A Death in the Family

A few days ago Arielle Berrick and I returned from our annual summer stay in Matènwa. We brought new work from the artists and left them with new designs to master.

Good things had happened. The artists finished their biggest order yet from the Fetzer Institute. The Gason Kouraj (“Courageous Men”) began, with our funding, to repair the failing road with shovels and pick axes. The scarf painters planned a journey to the main island where they were invited to preform their grass roots theater.

But this was one of our sadder visits.

Some months ago we’d raised some emergency funds for the family of one of our best-loved silk painters and my longest friend in Matènwa, Venez Kasimir.

Venez had been suffering from a mysterious, advancing mass in her head that caused breathing problems and severe pain. By the time we were able to organize “Western” medical help she was unrecognizable; bone thin, toothless, sightless in one eye, deaf in one ear, unable to eat or sit up and in terrible, constant head pain.

The money was enough to buy the medications her doctors still thought could reverse her path, as well as feed the little girls she and her husband Wolan left behind when they went to seek care in Port au Prince.

But the healthcare system in Haiti, it turned out, was still too makeshift, too limited, to deal with what was wrong with Venez and two days before Arielle and I could get there to see her Venez died.

Except for Wolan she died away from the family and community she’d wanted to be near at the end.

Venez was a singer. She possessed a pure, holy soprano that flowed like soft water. She and her daughters used to harmonize hymns on their front porch under the quiet stars, and she’s sing as she swept the yard and prepared food. 

She had told her closest friends that if she had to die she wanted them to sing “Dieu Puissant” her favorite, most tender hymn, at her funeral.

Because she was known to everyone and loved by the artists at the Sant Atizana her funeral was a huge community event. 

A traditional Haitian funeral includes an animated 24-hour wake/party/dance than can go on for a week.

Within days a flood of family and friends began to arrive from other parts of Haiti. They set up sleeping areas in every corner of Venez’s home and took over our own rooms at the Sant.

While Venez’s body rested in the morgue waiting for her brother and sister to arrive from Florida the men slaughtered a cow in Wolan’s yard and we donated massive amounts of rice, beans and vegetables. The mourning women cleaned, cooked day and night and served everyone who showed up while the men danced to a boom box DJ and played ferocious, marathon rounds of dominoes. 

On the day of the funeral everyone came in their finest clothes. Venez’s littlest daughters were dressed in white, virginal crinolines and high heels with frilly socks. All forty-three artists wore hand-made paper banners that read “Venez Atis Yo Pa P Janm Bliye W” – “Venez the Artists Will Never Forget You.”

The night before the artists had swept the LKM school clean (the event was too large for the local chapel) and tied green branches to the window grills with purple ribbon.

As the guests were settling in the coffin arrived on the back of a pickup truck along with a funeral band called “Fanfè”– Fanfare – who sat in wrinkled suits with their battered horns and fraying drums ready to lift us up.

When the morticians formally placed Venez’s blue coffin in the center of the room her oldest daughters and friends began to wail, keening as if their souls were being turned inside out. Many had to be forcibly carried from the room, prostrate in traditional, funereal collapse.

The preachers preached, guest choirs sang, but the most moving moment was when all the artists stood up together, many pouring tears, and sang their rendition of  “Dieu Puissant” filling the room with her intimate memory.

The procession that followed was worthy of New Orleans. The horns of “FanFare” led, followed by men wearing Venez’s silk flower wreathes like turbans on their heads, followed by friends bearing high the green and ribboned branches, followed by the rest of Matènwa, moving in a wave down the rock-strewn and gauged- out dust road.

We were headed toward the ruined graveyard where Wolan and friends had spent the last 3 days building his own wife’s tomb.

Before approaching the grave site the band stopped at the foot of the path to Venez’s house and played “Old Lang Syne” - something people in Haiti used to sing to visitors when they were about to go home.

And there we were.

Venez was 50 years old.

The silk artists, who had painted Venez’s scarves for her while she was sick so she could still be paid, decided to offer her place in the group to two of Venez’s oldest daughters, Matine and Seret.