| Christine Lassiter died on Tuesday afternoon, February 13th, 2001 on King Street near the University of North Carolina at Asheville. She was surrounded by family and loved ones at the end. She was a playwright, a poet and a teacher. She was also a devoted friend. She was 49 years old.|
The first time I saw Christine some fifteen years ago, she was in the McKee building at Cullowhee with two dozen Cherokee teenagers. I had seen her from the hall - blonde, beautiful and filled with a frightening energy. Fascinated, I whispered to one of the students, "What is going on?". "Miss Lassiter is teaching us to write poetry," she said. Christine was reading from a sheaf of poems, written by her students and she proclaimed each line with enthusiastic delight, leaping and spinning about the classroom, stopping to say, "Isn't that beautiful!" The room was filled with inspired, smiling poets - inspired because Christine wrung every nuance from every word, making every line shimmer with musical cadence. I suspected that she could make a grocery list sound like a Shakespearean sonnet. I was smitten. I guess I became a kind of "groupie."
Christine was everywhere. She taught classes in Cherokee, acted in productions at "the green door" in Asheville, worked with the homeless and attended "poetry slams" throughout the region. Funded by small cultural grants, she drove an old camper with a sleeping bag in the back and often slept in campgrounds. After we had become friends, she let me read a play, "Only the Dance," about the homeless in Asheville, and she actually cast the play from the "street people". She also wrote poetry and did newspaper work. When she came to see me in Sylva, it was always a brief stop on her way to a class, a rehearsal, a meeting or a workshop. She was always in a hurry.
"Gotta go," she would say, checking her watch. "I'm already late."
"You just got here!"
She would shrug. "What can I do? I got thirty students waiting for me in Cherokee and then I have this workshop in Black Mountain." I came to hate that watch. We ate in restaurants, attended theatre productions or read each other's scripts with that watch ticking. There was never enough time. I frequently became angry and would "sull up" and pout.
"I'm sorry," she would say, "but I have to do this stuff."
"Why?" She would tell me how important it was to teach the classes, volunteer to work with minorities, the homeless, the aged. "It is just something that I have to do."
Two years ago, I asked her to promise me that she would come to see me someday and not wear the watch. She had this great laugh like someone saying the words, "Ha, haa, haaa." Then, she said, "Okay, I promise.." I think she meant it. Once, she arrived and wanted to walk up the hill behind my house. She roamed back and forth through the saw briers and broom-sage, staring at the distant mountains.
"What if I bought some land from you and built a house?"
"Are you serious?"
"Yeah! I've saved some money. Then, I could come down in the evening and sit on your porch and we could write plays."
"You are putting me on, aren't you?"
"No. I have a bunch of plays. Bad plays that need a lot of work, and all of these poems that I want you to read. I have this film script that I am working on that has five women in it and they are all me!" She laughed, "Ha, haa, haaa." Then, she said, "But right now, I gotta go. I was supposed to be in Waynesville 30 minutes ago."
Once on a nature trail near UNC-A, I asked her if she had ever been married. "Oh, yes," she said. "He's dead." I asked for details , and she told me about the suicide. She always answered questions with a disarming straightforward honesty. "That was a long time ago," she said. I had read a book about survivors of suicide - victims of guilt who felt a need to do penance. I asked her if that were true. She smiled and nodded. It was a beautiful spring afternoon, and for a moment she took it all in. We had eaten an "organic picnic" and she gathered up the trash and put it in the bin. The sun was in her hair and I touched her nose (she had a slightly deviated septum that I loved) and she smiled. After a moment, she looked at the watch (a Mickey Mouse). "Time to go," she said, "but we are gonna talk soon....for days! We'll have all the time in the world."
|I would like to think that she was serious. She started leaving her plays with me. She took me to poetry readings at Pack Square and since I am deaf, she wrote the poems (Jonathan Williams) down in a notebook as they were read, so I could read them. She took me to plays at HART and Boone (Romulus Linney) and whispered dialogue in my ear. She attended productions of my plays and told me the comments (positive) that she overheard in the audience. She even went to church with me (UU) and told me afterwards, "Those people really like you. You are lucky to have such good friends." She had a genuine desire to make others feel good about themselves. Of course, then she said, "Gotta go! I promised to serve on this planning committee for art in the school." Then, she was gone. |
She stopped coming for a while. We talked by e-mail, and she complained of headaches and exhaustion. She took a teaching job in Boone and actually commuted from Asheville. Her e-mail messages became confusing, filled with run-on sentences and misspelled words. Then, the messages stopped. I only heard by accident that she was in the hospital, and when I went to see her, she assured me that she was "just tired," and needed to rest. As I was leaving, a friend whispered to me that there were tumors. A week went by and she called me. As usual, she was considerate of my hearing loss.
"Can you hear me? I'll speak slowly and distinctly."
"I can hear you, Christine."
"I have something to tell you."
"I....am....dying." It was said very matter-of-factly.
For a moment, I didn't know how to respond, but finally I said, "I know that."
She laughed that wonderful laugh. "Ha, haa, haaa." Then, she said, "We will have time, now." She went on to say, that she had been told that there would be brief periods of good health. "Ups and downs," she said.
"Can I come over?"
"I have to go to Florida for treatment."
"When you come back, then."
There was a long silence. Then, she said, "I love you."
It didn't happen, of course, those brief periods of good health - at least not for us. The treatment didn't work and after months, Christine was brought back to Asheville. When I went to see her, she could only talk in brief spurts. For some fifteen minutes we talked. She told me how wonderful I was. How talented. She kept brushing my hair out of my eyes and moving her hands over my face, like she was memorizing it.
Finally, someone said, "It is time, Christine." They were taking her to the hospital for "therapy." She patted my cheek.
When I rose to leave she said, "Love you." and then she added "Everything is going to be all right! We'll talk again."
We didn't, of course, but I see her everywhere. She loved the little shops on Lexington Avenue and liked to buy spangles and capes and floppy hats. There was a photographer's studio where she had been a model, and her portrait was in the window. I remember her at a Storytelling Festival at the Folk Art Center, her laughter distinctive in the audience. "Ha, haa, haaa." She loved health food stores and theatres and loved to dance. She once danced with me on a rainy Sunday to Ray Charles singing "Every time We Say Goodbye." I remember her on my front porch at night, listening to crickets, in Malaprops, and when she read her poetry at Jubilee on Wall Street. I remember that the homeless folks on the street would call her by name when she went by, "Christine! Christine!"
There was no physical romance between Christine and I, (despite all my secret hopes) but I loved her. She loved me, too. I know that is true because Christine loved everybody. We all have her with us in a very real sense. She is in our hearts.
For her, time has stopped. There is no watch now...Finally, she is here to stay.
text c. Gary Carden, graphics c. Jeannette Harris; April 2001. All rights reserved.