My friend Lester Armagost loved Halloween. He lived around the corner from me in a turn-of-the-century house. In mid-October, Lester would start turning his house into a haunted castle. For many years, it was the location for the town’s most popular and much anticipated Halloween party.
The prep involved removing furniture from the lower floor, stapling Visqueen to the walls, putting up decorations, and hauling in bales of hay for seating. For the yearly party, Lester did things to his house that most folks would never consider doing. On Halloween night, Lester would open his home to the children who were trick-or-treating. Later in the evening at 9 p.m., the house was open to adults. During the Halloween party, the upstairs bathtub served as an iced beer bin. There was a well-stocked bar in his kitchen, and Lester hired bartenders to mix drinks. He did everything necessary to create a good time for his guests.
I knew Lester was ill before we met and became friends. That didn’t bother me. I knew several people who had AIDS. I had lost friends to the disease. When I lived in Fayetteville, I hung out with four guys whom I considered my best friends. Of the four, three succumbed to the disease. Although there was a fear among the general population, I knew that AIDS could not be transmitted through casual contact. The stupid disease was not going to keep me from making and loving friends, sick or not.
During March of 1994, a late-season snowstorm dropped several inches of snow on Eureka Springs. Lester called to tell me that we had a friend, Steve, who was in bad shape and was in the ICU at the Eureka Springs hospital. Because the roads were impassable, Steve’s nearest relative, a brother living in Oklahoma, could not travel to Eureka Springs to be with Steve. Lester and I donned our snow boots and walked to the hospital. We didn’t want our friend to be alone.
Even though we weren’t really family, because of the seriousness of Steve’s situation, the staff bent the rules. They let us sit in the ICU with him. I don’t know if Steve knew we were there, but I like to think that he did know. Lester and I rubbed his arms and legs and held his hand. As sad and trying as the situation was for Lester and me, the time the two of us spent together at the hospital sitting with Steve was quality time. We cried, we laughed, and we talked about friendship, hopes, and fears. I kept thinking that it could be Lester in that bed. Lester was thinking the same. Steve lived less than twenty-four hours after being admitted. He was thirty-nine years old when he passed. Before leaving the hospital, Lester and I had a good cry, hugged for a long time, and silently walked home in the snow.
The weather in July of 1995 was summertime hot when Lester became bedridden. Unlike Steve, who passed in a hospital, Lester was in a bed in his home and surrounded by many friends who sat with him during his final hours. He lay unconscious with flowers strewn all around him on the bed and pillow. I was very sad. At the same time, I thought that the sight of him on the bed, smothered in flowers like an Indian prince, was beautiful. I knew that Lester was surrounded by love when he left us. He died at the age of forty-one.
The following Halloween, there was one more party in Lester’s house. The party was held to honor him, and it was as festive and fun as ever. Lester would have liked that. His ashes were at the party in a beautiful urn, and I know he was there in spirit.
It is good to leave this world while being loved.