Hal Sieber came back from the dead on Saturday
I called Hal Sieber’s apartment twice last week and there was no answer, no way to leave a message. I went by his place on Wednesday, and it was locked. I knew something was wrong.
A concerned phone call from Jeff Lieberman, a New York documentary filmmaker, prompted me to try to reach Hal’s daughter, Paula, and the home care company responsible for his welfare. But it was Jeff who discovered by making a round of phone calls that Hal was at Wesley Long Community Hospital.
Jeff was in Atlanta and had planned to come to Greensboro to interview Hal for a documentary about a group of Ibo people in Nigeria who practice Judaism. I agreed immediately to head over to the hospital to ascertain Hal’s condition and report back.
I found Hal alone in his hospital room looking alert, but in rough shape physically. He complained about inflammation throughout his body caused by an infection of unknown origin and location. He said it was painful to talk, adding that his right eye felt like it was on the verge of exploding.
I’ve seen Hal on good days and bad as I’ve sat by his armchair with my digital audio recorder running, but it was difficult to see him in this shape. With a lifetime of poetry, scholarship and activism behind him, sharing his storehouse of knowledge and perspective through conversation has been one of Hal’s driving passions. That’s why it’s so tough: Talking is what Hal most desperately wants to do, and yet it exacerbates his physical pain.
I asked him if he wanted to continue the interviews, and his answer was an emphatic yes. He feels a sense of urgency about it. He told me, as I left: “It makes me feel like my life has meant something.”
Afterwards, I conferred with Jeff. We agreed to work in tandem. I would interview Hal about the landing of the Ibo along the Georgia coast, and Jeff would be there to keep talking when it was too difficult to go on. Together, we would try to stimulate his mind.
On Sunday, my wife and I found Hal in his new room in the ICU with a breathing tube in his nose, various lines attached to his body and an overhead monitor tracking his vital signs. Jeff was there, along with Hal’s brother Pete and his wife from Chapel Hill, and Hal’s granddaughter, Aubrey. Hal’s friend, Pat, would appear later.
My wife sat next to him and asked him how he was feeling.
“How would you feel if you were in my position?” Hal replied. “They tell me I have a 25 percent chance of surviving the procedure and a 25 percent chance of surviving the recovery. Who would want those odds?” Later, Paula told me and Jeff about the crisis. On Saturday morning, Hal’s heart started racing, and then his vital signs flat-lined. The doctors used a defibrillator to revive him.
“Wow, that hurt,” Hal reportedly said afterwards.
“I was smiling through my tears,” Paula recalled. “That’s my dad.”
It’s a good sign that Hal’s mischievous personality remains intact. He hates the hospital so much that he’s been asking his family to smuggle in some beer so that he’ll get thrown out. In fact, beer is a rather recent interest of Hal’s, and I confess that I’ve been something of an enabler, sharing a Bud Light with him during a steakhouse dinner and another time pouring a Sam Adams from his refrigerator for him after one of our interviews.
“He’s only gotten drunk once in his life, and it was in the 1950s,” Aubrey said.
“That was when Long Island iced tea came out,” Paula said, picking up the thread. “He thought it was a regular iced tea.”
Paula doesn’t think he’ll be going back to his apartment on Winter Garden Lane. She’s concerned that he had stopped taking his medication and thinks he will need round-the-clock monitoring from here on out.
She’s considering cleaning out the apartment. We talked about all the documents, correspondence and photographs, including some materials that could be relevant for Jeff’s film. All of that needs to be organized, and is likely to eventually end up in a collection in the College Archives Room at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg.
In his eight decades on this earth, Hal has owned the titles of public relations professional, newspaper editor, poet, activist and scholar. But he transcends all of them. To me, he can really only be called a personality. I suspect even his family doesn’t know everything Hal has accomplished in his long and eventful life.
And on Sunday Jeff added something important to my understanding of Hal’s life work. While recovering from a stroke on St. Simon’s Island in Georgia in the 1980s, Hal became interested in the story about how the Ibo people from Africa had landed there – then regarded as something of a folktale. Jeff told me that Hal located a letter from a slave importer to planter Pearce Butler that corroborated the assertions of an Ibo landing on St. Simon’s.
“The letter essentially said, ‘Bad things have happened,” Jeff said. “‘The slaves were let out of the holding area below. They rushed the captain. He freaked out and jumped overboard. The sailors jumped overboard, too.’ It ended by saying, ‘The Ibos took to the marsh.’” Those are the kind of things that can potentially be unlocked from Hal’s memory, and that are perhaps filed away in his papers. The urgency of imparting the knowledge and passing knowledge down through the generations has seemed to keep him going.
“He’s done so much in his life,” Paula told me and Jeff. “He could have given up a while ago. His work is more important than his family. He’s a great man. To us, his family, we always felt like his work was more important than us. He’s realized that, and he’s sorry.”
It doesn’´t look good for Hal. Paula told me that on Monday he had suffered a stroke. The fact that he can no longer talk is sad and exceedingly frustrating for him.