Last Friday night Lisa Wells stood in the front of more than 60 people and read them an acerbic email her best friend, Esther Barnum Alman, wrote her last year, after the 25-year-old woman found out she had a brain tumor. The email told Wells to celebrate life while she could.
Esther's dead now. Last week's gathering at Southeast Portland's Newspace gallery was her last wish-to throw an open-invite funeral, a "gigantic, balls-out, laugh-and-cry-your-face-off, fuck you for being alive, glory of heaven and magnificence of earth BASH."
It was a beautiful gesture, but there's a catch: There's no Esther. Nathan Langston made her up.
"I'm trying to recreate the feeling that death is totally amazing," says Langston, a 23-year-old local poet and actor who works at a group home for developmentally disabled adults. He dreamed up the funeral party after performing hospice care for a patient last winter. He couldn't quite explain his intense connection to a dying 75-year-old retarded woman to his friends. So he created Esther: a spunky pink-haired girl who loved Joan Jett and pillow fights. The kind of Portlander you could've met at Powell's or Stumptown a thousand times.
Langston's death wish snowballed when he told his friends about Esther and her faux-wake. The group of local artists and musicians made her flesh, even sharing a video (created by local filmmaker Mary Rasmussen) that "Esther made before she died." The footage shows Esther (played by Portlander Bethe Mack) rifling through her Belmont apartment to rediscover baby photos, stuffed animals and a copy of her fave book, Fahrenheit 451, while she struggles to say goodbye.
Langston stresses that the funeral wasn't an Andy Kaufman-style trick. "The point was to bring this character to life," he says. Still, he was delighted that both WW and the Portland Mercury bowed to the dead girl's final request and included listings for her "kick-ass" funeral.
Was it the "balls-out bash" Esther wanted? Not quite. It was a mellow affair, a night filled with goofy dance moves fueled by $1 cans of PBR and the band Dat'r's digital funk. Properly melancholy fare came courtesy of the Binary Dolls' Nick Jaina, who performed an original dirge called "O Death," accompanied by violinist Langston.
Nobody let on that Esther was a collective delusion. Instead of winking irony, there were seemingly heartfelt eulogies. Although Langston believes more than 75 percent of the partygoers thought Esther was real, this funeral was most meaningful for those who were in on the joke. There were giggles as the video Esther begged one friend to change an awful hairstyle and thanked another for letting her pass out on his bed when she got too drunk-only weeks before she died. There were cheers when she commanded the living to "drink beer and dance," as she held up a can of her favorite beverage: a Pabst tallboy, of course.
Frankly, the evening was less of a party than a collective art project. Harder hearts would've smelled a whiff of precocious art-school sophomore in the air-but for those who've grown tired of death's usual black garb, it was a silly, sweet night. There was even a pillow fight.
But Langston hung back. His eyes were red. He hands shook a bit. "I'm happy," he said, with a smile. "But I'm really, really sad."
This time, you got the feeling he wasn't making anything up.