Chardelle received her second, confirmatory, test results on April 15. "The phrase 'death and taxes' kept floating around my head."
Chardelle Lassiter, who describes herself as a "poet, writer, HIV/ AIDS activist, humanist, animal lover, student, teacher, entrepreneur, and regular human being," lives her life by seemingly simple guidelines: "Whatever circumstance you find yourself in, first ask yourself what part did you play in getting there. And secondly, what did you learn from your experience." This, combined with a fierce intellect, iron will, and strong sense of spirituality, has enabled Chardelle to triumph over HIV and help others do the same.
A Foundation of Strength
"I was born and raised in Harlem, living between my mother's home, my paternal grandmother's home and my aunt's," she says with great fondness shining in her eyes. "Mother was modern, New York born, with a northern attitude. My grandmother was southern. I thought it was great to have the progressive mentality balance out with the southern values and pace. Those two things stabilized me enough so that I could be myself, find out what I believed in."
At the age of sixteen, Chardelle suffered the death of her mother. She identifies this as the moment she lost her childhood and had to grow up. It was then she first began what she calls the "posture of having to be strong." To this day, she carries a picture of her mother with her and looks to her for guidance.
Never was Chardelle's strength more fully tested than the day in early 1988 when she received the results of her HIV antibody test.
She had initially gone to the clinic to be tested for other sexually transmitted diseases. "I knew without having actual facts that Gene [her companion since 1984] may have engaged in some extracurricular sexual activity." At first, HIV didn't enter her mind. Then she saw a crude, hand-lettered sign on a piece of cardboard that read "AIDS test free." "I see a sale sign and I'm up there," she says. "I wanted to test because it was the responsible thing to do."
When she first got her positive diagnosis, she says, "My blood froze. My brain froze. That was such a surreal experience. Nothing in my life to that point had come close to anything of that nature, so there was no basis of comparison, no point of reference. I didn't know what to do with myself. I was standing there. I felt my body. Where do I take this body now? What do I do? The first thing I heard was a death sentence."
Not knowing what else to do, Chardelle went back to her job as a case manager for senior citizens who had been victims of crimes. "I didn't want to go home," she says. "Gene was at work. I didn't want to be alone, so I went back to what was familiar and where I knew who I was. I was amazed looking at people that they didn't pick up that the person who left an hour ago was so different."
Chardelle received her second, confirmatory, test results on April 15. "Not only did I go get the results," she says, "but I had to go to the Post Office and mail my taxes. The phrase 'death and taxes' kept floating around in my head."
Chardelle put off telling Gene until after the weekend. "I knew what it felt like to have your life taken away," she says. "I didn't want to do that to him." Remarkably, she felt no anger toward him. "I believed he did not know. There was no maliciousness in it, and I loved him. My reaction to extreme trauma is, Let's deal with the issue. We don't have time to blame each other. We were each other's support system."
Finally, "fear and panic" proved overwhelming and Chardelle decided it was time to talk to Gene. She held his hand to gauge his response, something she had seen in a Bette Davis or Joan Crawford movie, she says. "When I told him and his brain had a moment to register, that person I knew left in the blink of an eye, just in his expression."
The next days were rough. "We isolated ourselves," she says, "except for the routine of going to work. I wasn't going to be homeless and infected with HIV. That wouldn't have worked. Work was what I had. Everything else had changed. I still had some identity there."
Gene lived for six years after his diagnosis, dying in 1994.
Chardelle had no support system when Gene died except for Linda, a close friend who had become like a sister to her and who had accepted the difficult news calmly. "If she was not in my life, I do not know where I would have gone," says Chardelle. "I was driven to tell because life was getting really difficult. She's been a constant in her attitude and her acceptance of me and her respect and love for me as a person."
After stopping work in 1995 because of an on-the-job back injury, Chardelle's feelings of isolation grew. In 1996, she decided to end her life. She sees this decision as the cumulative effect of being exhausted, angry and frightened. "I was sitting home one day after just having made the decision that I was going to commit suicide," she says. "I heard a voice in my head as I was sitting contemplating the method I was going to employ to kill myself. The voice said 'If you don't get off this couch and get some help, you're not going to make it through the week.' It made me realize where I was and what I was planning to do. That scared the hell out of me. I called 911 and said blindly that I needed a counselor."
The Search For Peace
Having survived the death of Gene and the desire to end her own life, Chardelle began to rebuild.
Her love of poetry took center stage. She had written her first poem in 1963, "Epitaph," just after her mother's death. "It was my way of resolving it, taking it out of myself, looking at it. It was a tribute," she says, "I knew I needed to speak. I knew that whatever was inside had to get out or else it would become unhealthy."
When talking about her poetry, Chardelle says, ''I don't even intend to write a poem, but I'll start to write my feelings and it will just rhyme. It's my voice." She believes that all of us are poets. "Everyone has a way of saying something that just sounds like music." Her poetry has also proven helpful in terms of her advocacy for other people living with HIV/AIDS. "I have found it to be a very effective learning tool," she says. "Often people shut down when you're having these clinical conversations. They don't want to hear it."
Another key to Chardelle's strength is her ongoing quest for spiritual awareness. Since March of this year, she has spent her Friday evenings at a class on metaphysics, cosmology, astrology, and numerology. "Every creature has a spirit," she says. "It's obvious to me the world is out of balance. That's why there is so much hatred and all the isms -- racism, ageism, sexism, homophobia. We as human beings seem not to connect or understand what our spiritual side is." She continues, "My visible world feels very connected to my invisible world. I feel assured that whatever there is beyond this physical life, it's another leg of the journey. Once this case that I carry myself around in wears out, the spirit is still fresh and vibrant and disperses into the universe somehow, and somewhere you're still useful."
Words of Wisdom
Above all else, Chardelle Lassiter is a survivor, a living testament to the ability of the human spirit to triumph over adversity. "There's a core of me that's very solid," she reflects. "I have braved a lot of trauma -- an only child, very small family, black, and female." But living with HIV has been her biggest challenge. "It surprised me how strong I was," she says with a slight smile. "Every once in a while I review my life and say 'wow! You overcame that!' It's empowering."
What advice does Chardelle give to others living with HIV? "The first thing I ask people is, 'Do you need a hug?' because often they feel untouchable." She also emphasizes that "other people and things definitely influence your life and choices and who you are, but at some point it's about you deciding who you are going to be, how you want to live on the planet, what you believe in, what you would live for, and what you would die for. It's about carving that person out of that rock."
She goes on, "You're stronger than you think you are. You don't have to give in to the fear of this disease. It doesn't mean you won't get sick and it doesn't mean you won't die. There is something to extract from every situation, no matter how negative it is. There's something you can find that's positive to turn that around."
Inner Noise and Other Sounds, a collection of Chardelle Lassiter's poems, will soon be published by DPW Graphics.
Bobby Darnell is Director of Community Resources at the Momentum AIDS Project. This is his first contribution to Body Positive.
This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.