Mitch Albom spent decades as an award-winning sportswriter, so he surely knows a gut-punch when he sees it. Yet apparently he knows also how to deliver one, as he does on the first page of his lingering memoir, “Finding Chika: A little girl, an earthquake, and the making of a family” (Harper).
From Albom, that punch comes just two paragraphs after his adopted 7-year-old daughter, Chika, visits his writer’s den, coming “here in the morning, when the light is still thin at the window.”
But this Chika is an apparition, a figment of his deepest desire. She must be, because after so sweet an opening he follows with this, “She doesn’t do that anymore. Chika died last spring, when the trees in our yard were beginning to bud.”
The distress at the loss of a sick child the former childless Albom and wife, Janine, had adopted from the orphanage they operate in Haiti is devastating: “Her absence left us without breath, or sleep or appetite.”
But he then proceeds, a la the work that made him a household name, the world’s best-selling memoir, “Tuesdays with Morrie,” to infuse hope, wisdom and sorrow into the story of how three people across two continents learned to become a family.
Like that earlier work, Albom is unflinchingly honest in his writing. He admits his shortcomings, especially his selfishness, and how he put career and success above Janine and the pursuit of family. He had assumed there would always be time for that. Yet, after the decades passed, he found he was wrong. He and Janine would be able to have no natural children of their own.
“There are many kinds of selfishness in this world,” Albom writes, “but the most selfish is hoarding time, because none of us know how much we have, and it is an affront to God to assume there will be more.”
From Chika, who would die from a rare brain tumor, Albom learns this lesson and others — he recounts them to his daughter as her spectral visits motivate and propel his narrative.
He fully comes to understand that “a child is both an anchor and a set of wings.” The paradox, he realizes, is not mutually exclusive.
And yet, still finding his way into faith and even after seeing the impact Chika had had on scores of children and adults across the world, he asks of her the questions he is asking of God as well: “Can you see the influence you still have, even being gone? Is that a blessing bestowed on us when this life is over? Or is it just a fierce and desperate hope we have on Earth, like the one we had about finding you a cure, something that remained forever beyond our control?”
Such is the strength of Albom’s honest doubt, that even as the reader knows Chika is gone, we wish there were no need for questions such as those. We wish for a different, happier outcome.
Yet the finale, like with Morrie, is not just about death. It is about what forms and instructs a family: “I wonder, Chika, if anyone has blind claim over a child, save for God. … After a while, you make peace with the truth: love determines our bonds. It always comes down to that.”
In his second memoir, Albom again navigates deep waters, instructing us by design and practice, and finishing his story with one of the most powerfully stirring endings in any memoir.
That ending is not to be shared here because it is part of the journey of this brief book. As so, it has its rightly place, as does Chika, in a tender story of family, faith, hope and unconditional love.
Such is Chika’s legacy and enduring gift — and as with the benevolence that has inspired Albom and his wife to form numerous charities, all authorial proceeds from this book will go to the Have Faith Haiti Orphanage.