Mike and I just finished The Light of the World: A Memoir, by poet and essayist Elizabeth Alexander. The book is written in the most heartbreakingly beautiful prose I have ever had the privilege of reading, and I recommend it most wholeheartedly. Elizabeth lost her husband, Eritrean-American chef and artist Ficre Ghebreyesus, to a sudden heart attack in 2012. This tender series of vignettes is as much a celebration Ficre and Elizabeth’s extraordinary love — not just for each other but for their sons, their families of birth and choice, and their African-American culture — as it is a deeply intimate sharing of the grief that accompanies the loss of a beloved spouse.
We took turns reading the book aloud, and — more often than not — I had to cede my turn to Mike because I couldn’t read through the tears. Tears of sadness, yes, grief for myself and (even more) for Mike, whom I wouldn’t trade places with for the world. But also, tears of joy and gratitude that we’ve shared the same luminous, transformative love as Elizabeth and Ficre, a love that has touched and molded our lives as individuals and as a couple — and has rippled outward in concentric circles through lives of our families, our friends, our acquaintances, and even people we barely know. Tears of appreciation, too, for the the opportunity to have found and read this transcendent work of art and to know that its beauty will remain and touch others long after I’m gone. If something I write can make a fraction of the impact on someone else this book made on me, I’ll feel like I’ve truly accomplished something as a writer.
Ficre’s own words from a 2000 artist’s statement capture the power of art in discovering and defining oneself:
I started painting ten years ago, but I suspect I have been metaphorically doing so all my life. When I started painting, I just did it. I had never felt a stronger urge. The pieces that flowed out of me were very painful and direct. They had to do with the suffering, persecution, and subsequent psychological dilemmas I endured before and after becoming a young refugee from the Independence War (1961-1991) in my natal home of Eritrea, East Africa. Painting was the miracle, the final act of defiance through which I exorcised the pain and reclaimed my sense of place, my moral compass, and my love for life.
For Elizabeth, her medium is clearly language. Here are just a few of the passages that touched me:
How many times that day and in following days and weeks and months did I say “my husband.” My husband died unexpectedly. I just lost my husband. Lost implies we are looking, he might be found. I lost my husband. Where is he? I often wonder. As I set out on some small adventure, some new place, somewhere he does not know, I think, I must call him, think, I must tell him, think, What would he think? Think what he thinks. Know what he thinks.
Now I know for sure the soul is an evanescent thing and the body is its temporary container, because I saw it. I saw the body with the soul in it, I saw the body with the soul leaving, and I saw the body with the soul gone.
Each of us made it possible for the other. We got something done. Each believed in the other unsurpassingly. In all marriages there is struggle and ours was no different in that regard. But we always came to the other shore, dusted off, and said, There you are, my love.
Oh my darling, where did you go? How powerfully I feel you are somewhere, but not here. You come to me in another dream with a missing tooth and an unfamiliar red jacket…Do you make friends and have companions where you are? I thought all you needed was us.
As Elizabeth moves forward with her life, she writes powerfully about her proximity to death.
Death sits in the comfortable chair in the corner of my new bedroom, smoking a cigarette. It is a he, sinuous and sleek, wearing a felt brimmed hat. He is there when I wake in the middle of the night, sitting quietly, his smoke a visible curl in the New York lights that come in between the venetian blind slats.
At first I am startled to see him. He sits so near, is so at home. But he doesn’t move toward me, he simply co-habits. And so, eventually, I return to sleep. He isn’t going anywhere, but he isn’t going to take me, either. In the morning, the chair is empty.
Which is stronger, death sitting in the corner, or life in New York City? Death, or my teenage sons, sleeping profoundly in the next room, growing overnight? “I love plans!” my new friend Esther exults, and so do I, for nowadays I feel like plans are all that stands between me and the end of my life. I’m not going to die overnight because next Wednesday, I am going with Esther to see an auction of nineteenth-century American documents at Swann Galleries. I’m not going to die tonight because I already took the chicken out of the freezer and Simon loves roast chicken and rice for dinner, and I promised him I would make it. I’m not going to die tonight because on Saturday Farah and I are bundling up and going for a walk against the blustery winds along the river, to continue the conversation we began almost thirty years ago when we were both in graduate school, before I even knew my beloved Ficre.
I’ve already revisited this passage repeatedly and expect I’ll continue to do so as I contemplate my own proximity to death and the tenuous hold I have on life. I’m making plans, too. I feel quite certain I’ll be able to make it to the joint birthday celebration Mike and I have planned with our friends on June 18 (an outdoor screening of Indiana Jones in a Culver City park), and on a little getaway to Topanga Canyon the following weekend for Mike’s 32nd, and probably to the 4th of July get-together at the Merendino/Williams pad in Pasadena. But the flight we booked to Nashville for Kate and Rob’s wedding in October? Death may have come for me by then, and my plans aren’t going to stop him.