Deadline for May issue is April 23
Finding Chika, by Mitch Albom
It was rather fortuitous that I was reading Mitch Albom’s book Finding Chika: a little girl, an earthquake, and the making of a family, the weekend of the St. Jude Barrel Jam. The annual barrel racing event raises money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., where children are treated for childhood cancer and other life-threatening diseases – all free of charge to their patients. As I read of the travails of “Mister Mitch” and his wife Janine to get treatment, and hopefully, a cure, for Chika’s brain tumor, diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma or DIPG, I thought about the families and the patients at St. Jude and what they must go through. This is one of the many diseases treated at St. Jude and you can find information about it on their website: https://www.stjude.org/disease/diffuse-intrinsic-pontine-glioma.html. Reading this book will give you insight and empathy for children with life-threatening illness and their families.
The book is the story of Chika (Mejerda Jeune), a child born in Haiti just three days before the devastating earthquake of 2010. When the earthquake hit, Chika was sleeping on her mother’s chest in their cinder block house, which split and collapsed around them. Two years later, when Chika’s mother gave birth to Chika’s brother, her mother died in childbirth. Not long after, Chika was placed in the Have Faith Haiti Mission, an orphanage that Mitch Albom had directed since 2010.
Just as Eliza Scarlet, in the PBS program “Miss Scarlet and the Duke,” is visited on occasion by the ghost of her deceased father (Mr. Henry Scarlett, Private Detective), “Mister Mitch” is periodically visited by the ghost of deceased Chika as he is writing this book. His book is a reminiscence of the short, seven-year life of Chika, the family she created with Mitch and Janine, and the intense love they all shared. As with Albom’s previous book, Tuesday’s With Morrie, it is also a “lessons in life” book, recounting the lessons Mitch learned from Chika. The chapters rotate from “Me” to “You” to “Us” and “Lessons” learned.
The first lesson is about protection: the great need of parents to protect their children from all harm. When Mitch first learns from the neurologist about the mass on Chika’s brain, “everything I knew about protection changed,” he writes (p.38).
The second lesson is about time. He writes, “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” (p. 60). And all that changes one’s perception of time.
“There are many kinds of selfishness in this world, 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.”
“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.”
Lesson three is a sense of wonder. “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,” Mitch writes (p. 89). “Children wonder at the world. Parents wonder at their children’s wonder. In so doing, we were all together young.” (p. 91)
Yet, in spite of learning to see the world through the wonder of a child’s eyes, the disease loomed heavily in the background. “Cancer loomed like a dark cloud for as long as I can remember, impervious and imperious” (p. 95). Yet through all the treatments, Chika generally accepted what must be done. “We never knew the extent of her pain; she dealt with so much and so rarely complained,” Mitch notes (p. 145).
Lesson four is about the toughness of Chika (and children) to endure what they must. “Kid Tough. I have been to many children’s hospitals, and every visit pays witness to the world resilience” (p. 131).
Chika had a talent for forming friendships, many with people two to five decades older than her, along with her friends in America and at the mission in Haiti – “the wonder of little souls,” Mitch calls them (p. 137). Throughout the book Mitch describes Chika’s ability to make people smile and her generosity in sharing what she had with others.
Lesson five addresses the situation with adopted children and adoptive parents: “when children are yours and not yours.”
An interesting perspective from Chika comes in looking for “Fairy doors” (p. 162), which “are little wooden portals, maybe six inches high, tucked into the baseboard of various places like Mott Hospital. When you open them, there is a cartoon painted inside. …People are encouraged to leave coins so that a young patient might be surprised when he or she pulls open the tiny handle,” Mitch explains (p. 166).
“Chika was obsessed with finding these doors. …Watching her on that optimistic search, and passing rooms where I glimpsed parents with their heads in their hands, I realized something important: Hope is critical, almost mandatory to soldier through troubled times. Conversely, there is no affliction like hopelessness” (p. 167).
Mitch and his wife did not tell Chika everything about her medical journey, attempting to shield her. “But as anyone who cares for a sick child will attest, finding a cure consumes your every thought,” Mitch writes (p. 171). Yet, “no matter how engrossed we got in the medical struggle, you were indefatigable when it came to fun. …You awed us with your spirit” (p. 175).
Prayer was an integral part of Chika’s life and those around her. “Prayer was all over your young life.” And “there was prayer wherever the day took you” (p. 182).
Telling Chika how much he loves her was part of Mitch’s daily routine. “Chika, have I told you how much I love you?” he would ask. And outstretched arms would indicate the vast amount of love he felt for her. She would reciprocate, “I love you, too!” (pp. 188-189)
Lesson seven is about what we carry. One afternoon as Mitch gets up from the table, where he has been coloring with Chika, he tells her he must go to work because that is his job. “No, it’s not!” Chika replied. “Your job is carrying me” (p. 219).
“What you carry is what defines you. 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… We all carry something. My job, it turns out, is carrying children. It is the most wonderful weight to bear,” he writes (p. 225).
Our lives touch so many others’ lives, and we need to choose our words and actions wisely. “None of us are assured of tomorrow. It’s what we do with today that makes an impact. Chika filled every day… And always, always, she affected someone, most often by making them smile” (p. 235).
Read more about Finding Chika at Mitch Albom’s website: https://www.mitchalbom.com/books/chika/
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