"What a wonder life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner." Colette

Aug 31, 2016

A Southern Gentleman: Lawrence 'Lee' Carter

I find it easier and more enjoyable to write stories focusing on past friends and their influence on my perspective on life. Enough time has passed. One of those people was a young man who helped me through the darkest time of my life, and was instrumental in bringing me back from the dead, literally.  I would have made it on my own eventually, but Lee made it so much easier.

I’d suddenly been widowed at 38, and more than anything I longed to be one of those couples in which one dies shortly after the other, ostensibly from a broken heart.  ‘Third time’s the charm” proved true in my case; but to have my joy snatched away so unexpectedly seemed extremely cruel and I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to try again.  When death didn’t take place naturally, I tried on my own.

When that didn’t work and I woke up, not only was I still breathing but I’d damaged my sciatic nerve; and from tip to tail my left leg was useless.  So much for that idea.  I needed to go back to work but could hardly walk; so I answered a call for Fundraisers for Portland's Oregon Symphony.  Once I got up the stairs all I had to do was sit and talk on the phone, and that’s where I met Lee.


Lawrence ‘Lee’ Carter from Atlanta, GA: a modern day Southern Gentleman in the nicest sense.  He was waiting for the results of Oregon’s Bar Exam and eager for his new career to begin.  He had a late start, opting to leave the family business and head for law school in his 30s; but Lee didn’t like the idea of drinking from his family trough so fundraising was helping until he got his REAL job.  The Arlene Scnhitzer Hall needed some renovations, and we were often the top earners.  Lee was a likable, unflappable guy and despite my attempts to brush off his initial overtures, he wore me down with his geniality.


A really nice perk to fundraising was tickets to the Symphony, either regular performances or rehearsals, and we went as often as we could.  Lee’s booming voice was distinctive, and during one intermission he called to our boss several rows away.  It was like an old E.F.Hutton ad with all heads turned our way, but Lee wasn’t fazed in the least.  “He’ll be great in a courtroom,” I thought, hoping some of his self-confidence oozed over onto my shattered soul.

I’m an open book and told Lee my sad tale to give him a chance to bolt. From the beginning he was nothing but supportive, reassuring and encouraging. Our first 'date' was to a pumpkin patch, and as I dragged my left leg along I began to consider the possibility that there just might be life after death.  Lee took a detour to stop for Thanksgiving dinner while I visited kin in San Jose, and Aunt C. still recalls the huge box of chocolates he brought to the door.  I learned what a Flocked Christmas tree is that winter as he spent considerable time admiring a friend’s display.  She beamed and so did I.  Where do they make guys like this? Daown Sowth.  

I didn’t feel like putting up a tree, but Lee insisted.  “Let’s pick up a live one,” he suggested; and I had to break down and explain my irrational phobia about buying Christmas tree stands (as well as blindly sticking my hand into a box of Brillo Pads under the sink, but that’s better left to the professionals):

“I feel like people are looking at me, thinking, What a loser not to own a Christmas tree stand at her age.”

Lee stuck with me. The feeling in my leg was returning at a better-than-expected rate, and finally I felt well enough to get a job back in my old career field. At the company Christmas party I was suddenly frightened to be among new colleagues and feared somehow I’d make a fool of myself; but then, too, he was a rock as I clung for protection. His southern accent was not too strong; he was proud of his heritage but not arrogantly; and he enjoyed teasing me about being a Yankee...

“and PROUD OF IT!”

During college days he’d invited one Northern friend home to Atlanta for the holidays; and who at dinner expressed surprise at not seeing more Antebellum homes.

"Well, we did have that Tear-rible  F I I I - a..." Granny drawled.

I’d always wanted to become a Public Defender and for a short time vicariously lived that dream through Lee.  While he shared the passion, opportunity knocked on the other side of the aisle as the deputy DA in Gold Beach, after the New Year.  Lee was so excited to finally be getting his career on track, and I was happy when he asked me to help him find a place to live in the small town along the southern Oregon coast.

Our concepts of home differed dramatically, as I learned while watching his ecstatic reaction to the small, slightly run-down ‘cottage’ with a spectacular view of the ocean and a path to get down.   This southern gentleman was more outdoorsy than I’d thought, and while we tried maintaining a long-distance relationship for awhile, it eventually fizzled on good terms.

I’ve thought of Lee over the years, usually when the topic of lawyers comes up so you can imagine. When I returned to Oregon in 2010 I briefly considered looking him up, but that’s as far as it got. I didn’t want to be the 'old girlfriend' possibly putting him in an uncomfortable position; until last year, when I was looking for a sympathetic Civil Rights attorney to help push my Economic Equality argument in the courts.

“Wow, wouldn’t it be great if Lee turned out to be a Civil Rights attorney?  Now THAT’s a valid reason to reach out.”

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d forgotten his full proper name until I found the above clipping about his appointment carefully tucked under a photograph and packed away until recently. Eureka!  I looked up his name and clicked the link:

Tillamook County Deputy District Attorney Lee Carter Commits Suicide, December 2013 (I'm not supplying a link.)

No need to describe my shock. Everything flashed through my mind at once, accompanied by the predictable guilt:  could I have said something; done something… sooner?  I hadn’t reached out in 20 years; but then again, neither had he.

What stuck out in particular, of course, was the painful irony of him choosing to end his life when it was he who reached down and pulled me up so long ago.  When I met him in 1995 Lee was of the mind that, “(Suicide) is NOT the solution.”  What, then, happened to change his mind?

I read that during Lee’s final years his caseload as Prosecutor consisted of domestic violence, child abuse and sex offenses.  Certainly that contributed to his somber mood but he left no note; only others to mourn and ask Why? I know from experience that the ‘whys’ can never be answered, at least not to our satisfaction.  Fortunately I happen to believe that we’ll all meet in the next experience (barring the baggage); and that helps me through my grieving process.


I never did meet Lee's family but my heart goes out.  While picking up groceries here in charming South Carolina I saw a man walking away who was the spitting image of the Lee I remember.  Maybe it has something to do with Atlanta being so close; maybe it was that soup-bowl haircut he favored.  Logically I knew it couldn’t be him but I stared nevertheless until he was out of sight.  That was the ‘sign’ I needed to write this down.


Lee's action prompted, in part, a study about a previously overlooked problem, which was discussed in the Oregon State Bar Bulletin,(click to read online): From Stigma to Safety Net; Attorney Suicides Initiate Nationwide Conversation about Mental Health.  It helps a little if a loss benefits others in some way. But only a very little.

As I read the words expressed by others I could only shake my head at the devastating waste of talent.  Lee had his reasons just as I did; just as countless others do, they believe, which make perfect sense at the moment.  But I must now repeat a story I was told by a medical professional following my own episode:

A psychiatric nurse did a study of the relatively few survivors who attempted suicide by diving off the Golden Gate Bridge.  She asked what they were thinking on the way down, and nineteen out of the twenty replied,
“This was a really bad idea.”

Perhaps Lee would say the same but he can’t; and you know he would express sorry for the pain he caused if he could.

The nice thing about a blog is the ability to publish a story without worrying whether an editor will find it newsworthy, i.e., salacious enough to publish. Blogs need readers, so thank you for allowing me to indulge in this little tribute to a friend. Obituaries offer so little other than who's left, and we all deserve at least a page. 

So in case anyone’s searching through time, I want to add my chapter about this individual who touched so many lives both personally and professionally. When I knew Lee he was happy and optimistic and just CHARGED, and his energy was infectious, thank God.  And as sure as I'm breathing I know he would not want to see me climb back into that shell he pulled me out of so long ago so it seems once again Lee is helping.  And in good conscience, how can I possibly waste something as precious as time?

Peace, always, for Lee.

2 comments:

  1. Very nicely written.
    I wish I could have thanked him personally for being there for my sister. He was obviously a good man with a big heart.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you so much for writing this page and giving Lee life on the internet. Listening to the Kinks and thinking of Lee again tonight. Peace to all.

    ReplyDelete

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