The heartbreaking true story of a little girl loved... and lost
Bestselling author Mitch Albom's new book is about Chika, the child that he and his wife brought from an orphanage in Haiti to receive medical treatment in the US. It's not an easy read, but it's suffused with warmth and humanity, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
Mitch Albom wrote the bestselling memoir of all time. Tuesdays with Morrie chronicled his encounters with the dying college professor who taught him not to fear death.
His latest book tackles the same subject with the same straightforwardness, though it's much more raw because it takes place at the other end of life. The reader is told on page one that Chika is dead. The little girl, who was brought from an orphanage in Haiti by Albom and his wife to receive medical treatment in America, died at the age of seven.
Eight months later, she begins reappearing to the author, though it's never clear if it's just in his imagination or whether he really believes there's more to it than that. Chika tells him to write again, because he hasn't been able to do so since she died. "What about?" he asks. She answers: "About me."
So he does. Friends and colleagues tell him to give it more time, saying that he's too emotional, but he ploughs on. As he tells her story, it turns into a negotiation between the grieving man and the dead child. She disapproves of the way he's telling her story. She doesn't want to be talked down to like a child, so he begins again, starting with the Haitian earthquake, when 3% of the population of the second-poorest nation on Earth died in a matter of seconds.
Chika was three days old when the earthquake struck. Her mother survived, only to die a few years later giving birth to another baby. She was buried in an unmarked grave. Initially taken in by other family members, all the children ended up, in time, in orphanages.
Chika came to the Have Faith Haiti Mission, which had been set up by Albom and his wife a few years earlier. It's not an easy place to work. "The power would go off every day, the water would run out, deliveries of rice and bulgar would start and stop, and we never had enough medicine. In Haiti," Albom admits, "I often felt like a man trying to read assembly instructions in another language."
Three-year-old Chika was "a bossy ball of fire who was soon directing the other kids like a drill sergeant". It's not long, though, before she is diagnosed with a "mass on her brain" after a scan in Haiti's one and only MRI machine.
The doctors' verdict is stark: "We don't know what it is. But whatever it is, there is no one in Haiti who can help her."
The Alboms bring the child to their home in Detroit, expecting her only to be with them a few months while she gets the treatment she needs. There, she is astounded by American marvels such as instant hot water and traffic lights.
Doctors manage to remove 10% of the tumour in Chika's head but diagnose her with "diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma". Astronaut Neil Armstrong's two-year-old daughter also died of the illness, as recounted in the recent film First Man. It still strikes about 300 children a year, and the survival rate is zero. The Alboms decide to believe that Chika can be the first child to beat the illness. Mitch's wife reads widely in the literature of brain illness. They call everyone who can possibly help.
The couple have no children of their own, which Mitch admits is mainly his fault. He had always thought it would eat up too much of his time, and his wife had grudgingly conceded. Chika makes him rethink that decision.
"The most precious thing you can give someone is your time, because you can never get it back," he notes. "When you don't think about getting it back, you've given it in love."
He wrestles with the idea of what it means to have a child, whose child is it, and whether it matters anyway. "I didn't care about who belonged to whom," he concludes. "I was yours, even if you were not mine."
The book's poignant epigraph comes from AA Milne's book of poems, Now We Are Six, which Chika loved: "Now I am six, I'm as clever as clever,/So I think I'll be six now for ever and ever."
Her loss leaves Albom and his wife bereft. A Christian who wears his faith lightly but sincerely in his work, he contends with the age-old question of why children must suffer, taking consolation in the words of a rabbi who lost his own daughter to an asthma attack and who tells him that having a God to rail against is still better than having nothing at all in which to believe in the face of death.
Such observations will be familiar to readers of his earlier books, including The Five People You Meet in Heaven. It's a technique which is easily mocked or parodied. Some of the observations are trite, some more profound, but even the cheesiest parts of Albom's book about Chika are suffused with a warmth and humanity that evaporates all cynicism. "We did not lose a child," is what he chooses to believe in the end. "We were given one. And she was glorious."
This book is a lovely but heartbreaking tribute to her memory, and all proceeds from it will go to the orphanage in Haiti, because, as Albom doesn't shy away from acknowledging, there are plenty more children who need saving. Another little girl even asks if she can go to America, too, and when he says no, responds: "Why? I don't have a mother either."
Be warned. Mitch Albom has an accessible and winning style but, in moments like this, Finding Chika is not an easy book to read.
- Finding Chika by Mitch Albom is published by Sphere, £14.99