Last week, my husband and I got the sad news that our friend, artist Burton Chenet, was shot to death in his home by an intruder. His wife, Christine, sustained a serious injury when the gunman shattered her elbow with another shot before fleeing. The tragic incident took place in Turgeau, a residential area in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Although ours was not a very close relationship, I liked Burton a lot, kept in touch with him by email, usually called and hung out with him when in Haiti, and on the day we heard about his demise, it so happened that two of his lyrical and whimsical paintings graced the walls of our contemporary ethnic and Haitian art gallery's ever-rotating display of works.
As usual, when something like this happens, human beings want to know: Why? Why? Why? -- a man in his prime with two young children, a prolific and successful artist whose paintings presented the lighter side of Haiti while nonetheless exploring its complex and mysterious Vodou ethos. Why? Once the undecipherable nature of the enigma settles in, the next impulse is to re-evaluate life. Death does that.
It makes you look at your own life within that new, more immediate and harsher reality. That could be me. But for the grace of our own individual destinies, anyone of us can come home to find a burglar aiming at our hearts with a gun. So, maybe we think about our life, what we've done with it, how we're living it, and do we nourish it, cherish it, feel gratitude for it?
A close and aging relative of mine has taken to constantly wishing out loud for release from what she perceives as a terribly difficult life. A friend of mine, under the crushing weight of lost love occasionally wonders aloud, What's the point? And another friend, blinded by the opaque and troublesome veil of antidepressants, recently took his own life to escape an obviously unbearable existence. I bet Burton would have a thing or two to say to these folks. I bet Burton would say, challenges be damned, life is the point.
Our friend, Carl, currently lies stock-still in a hospital bed, tethered to a morphine drip and nothing else, awaiting death in preference to life in an Alzheimer's haze. And I don't disagree with his position. I honor it, and that of any person who chooses to give up their life when they can no longer live it. But when one tragedy followed another -- that Trayvon Martin's, and then, Burton Chenet's lives were snatched away without their say-so -- the answer to that enigmatic Why? came into relief for me: Untimely death happens so that the humans left behind might take another, fresher look at their lives, experience renewed appreciation for the gift they can still claim, and become a bit more thankful, a bit more humble.
All featured paintings by Burton Chenet. In descending order: Blue Birds, Croix Baron, Baron, Tree of Life. All photographs by Pascal Giacomini
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