that might get into the wrong young hands.
I thought if I only focused more, I could guard against anything. But like walking into a swarm of bees, the more you swat at dangers, the more of them seem to appear. As we admitted more children, I worried about our building (still not earthquake-proof), our upper level (what if someone fell?), our water tanks (what if something poisonous got in them?).
It was overwhelming. Gradually, I had to face the fact that I could not control everything, no matter how fast my eyes darted from spot to spot. This was hard. I am not good at being vulnerable, Chika, or relying on the Lord to handle it all, even though many around me in Haiti were at peace under His watch. Protecting our kids became the biggest and most anxious priority in my life.
But because you were all so young, I thought more about accidents and mishaps, not long-term health.
Then, one day, when I was back in Michigan, I got a phone call from Mr. Alain, our Hatian director.
“Sir, there is something wrong with Chika.”
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“Her face. It is drooped. And she is walking funny.”
“Did you take her to the doctor?”
“What did he do?”
“He gave her eye drops.”
“Alain, it’s not her eyes. Can you find a neurologist?”
“A nerve doctor.”
“I will find one.”
I remember hanging up and feeling unsettled, as if something ominous was coming, like the rolling thunder on Haitian afternoons before the heavy rains fall. We never needed a neurologist before, Chika. A skin doctor, yes. A dentist, sure. Cough medicine, diarrhea medicine, children’s Tylenol. But a neurologist?
How serious is this? I wondered.
* * *
When we finally found that neurologist, he noted the droop of your mouth and your left eye, and how your gait was slightly off. He ordered an MRI. At the time, there was only one MRI machine in Haiti, and it cost $750 cash for an appointment.
Mr. Alain took you there. You left before sunrise. Six hours later, a nurse finally called your name. She made you drink a syrup that put you to sleep. You were placed inside a large cylinder, where radio waves and a magnetic field were generated around your head. The results were images that showed you from the inside.
And while I would have told people that on the inside, Chika, you were warm and curious and confident and funny, the MRI analysis was more clinical:
“The child has a mass on her brain. We don’t know what it is. But whatever it is, there is no one in Haiti who can help her.”
I read that.
And everything I knew about protection changed.
“Tell me about when I came to America,” she says.
All right. Here is what I recall. You were the first child we ever brought to this country, and the day of your departure, the other kids at the mission lined up to hug you. They waved goodbye as the car left the gates. I imagine some thought they would never see you again.
Accompanied by Mr. Alain, you flew to Miami and on to Detroit, wearing a white sweater, even though it was June. In your first American bathroom, you turned the faucet and jerked your hands back, because you had never felt hot water from a sink before. So before you even slept a night here, this country was a wonder to you.
Miss Janine and I were waiting at the house, with colorful blankets and dolls to make you feel welcome. At the time, we hoped the doctors would diagnose the problem and treat it quickly, and you would heal under our watch. Then you could return to Haiti.
Looking back now, we really knew so little.
I should say you did not seem scared when you got here, Chika, but you did not speak much, either. Or show much emotion. Mostly you looked around. Who could blame you? Virtually everything you saw was new: traffic lights, highways, houses with yards, mailboxes, televisions in different rooms. The input had to be overwhelming. I often wondered, when you went to sleep that first night, how far you imagined yourself from the orphanage.
The day after your arrival, we went for tests at Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor. It was the tallest building you had ever seen. We approached the front desk. A man said hello and gave you a wristband, which you admired like a bracelet.
Then the man turned to me and asked, “What is your relationship to the patient?”
For a moment, I hesitated. All around were mothers and fathers, many looking similar to their children, same hair, same skin color, same facial features. I felt as if I’d been caught trying to fool someone. I answered by saying, “legal guardian,” because those are technically the correct words, and the man wrote something down and asked me to stand before a camera.
“Mister Mitch!” you suddenly yelled. “Look!” You pointed to a large Superman figure in the lobby. I released your hand and you ran to it, just as the man handed me a sticker with a grainy photo of my face.
Above the photo was one word: Parent.
I stuck it to my shirt.
“Then what happened?”
I don’t like this part.
Because it was bad news.
It wasn’t bad news?
She shakes her head no.
* * *
How could she determine that? I never told her this story, the moment Janine and I entered a small consultation room a few days after Chika’s initial brain surgery.
Anyone who has sat through that slice of time, when you don’t know something awful and then you do, will confirm that it is literally a bend in your life, and what is critical is what you choose next; because you can view a diagnosis many ways — as a curse, a challenge, a resignation, a test from God.
We had been cautiously optimistic that morning, based on doctors’ earlier analysis, that the mass in Chika’s brain could be manageable. The hope was for a grade one tumor, most easily dealt with, but we were braced for a grade two, which they warned could involve some radiation and long-term surveillance.
Instead, Dr. Hugh Garton came into that consultation room, sat down, and, in a soft but direct voice, said the news was not good, worse than they’d thought, that Chika had something called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, or DIPG.
When I asked if that was a grade one or two, he said it was “a four.”
Mitch Albom shares a clip in which Chika draws a picture of herself. Detroit Free Press
He began to lay out options, which included radiation therapy and experimental medications, but all I heard was “four.”
Four? I felt like I was stumbling, even as I was sitting down. Four? I kept listening for the part where the surgeons go back and take the whole monster out, but it never came. Apparently, if they did that, there would be nothing left of Chika’s brain to function.
Dr. Garton shared some ominous truths about DIPG: there are only around 300 cases in the United States every year: it usually strikes children between 4 and 9; it quickly debilitates them — their walking, their mobility, their swallowing. And the kicker: its long-term survival rate was, basically, zero.
I could see Janine tearing up. I blurted out the question before I lost the courage to ask it.
“How long does she have?”
“Maybe four months,” he said, softly, then added, “maybe five.” He said radiation could extend that time frame, although her quality of life might be affected and personally he wouldn’t choose it, because she’d have to stay here in America, and in the end, it would not make a difference.
“What if she were your child?” I mumbled.
“Well,” Dr. Garton said, exhaling, “I would probably take her back to Haiti, let her enjoy the summer, be with her friends, until ...”
It’s in the “until” that everything awful lies.
Now, generally, I am inclined to heed doctors’ advice. But I found myself growing defensive, like a manager whose boxer was being underestimated.
“No, she’s a fighter,” I finally said, looking over at Janine, who nodded. “And if she fights, we’re gonna fight.”
Dr. Garton leaned back. “All right,” he said.
And then, for a few moments, we all just sat there, staring at an invisible battle plan.
Do you remember the first morning you woke up at our house, Chika? I was already down in my office, because mornings are when I write. Suddenly, my phone rang; it was Miss Janine, calling from the bedroom. In a raspy, just-woke-up voice, she said, “Mister Mitch, 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, and you stood on your tip-toes and helped move the spatula around. I poured juice. We said our prayers.
And I watched you eat.
And I watched you eat some more.
To call it “leisurely” doesn’t come close. You chewed. You looked out the window. You put down your fork, yawned, and picked up your fork again. You swayed back and forth to some internal rhythm. It took nearly an hour. I would compare this to the pace that 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 as you said, “Mister Mitch, I am hungry!” and carried you up to the kitchen.
A child is both an anchor and a set of wings.
My old way of doing things was gone.
* * *
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. (“I’m five and a half!”) But we were in our late 50s when you came to live with us, young enough to maintain our routines, old enough to bristle at changing them.
Not surprisingly, Miss Janine was faster at adapting than me. I think she was always, in some manner, preparing for this day.
On the other hand, 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 would 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.
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-year-old. If you saw squirrels darting up a tree, you shouted “Squirrels!” then asked where they were going, then asked if they could see you. You had questions about books. Questions about food. Questions about clouds and angels. You examined your entire inventory of clothes before getting dressed.
“Those red socks are good,” I’d suggest.
“I think I want the green ones.”
“The green ones are good.”
“No, wait, wait. The blue.”
With little choice, we slowed to your rhythm. We kneeled to your sight line. Before you came to us, we would watch TV in bed, and often fall asleep with the TV still playing. Once you arrived, we shut the lights and tiptoed around you in the darkness. Often, in the dead of night, you would wake us up.
“Mister Miiiitch?” . . .
“I have to go potty.”
I would guide you to the bathroom, then wait, yawning, outside the doorframe. 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?” Miss Janine would whisper as I crawled back in beside her.
“She’s fine,” I’d mumble, closing my eyes. “She’s good.”
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.
* * *
As time passes, Chika acquires clothes, some that we buy her, some that our friends bring her. She likes to dress up, the frillier the better. She marches around in Janine’s high heels. She drapes herself in multiple necklaces. She wears two hats at the same time.
“She likes to gild the lily,” Janine jokes.
One day Chika and I are heading out.
“Hold on,” I say. “You have something on your face.”
“What?” she says.
I grab a napkin. I pat the area around her lips.
“You’re kind of wet here. How did you get all wet?”
“Mister Mitch!” She throws up her hands. “That’s my lip gloss!”
A Sense of Wonder
We took you to Disneyland once, Chika. Do you remember? It was after the radiation treatments. We flew to California. I bought tickets for a weekday. We arrived before the park even opened.
What I remember most is what you did first. We entered through Main Street, passing souvenir shops. The rides were up ahead, and I wondered which would make you scream, “Can we do that one?”
Instead we passed a small pond, and a gray duck wandered out of the water. And with Astro Orbitor to your right, Thunder Mountain to your left, and Sleeping Beauty’s Castle straight ahead, you pointed down and yelled, “Look! A duck!” And you chased after it and giggled wildly, “Duck! Duck!”
With all those amusement park attractions calling, you got low to marvel at another living creature.
One of the best things a child can do for an adult is to draw them down, closer to the ground, for clearer reception to the voices of the earth. You did that for me, Chika. We buried in leaves. We studied ants in the driveway. We rolled in snow — which astonished you the first time you saw it — and made your very first snowman. You put me on the other end of a magnifying glass or a toy telescope, and through those lenses, I could marvel at the world the way you did. You were an unfailing antidote to adult preoccupation.
All you had to say was, “Look!”
Children wonder at the world. Parents wonder at their children’s wonder. In so doing, we are all together young.
Summer is over before Chika appears again. I switch from shorts to long pants, and turn off the ceiling fans in the office. Chika always liked this office. When she came through the door she would lift her eyes to the tall bookshelves. She knew this was where I wrote, and that I needed quiet when I did. Perhaps getting to enter made her feel special.
This time, when she arrives, she taps me from behind and I nearly jump out of the chair. She laughs hysterically.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
Like you wanted me to.
She spins to the piano behind us.
“Let’s play something.”
I have always had a piano in my office, owing to my earlier days as a musician. Chika starts whacking the keys, making the same cacophony she made when she was alive.
“Don’t bang,” I used to scold. Then one day, I brought her to visit a friend, a jazz musician, who listened as she pounded, then stood over her and created a bass line with his left hand and chords with his right, a tuneful bed to envelop her wanderings. That was the last time I told Chika what to play. Everything in this world is music if you can hear it. Make a joyful noise, the psalm says.
We sit and tap out “Jingle Bells.” I sing, Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh, over fields we go —
“Through the fields,” she corrects.
Through the fields?
Not “over” fields?
“No. See.” She sings, “Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh, through the fields we go ...”
I start to sing with her, but she puts her hand over my mouth, then finishes with, “laughing all the way, ha-ha-HA!”
You have to do that? I ask, smiling.
She grins. Most times we sang, Chika cupped her palm over my mouth, a clear sign that her act was solo. It made me laugh then. It makes me laugh now.
I want to write about your voice, Chika, because I think about it often, and I hear it all the time.
Every child has a feature that jumps out when you meet them. The kid with the long curls. The kid with the weird laugh. Yours was your voice. It reflected you perfectly. It was a chameleon, ever-changing. High-pitched and booming during the day. Lilting and tender at night. A sweet sandpaper in the mornings, so scratchy that Miss Janine and I would privately joke, “She hasn’t been smoking, has she?”
It was a drawled-out “Yeaaaah” when you reluctantly agreed with us; it was a cannon shot “WHY?” when you didn’t get your way. It was the whimper of a fairy when you said, “I’m sorry,” and a peacock’s squawk when you won a game. (I remember us playing tic-tac-toe and you cooing, “Bye-bye!” when you won. Trash talk from a 5-year-old.)
Your voice was made for music, Chika, you had great pitch, and you often sang softly to yourself in the evenings; but when you wanted to, you could belt like Ethel Merman. One time, Miss Janine was helping you put on your nightgown, and as you wiggled through the sleeves, you were singing “L-O-V-E” by Nat King Cole, which they use in the movie The Parent Trap. When you got to the end, and sang that love was meant for me and “YOUUUUU,” you spread your arms and threw back your head, as if a massive concert hall audience were wildly applauding. What joy you brought to your performance!
Your voice was a weather vane, it told us how your wind was blowing. When we flew to New York for an experimental medical treatment, you were particularly verbal: you asked me many questions, you were funny with the flight attendant, and you counted down from 20 until the wheels touched the tarmac. As we rose to deplane, a man who’d been sitting behind us said, “Excuse me, I just have to tell you, your daughter has the sweetest voice.”
I was so touched by that. I made sure you thanked him for the compliment, never mentioning the effect the words “your daughter” had on me.
They say eyes are the reflection of the soul, Chika, but your voice was its echo, and we miss it every day. It was all the things you are, or were, or are still somewhere else, when you are not here with me in the mornings, rolling on the maroon carpet.
* * *
After six months in America, we take Chika back to Haiti for Christmas.
She is giddy with excitement. The night before, she crawls on the bed and tickles me until I beg her to stop. Then she asks what’s going to happen, step by step.
As I go through it, her eyes drift away. She doesn’t look like she did when she left Haiti. She’s lost hair. She’s lost teeth. The operations. The steroids. I ask if she is scared to be going back.
“A little scared,” she says, making a small space between two fingers. “I’m crying happy tears.”
She has never used that phrase before. Happy tears. I wonder where she gets such insight.
The next morning, for the big day, she wears white tights and sneakers, with a lime-green hoodie over a sleeveless top. We board the plane and she glues to the window.
As soon as we land in Port-au-Prince, she runs up the jetway, all but leaving me behind. The airport band starts playing, banjo, accordion, guitar, bongo drums, and she dances in the hallway, shaking and twirling in a way that proves she is home, because only home could liberate such joy.
Alain, our Haitian director, meets us in baggage claim. We load in his vehicle, and Chika hides behind his seat as we drive through the mission gates. The kids have been informed of her return and they are chanting “Chika! Chika!” as we pull in. Alain looks back in amazement and says, “Do you hear this?”
“Don’t look at me, Mister Alain!” she squeals. “Look at something else!”
When the car door opens, there is a massive rush and the nannies are shouting and the little kids are jumping and there are so many hands around her, lifting her up, as her face is smacked with kisses. When they finally put her down, she wiggles her little black shoes in the dirt. Then she pulls off the hoodie and runs to the swing set, jumps on a swing, and pushes herself higher, as the other kids gather and watch.
If I could freeze any moment and give it to her as a gift, it might be this one, flying over the happy expressions of her brothers and sisters as they marvel at her return. I rub my eyes. Happy tears.
I should tell you where my notions of fatherhood come from, Chika.
My father was a good man. He lived to be 88. You met him once, when he was gray and stooped and confined to a wheelchair. But when he was younger, he looked a good deal like I do now, although his whiskers were thicker and he combed his hair back in the style of the day.
His name was Ira, and he grew up in Brooklyn, a middle child, like me, between a sister and a brother. His father, my grandfather, was a Polish immigrant, a plumber, who taught his son to work with his hands only until he could work with his mind. My father went from high school to college to the Air Force to an accountant job. He was not one to wander.
My grandfather was quiet, and my father would follow suit, and we, his children — my brother, sister, and me — grew up expecting the words that came from his mouth to matter. I can never recall the man going on about anything. He said what he had to say and was done with it. He had a deep, baritone voice (he once dreamed of being an opera singer), which made even his simple remarks sound serious. He was serious most of the time.
But there was, beneath his efficiencies, a warm, protective aura, a soul upon whom others could rely. When my mother’s father died of a heart attack — she was 16 at the time — it was my father, only 17, who stepped in and took control of the household. Although they’d been dating less than a year, he cooked breakfast for my mother’s family, did chores in the afternoons, and became a dad to her young brother. That’s a lot of responsibility for someone still in high school, but if you knew my father, you would say it suited him.
I always felt safe around my father. I have a memory of swimming with him in a local lake when I was maybe 6 years old. We would go there on hot summer days, many families did, and I was paddling away to explore, the way children do.
“Don’t go too far now,” my father said, but I kept going until it felt like I’d reached foreign waters. Suddenly, some older boys who were horsing around pointed at me and yelled, “Let’s get him!” I don’t know what motivated them, or how serious they were, but I remember feeling terrified, acutely aware of the distance I had drifted from my dad. I swam as I had never swum before, splashing wildly, gulping water, certain those older boys were going to grab my legs and pull me to some hidden underwater prison. As I reached my father, I hurled my arms around his midsection, gasping for air. When I peeked out, the boys had gone.
My dad barely moved. He never asked what happened. But to this day, I can still feel his waist in my wet grip, and the comfort it gave me. For many years, that was my perception of fatherhood, a place where a child can find sanctuary. Perhaps this is why I took over the orphanage. Perhaps I’ve grown into my father that way.
* * *
When my father died, Chika, I felt rudderless in this world, with a deep, anguished yearning for a comfort no longer there. I missed him more than I even imagined I would, and my brother and sister told me the same thing.
They say as you age you become more and more like your parents. And perhaps that is true. If so, if I ever offered you security the way my dad offered it to me, then I am glad. I know I tried. I remember times when you and I were walking and, without prompting, you reached out and took my hand, your little fingers sliding into mine. I would like to tell you how that felt, but it is too big for words.
I can only say that it made me feel like a father, and nearly all of what I learned about that role, I learned from the man who raised me, and the rest I learned from you.
The cherubic little blond-haired boy whose father carried him onto the Michigan football field died exactly 14 months after his DIPG diagnosis. I shivered when I heard the news. Janine started crying.
Because his grandfather, Lloyd, was the famous Michigan football coach, Chad’s death made news across the country, and brought a rare spotlight to this horrific disease. People were reminded that Neil Armstrong, before he ever walked on the moon, lost his 2-year-old daughter to the same affliction in 1962. Little had changed in all those years. DIPG remained a wrathful thief, preying on children, robbing families of their present and their future.
The Carr family started a foundation in their son’s memory. They called it ChadTough. And while you are not here for me to read this to you, Chika, I want to say what I have learned about that word, tough, because children, especially sick children, have a toughness unique to their young souls, one that can comfort even the fretting adults around them.
This is something you taught me. This is fourth on my list.
Let me share an example. There was a night in Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, during our second try at the CED process, when you were again being infused with the radioactive iodine antibody. It traveled from a large box, through a long tube, and down the catheter into your head. It took 12 hours.
Around 3 a.m., I was sleeping in a chair across from your bed. For some reason, my eyes flicked open, and in the darkness, I saw you standing right in front of me, your head tilted, like something from a horror movie. The catheter was poking up from your cranium, its cord stretched back as taut as a tightrope.
“Chika!” I screamed.
“I want to go to the toy store,” you rasped.
I rushed you back to the bed, praying you hadn’t yanked the catheter loose. I yelled for the nurses, who raced in, stunned. For the next hour, we waited anxiously until Dr. Souweidane arrived. He, too, was astonished. None of his patients had ever gotten out of bed during that procedure, let alone walk across a room.
Thankfully, you did no damage, and we all collapsed with relief. Come morning, you barely remembered it.
“Christmas is coming.”
She sits in her little chair, wearing a blue dress, slippers, and a pink earflap hat. She pulls the flap cords down around her cheeks. She has appeared several times since vanishing on Thanksgiving morning, but her visits are shorter now, and she wears different clothes each time.
Do you remember all your Christmases? I ask.
“How many did I have?”
Well, you had two with your mommy.
“But I was so LITTLE!”
And one with your Godmommy.
“How many at the mission?”
“How many at your house?”
The last year.
She lets go of the earflaps.
“I know, I know.” She sighs.
“That’s not a lot of Christmases for a little girl.”
I didn’t say that.
She taps her head. “You said it here.”
One day I came home to find you playing a card game with our friend Nicole. You drew a card and she drew a card, and she made a joke and you laughed. It seemed perfectly normal, except Nicole was 38 years older than you.
And she was on the younger end of your American playmates.
You went camping with our friends Jeff and Patty, who were already grandparents. Miss Janine’s sisters Kathy and Tricia, in their 50s, would take you to get your nails painted. Our friend Dr. Val, in her 60s, would take you home to play with her dog.
You had a network of companions who ranged from two to five decades older than you, and while they were mostly our work colleagues or familial connections, you called them “my friends.” You were a pied piper of grownups, many of whose children were out of the house and who found in you a brief reconnection with the wonder of little souls.
Of course, you would have preferred some little souls of your own. And had Miss Janine and I been of normal parenting age, our nieces and nephews would have been your mates. But they were grown now, too. We tried taking you to places with other children— fairs, church events, holiday celebrations at a local health club. But sometimes other kids didn’t know what to make of you and your challenges, and you’d walk back to us and say, “They didn’t want to play with me.”
You missed going to school. We tried to re-create that, but, given the constant medical attention, we could only homeschool you with lessons sent by my sister, Miss Cara, who runs our school at the orphanage, and friends like Miss Diane, a retired teacher who sat with you for hours doing spelling and mathematics. We even dressed you in your Haitian school clothes, a purple shirt, navy blue skirt, white socks and black shoes, so it would feel more like the mission.
But it wasn’t the mission. The mission would have meant dozens of children, laughing and yelling and racing to their classrooms, not a lonely kitchen table overlooking our backyard.
* * *
Of course, there were a few children you befriended in America. One of them was our nephew Aidan, who was 8 when you arrived, and who took to you immediately. A soft-spoken, gently mannered boy, with thick, cowlicked brown hair, he played anything you wanted to play, and watched whatever you wanted to watch. And it was pretty clear, after several months, that you were, as my grandmother used to say, “sweet on him.” You dressed up when he was coming over. You got bashful when he arrived. You were quieter, even deferential.
You and Aidan went on boat rides together and to the aquarium together, and one time at his house you danced together to a video of the Cha-Cha Slide, and when he fell down you slapped him on the butt.
When you spoke about growing up and getting married, which you did all the time, we would tease you and mention Aidan’s name and you would get a silly grin or say, “I dunno ...” or “Maybe ...”
And then one summer night, more than a year after you’d been with us, when your walking had deteriorated and your left eye no longer blinked and your therapies included sitting for hours with a needle in your arm, you were lying in bed, having just watched a princess movie. And you asked if you could one day marry a prince.
Miss Janine said, “What about Aidan? He’s not a prince, but he’s a really nice boy. Would you want to marry him?”
You made a face. “Aidan will not marry a girl like me.”
We looked at each other.
“Why do you say that, Chika?”
“Because Aidan will not marry a girl who cannot walk.”
You said it so innocently, so matter-of-factly, that it robbed us of our breath. And while we recovered to offer the standard adult response, that love doesn’t care about sickness or health, inside we were trembling, because we saw in you something, with your disease, that we were terrified of seeing in ourselves.
Chika? I say.
I don’t see her. But I hear muffled laughter.
I get out of my chair. I walk around the room. It is more than a month since her last visit.
Where is Chika? I say.
This was a frequent game we played. Finding Chika. She would hide when she heard the front door open, under a blanket or beneath the kitchen table, and you’d have to yell, “Where is Chika? We lost her! Where is she?” until your voice displayed enough panic that she would burst forth and shout in her budding English, “Here is me!” Then she’d crack up laughing and throw her shoulders forward in hysterics. I have never witnessed a child happier to be discovered.
Now, apparently, we are playing the game again.
Where is Chika? I intone. Where did she go?
I see a blanket spread over a futon, which I sleep on sometimes when I write into the night. I grab the blanket. I make my voice playful.
Is she under ... here? I say, yanking it up.
“Nooooo,” she answers, from across the room.
I turn. She is standing by my desk, reading the yellow pad. So I guess the game is over.
“What does it mean?” she asks.
When children are yours and not yours
Occasionally, even friends of ours would use the “yours” word. “It’s great what you’re doing for a child that’s not yours.” It stung me to hear it, and puzzled me to think there would be a difference in our efforts if somehow you had our DNA. I remember once we stood by a mirror, studying our reflections, and you held your arm up next to mine. I thought you were comparing our skin color. Instead, you pointed to a mole near my wrist and said, “Mister Mitch, why do you have that bump?” That’s all you were interested in.
Yours, not yours. The paperwork at the orphanage is signed by me. It obligates us to nurture, feed, educate, and protect the children — all things mothers and fathers are supposed to do. But in the end, it is a document of responsibility, not parenthood. I am, for all our kids, just Mr. Mitch, their “legal guardian,” the words I used at the first hospital you and I went to, Chika. It feels sometimes like a diminished title. Still, when I look around, it is me, or Miss Janine, or our compassionate staff at the mission, kissing the children good night, waking them every morning, tying their shoes, cutting their sandwiches, reading them books, racing them to the doctor if something happens.
We did not bring any of these little souls into the world. That truth can never be overstated. But recently, one of our oldest kids, for whom we arranged a college scholarship in the U.S., honored a request to see his biological father in Haiti, who had never been a part of his life. The man quickly dragged him to his friends and bragged, “Look at my son! He’s so smart he’s in American college!” The young man said it made him resentful, as if this person, despite a lifelong absence, deserved credit for how he’d turned out.
I wonder, Chika, if anyone has blind claim over a child, save for God. I have witnessed the purest connection between an adoptive mother and her children, and I have witnessed helpless infants shunned by those who birthed them. The opposite also happens. After a while, you make peace with the truth: love determines our bonds. It always comes down to that.
Chika gets support during a session of walking therapy. The tumor hindered her ability to walk. Detroit Free Press
The day we arrived in Haiti for a second visit, you vomited. And that night, you cried yourself to sleep. The next day, you seemed so weak, that when the time came to leave, you didn’t even say goodbye to the kids. You just took my hand and led me to the car.
At the Port-au-Prince airport, you complained about walking, so I carried you through the lines, one arm tucked beneath you, one arm wheeling my roller bag. When we boarded the plane, I put a pillow on the armrest.
“Go to sleep, sweetheart,” I said, softly.
You lay your head down. After a few seconds you mumbled, “Mister Mitch?”
“What will you do while I sleep?”
“I’ll read,” I said. “And think about how much I love you.”
You nodded, your eyes glazed.
“That’s what I’ll do, too.”
At that moment, I didn’t care about who belonged to whom. I was yours, even if you were not mine. And as I stroked your forehead, which was hot to the touch, I knew I always would be.
I want to speak about joy.
When I look back on our journey, there were times we didn’t give enough weight to it. In the later stages, your daily needs were so great. Dressing you took longer. Bathing you was a meticulous process. Your PICC line needed to be flushed and kept sterile. Lifting and carrying you required me or someone else always to be present.
Because of this, we sometimes overlooked the fact that, despite the physical challenges, your mind kept growing. Your thoughts deepened. And we might have missed the joy of your blossoming into a fully formed young person — had you not made sure to reveal it in unique linguistic ways.
One time I was reading a long email, and I sighed and mumbled, “Oh, boy.”
“Why do you say, ‘Oh, boy?' ” you asked. “There are no boys here.”
“It’s just an expression, Chika.”
“Why don’t you say, ‘Oh, girl?' ”
Another time, you asked for a glass of water. I warned you it was cold.
“Cold water, warm heart,” you said.
One morning, down in my office, my phone rang. It was you calling on the other line.
“Mister Mitch, do you want to come play fluffy, cozy bed camp?”
I entered the bedroom to find you and Miss Janine beneath the covers. When I crawled under, you said, “These are the rules of fluffy, cozy bed camp. I am the boss. Miss Janine is the second boss. You can be the third boss. Now. Let’s play.”
If I could change anything from those moments, Chika, it would be to stay in them a little longer. Immerse ourselves so we never forget. I rarely use the word rejoice in daily life, but it is the word I am looking for here. Rejoice. Revel in the funny business. It is quite something, when I look at photos of those days, to see your tireless crooked smile while miniature golfing, although you could barely swing the club, or on trips to the supermarket, although you had to sit in the basket, or a visit to the state fair, although I had to carry you from ride to ride.
No matter how engrossed we got in the medical struggle, you were indefatigable when it came to fun.
To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, because we could not stop for joy, you kindly stopped instead.
You awed us with your spirit.
As I write deeper into these pages, I find I am growing physically ill. My feet tingle. My hands get clammy. My head feels clogged and slightly dizzy. One morning, sitting at the keyboard, I begin to tremble, my pulse races, and I feel sweat beading on my forehead. My cheek goes numb. I wonder if I am going to pass out, or worse, suffer a stroke.
It happens several times. I visit doctors. Their tests come back clear. MRI. EKG. Blood work. I am told to hydrate more, drink less caffeine, get sleep. Perhaps not sit so long hunched over the screen, writing this story, as my spine and hips and neck are paying a price. But I continue to feel out of sorts, and sometimes my blood rushes and I feel as anxious as an accused man awaiting a jury.
Janine has her own diagnosis. “You’re sitting there every day, revisiting a really hard time. It’s emotional. You’re grieving. You can’t be surprised that your body is reacting to that.”
“But why now?” I say, pushing back. “I made peace with all this already, didn’t I?”
Janine looks at me as if I’m being naive.
“You loved her, Mitch.”
That is all she says.
And that is what makes telling this last part so hard.
* * *
We had a routine about love, Chika and me. I’m not sure when it started. I would slide in front of her if she seemed sad, and I’d say, “Chika, have I told you today how much I love you?”
And, knowing what was coming, she would play coy. “Nooo,” she’d answer.
“This much!” I’d reply. And I’d stretch out my arms.
With each passing week I’d stretch farther, because I knew she was measuring. In time, I advanced to hooking my arms behind my back, and spinning to show her my grip.
“Thisssss muchhh,” I’d warble, straining.
It brought a laugh, a satisfied laugh, because she knew I had gone the limit for her. She was always a little happier after that. A little calmer. And so was I.
I still remember the first time Chika said “I love you.” It took a while. She would welcome the words from me or Janine, but she seemed in no rush to return them.
One night, when she had been with us maybe four months, I was in an airport and called home. Chika was energized. She enjoyed having Janine to herself. They were playing some sort of game.
“OK,” I said at the end, “you be a good girl.”
“I will,” Chika said.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too!”
I blinked and felt a rush of joy. I wanted to shout to Janine, "Did you hear that? Did she really just say it?"
But Chika hung up the phone, in a hurry to return to playtime, and I was left staring at the cell in my hands. It felt wonderful, just the same.
* * *
One afternoon, we hear her singing from the bedroom. Janine gets a camera. It’s a gospel song called “No Longer a Slave” that the kids in Haiti do in devotions. Chika is singing it verse after verse, sitting up in bed, wearing a yellow T-shirt and pajama pants.
Normally, when an adult enters a room, children will stop singing, especially if that adult is trying to film them. But when Janine enters, Chika doesn’t stop. Her eyes are almost glazed, and she seems in communion with something invisible.
“I’m no longer a slave to fear
"I am a child of God.”
She sings it for eight minutes. Nonstop. Even with the camera inches away from her face. When she finishes, she lies down and closes her eyes.
Janine emerges from the room, stunned.
“She sang to herself all that time?” I ask.
“Not to herself,” Janine answers. “She was talking to God.”
What We Carry
One afternoon, when you could no longer walk on your own, we were coloring at the kitchen table. I glanced at my watch and realized I was late. I stood up.
“Sorry, Chika, I have to go.”
“No, no,” you protested. “Stay and color.”
“Chika, I have to work.”
“Mister Mitch, I have to play.”
“But this is my job.”
“No, it’s not!” You crossed your arms. “Your job is carrying me.”
I have thought about that sentence more than you could imagine. At the time, I laughed it off as you being your lovable, bossy self. But the more you weakened, the more you needed me to transport you even across the room, the more I realized the wisdom of your words. Your job is carrying me.
That line became the underpinning of the final item on my list, maybe the biggest lesson you taught me.
What we carry defines who we are. And the effort we make is our legacy. It can be the burden of feeding your family, the responsibility of caring for patients, the good that you feel you must do for others, or the sins that you will not release.
Whatever it is, we all carry something, every day. And for all your time with us — as you so defiantly stated, Chika — my job was carrying you.
My job was — and is — carrying your brothers and sisters in the orphanage.
My job, it turns out, after so many years without them, is carrying children.
It is the most wonderful weight to bear.
* * *
One night, while she can still speak, Chika takes a small stuffed bear to bed. A gift from the hospital. A Care Bear, they call it.
The bedroom is dark. I kneel down next to her.
“Well, hello,” I whisper to the bear. “Do you belong to Chika?”
Chika puts the bear in front of her face.
“Yes,” she murmurs.
“You’re a lucky bear. I think Chika is a really special girl."
“But don’t tell her. That’s between you and me.”
“I am Chika’s bear,” she says, “so I have to tell her everything.”
“Well, don’t tell her how much I love her. It’s a secret.”
“Chika already knows how much you love her.”
“She does?” I say, skeptically. “How much?”
Chika takes the arms of the bear and does what I always do, pulling them around until they touch behind its back.
My eyes tear up.
“That’s right,” I whisper. “That much.”
FROM “FINDING CHIKA” copyright (c) 2019 by ASOP Inc. All rights reserved.