Thursday with Mitch: best-selling author returns to Brandeis

Mitch Albom '79 in a jacket seated at a table, hands a book to a smiling woman with long hair.Photo/Mike Lovett

Mitch Albom signs books for fans at Brandeis.

Descriptive transcript.

There were moments, said best-selling author Mitch Albom '79 in a talk he gave on campus on Jan. 16, that forever changed his life.

The first happened during his first year at Brandeis when he signed up for a sociology class with professor Morrie Schwartz. There were only nine students in the classroom when he arrived and "being a typical freshman," Albom said, he thought  "I can't take this class because if I cut the class, he'll know I'm not here."

But as he was trying to slink out of the classroom, Schwartz took attendance and called Albom's name. Schwartz asked Albom if he preferred Mitch or Mitchell, then told him, "I hope one day you'll think of me as your friend."

The friendship, which lasted throughout Albom's Brandeis years and reblossomed when Schwartz was diagnosed with ALS, became the basis for Albom's 1997 book, "Tuesdays with Morrie," which has sold more than 14 million copies worldwide.

The book "never would have happened if Brandeis wasn't the kind of school where you could have the relationship Morrie and I had," Albom said. Brandeis "obviously had a profound effect on my life."

Albom came to Brandeis on January 16 night to raise money for Good Shepherd Community Care, a hospice where Schwartz stayed before his death.

The second moment that Albom said changed his life happened shortly after the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti 10 years ago.

There to help an orphanage supported by a pastor in his hometown of Detroit, Albom found "buildings, entire streets just collapsed, turned inward, as if they had been grounded through a blender," he said in his talk. "People covered in white dust [walked] through the streets, missing arms, missing legs, scrounging for any little water that might come from a dirty puddle."

Suddenly, a little girl and boy grasped his hands and led him to an orphanage in Port Au Prince now called the Have Faith Haiti Orphanage. For the last decade, Albom has helped rebuild and raise money for the charity.

It was at Have Faith that Albom met Chika Jeune, the little girl who would become the basis for his most recent memoir, "Finding Chika."

In 2015, Chika was diagnosed with a rare pediatric brain tumor. Albom and his wife, Janine, spent two years caring for her and trying to find a cure until she died at age 7. Along the way, they became a family.

Like "Tuesdays with Morrie," "Finding Chika" is about what Albom learned from someone in the last stages of life.Chika taught Albom, a "sense of wonder," he said. "She existed way down low where the caterpillars and the worms and the rocks and the pebbles all were," Albom said. "Every bit of it fascinated her."

Albom said Chika also taught him about marriage. He and his wife married late and never had children. "I worried about having kids," Albom said. "Would I be a good father? Would there be enough time? For I selfishly worried how it might affect my career, and even more selfishly, I worried about what it would do to my relationship with my wife."

Instead, Albom said, Chika "taught me not only when a child comes into your life do you not lose your spouse, but you discover this whole other side of them. This rich, loving, nurturing side. My wife Janine seemed to have been waiting her entire life to take care of Chika. And seeing them together, sitting together, watching a movie together, singing together, then pulling the door closed on the bathroom on me and saying, 'Privacy please, no boys' ... Well, it made me realize how foolish I had been when I was younger. And how lucky I was to be experiencing moments like these."

Chika would have been 10 on January 9.

"She is now and forever going to be an empty chair at my table," Albom said.


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