Here is the text of the eulogy delivered at Hal Koenig’s April 4 memorial service by his husband of 32 years, Robert Schwoch.
Going through a loss like this melts a person’s brain into clichés. One cliché I’ve said over and over these past days, and even put in the memorial notice in the paper, is that everyone who met Hal loved him. You’ll probably hear something like that at most funerals across the world. But we all know in this case it’s not just a cliché. It’s really true, isn’t it? I mean, that smile! Hal was impossible not to love. He could be very shy about meeting new groups of people, unsure if he’d make a good impression. I’d tell him, would you relax? If someone doesn’t like you instantly they’re dead inside! He’d say, aw, stop it, and I’d say, no, YOU stop it. That’s Hal and Bob in a nutshell.
Hal’s lovability might be hard for people to put into words. But I can. I know why he was so lovable, and why he always drew wonderful people into his orbit. Let me tell you a little story, and as a bonus, it relates to our gospel for today. You get a eulogy and a sermon together. No extra charge!
Around the house I could sometimes annoy Hal – okay I could often annoy Hal – but he greatly preferred me being in the house annoying him versus me being anywhere else. When I would leave home for more than the occasional overnight in Madison, I’d get texts and emails from Hal saying he missed me, and for my return he would almost always prepare some sort of surprise for me. It could be something as simple as a special meal, or something as large as having remodeled a room in our house. One time I went off to a writers’ event for a week and came back to find a new patio in the backyard. Another time I went away for a weekend and he painted a giant landscape of my Italian family’s hometown for our bedroom – one of the fastest and best paintings he ever did. He would always hide somewhere away from the surprise so I could trip on it by myself and then run and find him and say “Halsie, what did you do?!” And he’d be smiling his Hal smile, just as pleased as punch. Never did I see him happier than when he would pull one of those surprises and see my reaction.
One of the last surprises he pulled on me, when I was snowed in at Madison a few weeks ago, was to pull his old architecture office out of what is supposed to be our living room, because the gallery had become his office, and change the back room we’d been using as a living room into a beautiful office for me, with a writing desk and all my diplomas and certificates and knickknacks. That room has always had a bay window nook, facing Lake Michigan, where I have a mat and kneeling bench to meditate and say a few words of prayer first thing every morning, a habit of many years.
At the end of the night we lost Hal, as I settled into my office desk trying to cope with what had happened, I looked up at my meditation nook and saw Hal’s final surprise, one he never got a chance to spring on me in person. Next to my meditation bench and mat he had placed a gorgeous, six-foot-tall Aralia tree, with woody branches and jade-like leaves arching gently over to shade me while I meditate and pray. It is stunning. I found the tag and receipt on our kitchen counter. He had bought it for me at some expense from Mileager’s Garden Center two days before, while I was gone at a novelists’ conference in Vermont.
Now some of you may know that next to painting, raising plants inside and outside the house was Hal’s favorite pastime. I never got involved much in it because it brought him so much joy to do. I have a number of plants in the house to take care of now, and I’m researching all of them on the internet to see what type of care each plant needs. Tending those plants is bringing me an amazing lift of joy, as if Hal’s spirit is cheering me on while I do it. I sort of “get” gardening all of a sudden. This is one reason my urge is to keep the houses and yards even though I’m going to need lots of help with them, because as some of you well know, I am not Mr. Handy. I am capable of flushing a toilet but nothing better go wrong!
Yet I’m glad to report all the plants are doing great. They have not dropped one leaf. Even the maidenhair ferns, which Hal loved but had some difficulties with, are as he left them or maybe even a little better. I can tell you that the Aralia tree in my prayer nook will thrive in our house if I have to buy it its own doctor!
So what does this have to do with Hal being lovable by anyone except me, the unbelievably lucky guy who got so much love back from him from 32 years? What you need to know is he was this way about EVERYONE. He lived to make other people happy. It was pretty much the only thing that could make him happy. He enjoyed designing buildings. But he loved painting more because he thought people loved the paintings more. He would never let a painting go up for display without asking me what I thought of it. If I would say, it’s great, he wouldn’t be satisfied. Compliments didn’t mean much to him. It was not until he heard me say “people are going to love it” – or even better, a certain kind of collector or a certain person or group of people will love it – that he would start thinking it was finished. And he loved raising plants because, even though they can’t express their gratitude, they’re living things and they were made to thrive by his care. Just like me.
This is what the gospel I chose for today is about. This is what faith is about. This is what life is about.
Some of you know that across my life I’ve adopted two religions, since many years ago when the meditation practices of Zen Buddhism helped me cope with the disaster of AIDS and the way it hit friends and family. This is why we had an Eastern reading along with our Bible reading today. For a while the two faiths seemed in conflict with one another, then they came into conversation with one another, and now I feel like they supercharge one another. A theologian might say Zen and Christianity are different, even opposite. The theologian would be wrong. The paths are different but the end is the same: Love God like the whole universe and love others like we are all one. There. I just summed up two of the world’s great religions for you in one sentence. No extra charge.
I’ve meditated and prayed on those faiths every day for decades. But the key to my strong faith is the amazing example I had in my own house for all those lucky years. Hal lived to give. His personal mission was to make the world more colorful, more beautiful, more joyful. He poured his whole heart into buildings and plants and paintings for the enjoyment of others without a thought of accolades or awards or even money. He would try to hide when an award would come at an art show. He was happy for the ribbon to draw people to the tent, but he didn’t want to be in the photo with the presenter. Sure, he wanted to make a living – he was delighted to make his art his full-time work. But he always thought his paintings were too expensive, that he was charging people too much. (Fortunately I didn’t!) Hal couldn’t even put up the price tags next to the paintings. That’s always been my job. If we had been wealthy enough not to worry about expenses he’d have given the paintings away. He gave himself away continually without thought of return. The Rev. Richard Patt, who spoke just before me, told me Hal is a Christ figure to him. That’s coming from someone who studied divinity at Harvard.
So what do we do now, without Hal’s physical presence among us?
First, we realize that in spirit we all commune together as one. The apostle Paul wrote that there is not Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, because all are one in Christ. The great Zen Master Seung Sahn wrote, in less flowery but no less truthful language, that if we are attached to our thinking, you and I are different, but if we let go of our thinking, you and I are the same. The most important part of Hal has gone nowhere, except the same realm where we’re all destined to meet and mix more meaningfully when our own earthly vehicles conk out. If you think that’s a bunch of New Age mumbo-jumbo, if you can’t buy it from the Bible or the Tao Te Ching or the Dhammapada, go study a little bit of quantum physics. See where that’s heading. See why the world’s top scientists are starting to become religious. See why the Dalai Lama – that’s the Buddhist pope – has just written a scientific book called The Universe in a Single Atom.
Knowing Hal is gone from us only physically, it’s our responsibility to carry on Hal’s spirit in the physical world. We keep Hal alive and honor him by living as he lived.
We pour our souls onto whatever canvas best fits our talent and desire, not for ourselves, but to bring joy to the world. We do it without needing to be in the award photo. We care for others with tenderness and good humor regardless of whether they can show their appreciation. Whatever we gain we take as if we didn’t deserve it. We take it humbly and with gratitude to the universe, consciousness, mind, energy, the absolute – whatever it is we truly believe in. For me that thing I truly believe in is God, and Hal felt the same. We had talking about God a lot lately as we were searching for a church to join together with both our former churches having closed. God doesn’t have to mean a white-bearded dude hurling thunderbolts from a cloud. But anything not called God seems too small to carry the universe.
If we think our world is nothing more than a bunch of accidental physical molecules spinning through space with no greater logic or reason, that’s not logical or reasonable. There is balance in the spiritual world just like the natural world. That’s the answer to all the hard questions about tragedy and death. There’s some balance to it in a realm we can’t touch with our fingers or see with our eyes. There has to be. That’s the only way what just happened to Hal makes sense. The only way what just happened to Hal gets turned into good.
It’s up to us not to use too much time and energy mourning or grieving Hal. For one thing, it would annoy Hal, and like I said, I knew how to annoy him. Our short, precious time on this earth is better spent imitating Hal. Not unlike people use Buddha or Christ as a model. Except we were lucky enough to have Hal physically and joyfully among us for 61 beautiful years. Let’s rejoice with thanks for those years, and many more years of Hal alive and real in our hearts and souls.
2 thoughts on “Eulogy for Hal by Bob”
That was a wonderful eulogy. Sorry for your loss.