There was a time, some years ago, when I was drawn to reading memoirs of loss - spouses, partners, parents, children. My mother was suffering from a debilitating disease that no doctor could diagnose, let alone treat. I recognize now that on some level I was trying to prepare myself for a loss I couldn't even contemplate. I realized the futility of that when we lost her, suddenly, between one day and the next. Nothing had prepared me for that, nothing could.
Elizabeth Alexander lost her husband just as suddenly. Four days after his 50th birthday, he collapsed on the treadmill in their basement, where their younger son found him. I read an excerpt from this memoir in The New Yorker, about the events of that night, and put the book on my reading list. In some ways it follows a familiar pattern: a portrait of a loved one, an account of lives built together, of children and family; then of death, and those left behind trying to cope with that loss.
What sets this book apart for me is the language. Elizabeth Alexander is a poet and an essayist. According to Poets.org, she is currently the Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, as well as a Professor of African American Studies at Yale. She weaves poetry - her own and others - into her story, including a poem of her husband's that she found after his death. Her beautifully-written chapters move back and forth in time, returning always to the loss at the center of her story, and for a long time, of her life.
Her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, was born in Eritrea (a country I couldn't
have found on a map before reading this). A war for independence from
Ethiopia cost thousands of lives over thirty years, driving many people
into exile. He was one of them, walking to Sudan, traveling from
there to Europe and then the United States. He worked as a chef,
opening restaurants with his brothers, before turning to the study of
art. The book includes some of his recipes, "legendary dishes such as shrimp barka that existed nowhere in Eritrea but rather in his own inventive imagination." He never exhibited or sold his artwork, photos and paintings that Elizabeth Alexander
describes so vividly and movingly. I was happy to find that it can now be seen on a
website she has set up here. It was also moving to see a photo of this man that I felt I had come to know - and to mourn - through her words.