‘We are defined by what we carry’

American author Mitch Albom tells Rebecca Schott about the lessons his adoptive daughter taught him before her death

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New York Times bestselling author Mitch Albom’s new heartfelt non-fiction book Finding Chicka tells the story of an orphan from Haiti who tragically lost her life when she was seven years old to a brain tumour. Before her death, however, Albom and his wife Janine cared for her.

Albom tells the story through memories of Chicka and her reappearances in the author’s life after her death. He describes the process of revisiting his memories of Chicka as “hard and joyous”, which, he says, is similar to being a parent of a sick child.

Chicka was diagnosed with a diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), a form of brain tumour, when she was five. No doctor in Haiti could help her and, upon bringing her to America, Albom was told that she would have four months to live.

“I had a lot of grief and a lot of love that had no place to go,” says Albom, who  wanted Chicka to live on through his book. “I’m a writer. That’s what I do – I express myself through words – so this gave me an outlet to tell the story and it started to become a mission to enable her to live on longer than her seven years. Seven years is just too short for a life.”

This is not the first time the author has explored the complexity of losing someone dear to him. His bestselling book Tuesdays with Morrie shares the lessons that Albom’s college professor, Morrie Schwartz, passed on to him in his last months of life. He said both his experiences with Schwartz and Chicka taught him about what is important in life.

One of the most poignant lessons Chicka taught him, the final lesson in Finding Chicka, was when Albom had to go to work and leave his child, who could no longer walk, but the young girl told him that his job was to carry her and he soon realised she was right.

He says: “We are defined by what we carry. What we choose to carry, what we choose to fill up our arms with, will ultimately determine our legacy. If all that we put in our arms are briefcases and paperwork then that’s who we’ll be. But if we put children in our arms and carry them, our own children and poor children around the world who are sick or forgotten or hopeless – then that’s your legacy.”

Finding Chicka is written in seven chapters, one for each year of her life, each one exploring a different lesson Chicka taught the author.

The book’s title came from Chicka’s interest in how Albom and his wife found her and where she came from, which he believes is a universal feeling for children  worldwide who are “found”.

He says: “It’s not an American story – it’s about children of the world. There are so many places in the world where there are children like this who need help.”

Along with many other children in Haiti, Chicka needed help. She was born three days after the catastrophic earthquake in 2010 and her mother later died during childbirth when giving birth to Chicka’s younger brother.

It was after the earthquake that Albom first came to Haiti. He and his wife run the Have Faith Haiti Orphanage, where they care for 52 children. Albom visits every month and will do so for the rest of his life.

The final lesson Albom hopes his readers can take from his book is that it is never too late to make a family. He says: “We were in our late fifties and Chicka came to us as a five year old and it was amazing how life just melted away. The child doesn’t need to look like you or talk like you or come from you. As long as there’s love you have a family and there’s no wrong way to make a family.”

Finding Chicka by Mitch Albom is published in hardback by Sphere (£14.99). Ebook and audio are also available

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  • ‘We are defined by what we carry’ – Interview with Mitch Albom for Big Issue North – Rebecca Schott
    29 Dec 2019 11:56
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