Mitch Albom brings audience to tears

January 24, 2020

When Mitch Albom ’79 finished his talk last Thursday night, there was not a single dry eye in the room. Albom spoke for almost an hour in Spingold Theater about his most recent novel “Finding Chika,” about the daughter he gained and then subsequently lost. 

The talk started on a lighter note. Albom began the night by recounting his time at Brandeis: his decision to come here, the friends he made and his favorite professor, Morrie Schwartz. Albom mentioned that he took every course he could with Morrie; he even joked that he “majored in Morrie.” This man made such an impact on his life that he wrote a memoir named not after himself, but after his favorite professor: “Tuesdays with Morrie.” The memoir has since become the best-selling memoir of all time.

He then moved on to the topic of “Finding Chika.” Albom first explained how he came to manage an orphanage in Haiti after one of the most devastating earthquakes of all time in 2010. After the earthquake, Albom went to Haiti hoping to help citizens hurt by this natural disaster. He went to the Have Faith Haiti Orphanage, which was run by a pastor he knew at the time. Albom assembled a team to help rebuild the orphanage, adding toilets and showers, new walls, a kitchen and a school for the kids. Throughout this explanation, he emphasized how much the kids’ joy meant to him. As he spoke, videos of the children using showers for the first time and singing prayers of thanks were projected onto a large screen next to him. Every time he played a video, I could feel the audience leaning in, moved by every frame.

Then we got to learn about Chika. Even as the youngest child in the orphanage, she was the boss. Albom described her as “loud and loving and loud and curious, especially about loud things.” Even while sick, she retained these qualities. The Have Faith Haiti Orphanage cannot accept every child that comes to their doors due to limited resources, but Albom knew from the start that Chika was special. The two became really close when Albom made it his mission to try to make Chika better. He volunteered to take her in, to personally care for her as if she was his own child. 

He then described the process of trying to help Chika get better, how he took her to the only place in Haiti where they could get an MRI, how the only response from the doctor was that “there is no one in Haiti who can help her.” 

So Albom and his wife embarked on a multi-year journey all across the globe in the hopes of finding a cure or treatment for the illness. Chika had Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), a rare cancer affecting around 300 people a year. As the doctor said to Albom, “it’s a four letter word for death.” Because there are so few cases of DIPG, there is very little research on it. Though the Alboms were never able to find a cure for DIPG, they found something more important: a family. 

Chika taught Albom seven important lessons about life. The first being that “no one is ever too old to start a family.” Albom and his wife never had children of their own—they enjoyed being the cool aunt and uncle—but Chika became like their own child. Their family went from two people to three. She also taught him about time, and how time can change once you have a child. Old routines are gone. Your days—when to wake up, when to eat, when to sleep—now revolve around the child and what the child wants to do. This is an opportunity for new routines, ones that you might like better than those you had before. 

Chika taught him about wonder, how to marvel at every aspect of life. He remarked that Chika took nothing for granted, that she was transfixed and grateful for every aspect of her world. Here he tells a story of a family trip to Disneyland. The first “attraction” that caught Chika’s eye was not a ride or a princess, but rather a duck waddling out of a pond.

Albom says that Chika taught him how strong children really are. He mentioned that while he and his wife were terrified of every doctor’s visit, Chika took it all in stride. “Chika always managed to find some kind of laugh,” he said. Lesson five was about appreciating the happiness of each moment. He said, “It’s the joy that we remember and the joy that we miss.” Lesson six was about marriage; he learned that you don’t lose your spouse when a child is brought into the home, you actually get closer. 

The last lesson is what moved the audience most. He said, “only in witnessing the final breaths of life, can you truly appreciate the magnificent and indescribable gift to be alive.” Throughout his talk, he had shown pictures and videos of Chika’s happiest moments, but here is where the audience realized—or at the very least, I realized—that this source of joy was never coming back. Albom’s final thought for the evening: “you cannot lose a child. We did not lose a child. We were given one, and she was glorious.” 

Like the rest of the audience, I was moved by Albom’s presentation. The idea that such a joyful life was taken so soon is tragic; we always imagine death as something that only happens to old people. The brightest stars really do burn out first, I guess. The entire room seemed moved by this realization; I heard sniffles coming from every direction.   

The only person in the room who seemed composed was Mitch Albom. I wonder if that’s from the rehearsal of the book tour, or the acceptance of the situation. Maybe it’s because he knows that he did the best he could to save Chika’s life and the lives of many others. According to Albom, proceeds from “Finding Chika” will go to the Have Faith Haiti Orphanage to help other children live the life that Chika was never able to experience.

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