I never met Hal in person; we only spoke over the phone. My publicity people introduced us via email and thought we would be kindred spirits. There were times over the next four to five years when Hal and I might talk almost every day. And then, due my traveling schedule, there would be times we would not speak for a few weeks.
Hal was very well educated and loved sharing what he knew with others. He was the editor of Quest magazine. He was a 33-degree Freemason. He was also a very loyal and devoted son, brother and friend. As my publicity people already knew, Hal was extremely knowledgeable about a myriad of topics, and he became a frequent guest on my radio show, "You Are What You Love."
About a year or more into our on-going phone relationship, Hal revealed to me that he was very concerned about his health. He made this burdensome confession shortly after his brother had been found dead in his hotel room, while waiting for a liver transplant.
Although Hal was never totally revealing about his health, I was able to fill in some of the blanks from his descriptions of symptoms he would disclose from time to time. I was constantly encouraging him to seek out professional medical treatment. I even offered to fly to his home, a hotel room, and take him by the hand and get him set up with some responsible medical protocol. But Hal would have none of it. He was scared.
He was frightened he would be given the same diagnosis as his now deceased brother. He was afraid he would not be able to qualify for health insurance, his illness would be deemed a pre-existing condition, and he would be rejected when he most needed life saving support. He was terrified to die, while simultaneously reluctant to commit to living. Hal was convinced that life had nothing to offer him but more suffering, disappointment and deep disconcerting apprehension.
Hal's brother had died alone in an extend stay hotel room. And ironically, Hal spent the last four years of his life living at the same extended stay hotel chain. Maybe they should advertise as "The Next Best Thing to Hospice." Hal was like a pearl of wisdom trapped inside this hard clamshell of impenetrable fear. We frequently talked about simple things he could do to start incorporating into his life a routine of diet, exercise and life-style that would contribute to a more life-sustaining foundation.
Hal always listened politely and patiently, often ending our prolonged conversations with, "You know sweetie, when we hang up, that is exactly what I'm going do." However, I eventually learned Hal was neither willing nor interested in following up on any of the suggestions we ever discussed.
The bottom line was Hal simply did not want to leave his hotel room. The longer he sat there the more he convinced himself the insulation of that hotel room offered the best quality of life he was ever going to find. Or at least he was safer and better off than subjecting himself to the uncertainty and harsh realities that lay waiting to ambush him in the cold, unfeeling world just outside of that hotel room door.
No matter how hard all of Hal's friends collectively and individually tried to coax him out of that emotional tar pit of fear and into proactive movement, Hal resisted with an equal and opposite display of energy. It was as if the spirit of Sisyphus had possessed his soul. No matter how close I felt we had gotten to rolling his burden of fear aside so he could liberate himself from a perennial uphill battle with self-inflicted terror, that stone would ultimately roll back down in front of his hotel room door in the time it took to hang up the phone.
The last time I spoke with Hal I knew he would most likely not last the week. He had successfully sentenced himself to death -- a prisoner of fear living in solitary on death row in his hotel cell. He had practiced this contraction so vehemently, that he had to be physically carried from his hotel room to the hospital where he died not long afterwards.
The evening of Hal's funeral service the movie "Cool Hand Luke" was airing. I had seen the movie countless times before. There is something irresistible about the draw of Paul Newman combined with the charisma of one Lukas Jackson that calls to viewers like the sirens of Ulysses. It is the ultimate film opiate. For obvious reasons, Hal was looming large in my mind. The more I watched the movie, the more I realized there was a striking similarity between the lives and deaths of Hal and Luke.
Both Hal and Luke found themselves "incarcerated" by engaging in actions they both knew would solve nothing in the bigger picture of their lives. But they were at a loss as to a better or more meaningful way to communicate. Both wanted out of the situation they found themselves in, without ever having to deal with the inner issues that landed them in that confined space in the first place. Both had a deep-seated driven need to know that there is more to life than what one can see, touch, taste and smell.
Like Cool Hand Luke, Hal was someone you wanted to hang out with; you were a better person as a result of time spent together. They were both people who inspired you to question and explore a different direction, sometimes out of nothing more than their own sheer stubbornness. Both of them had a cruel and unrelenting warden that tracked them down without mercy and without rest.
Hal's warden was the voice of fear that destroyed his every attempt to escape his jail cell, thinly disguised as an extended stay hotel room. Luke's warden was equally barbarically unappeasable, reminding him at every failed escape attempt that, "What we have here is failure to communicate." And finally both of them were unsuccessful at negotiating their way free.
The irony amidst all this similarity is that both were stuck as polar opposites. Hal could not move to literally save his own life. He decreed and re-enforced a self-imposed life sentence of imprisonment and nothing could bring him out of it. Luke, on the other hand, could not stop running.
The degree to which Hal was paralyzed, Luke was equally possessed by the urge to bust loose. Hal would not move to solve his life-threatening problems, and Luke would not sit still to resolve his. Could either of these men have been more bull headed or predictable in their choices? And of course, sadly, both men found their lives ending early by way of the same self-perpetuated undeterrable form of self-destruction.
The more the comparison between Hal and Luke became self-evident, the more I realized how much we all have a little Hal and a little Luke within us. All of us, at some time or another, have found ourselves unwilling to get out of our own way: Either by refusing to hold still when we need to face something, or by purposefully remaining stagnant when we know that life, and everyone we care about, is passing us by.
As Oscar Wilde put it, "Life imitates art far more than art imitates life." Luke is a fictional personality. Hal is not. Whether we strive to free ourselves from ourselves for real or for imagined reasons the action that is of paramount importance is that we must be willing to show up for the challenge and the process, without running away or hiding.
Now, the unanswered question of whether we take that action by holding our ground, or by a committed movement forward is one each of us has to answer personally within the context of our own hearts and lives. One thing is for certain, when we avoid personal growth by either extreme measures of denial, or by a heighten need to constantly escape, what we inevitably get is the definitive "failure to communicate" a life worth living within ourselves. I trust that Hal and Luke will live large in our hearts and minds as the ironic symbols for both "stubborn single-mindedness" and "it is never too late to change."
In Loving Memory of Hal Garland Siemer.