Mar 5, 2022 • 12M

Bonus Life

Episode 9 - My Trip to the Edge and Back

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Appears in this episode

Hal Walker
Hal Walker, Ohio musician and writer living with severe ME/CFS, weaves music, stories and community from his bed.
Episode details

Hi. It’s my birthday and this is “Living in a Body.” Please click the play button to hear me narrate the story with original music. (12 min) Thank you so much ~ Hal


Bonus Life

The guy standing 18 inches away from me didn’t survive. One moment, Ash and I were standing right next to each other on a bridge of black lava. We stood in awe as the waves crashed beneath us into a turbulent pool of wild ocean energy. In the next moment, Ash was floating out to sea and I was fighting for my life. At the hospital later that afternoon, a nurse with a lovely Hawaiian accent leaned in close to my face and whispered, “You’re very lucky.” She was a native of Kauai. She knew how lucky I was.

Nine years ago, on the day before my 47th birthday, the chances were not in my favor. Most likely I shoulda died, but I didn’t. I got a bonus life. I got to see my daughter graduate from high school and college. I got to experience the agony of a breakup and the blossoming of new love. I released a CD called “Life Wonderful.” I got to be with my dad when he was ill and when he died of cancer. I became TikTok famous. I created “Low Key Gliding.” And over the course of the last six months, I’ve gotten to experience the traumatic onset of severe chronic illness. Ash didn’t get a bonus life. He floated out to sea and was never seen again. His daughter had to travel to Kauai for a memorial service by the ocean. From what I hear, seals showed up at the service that day.

My story begins in January of 2013. I was working as an artist-in-residence at St. Vincent-Ferrer Elementary school in Cincinnati when my jaw locked up. For two months, eating was painful, talking was painful and even kissing was painful. Having lived many years with a variety of symptoms that showed up and never went away, I didn’t know if my jaw would ever be free again.

But my trip to Kauai was on the calendar for the end of February. I’d be joining JP Allen in his home of Kilauea on the island of Kauai to co-lead a week-long harmonica retreat. This jaw issue was really putting a damper on my thoughts about the trip and Hallie was pleading that I not go. She was convinced that I would go to Hawaii and die while I was there, but I was determined to make the trip. There’s no way that I was gonna let this opportunity pass me by. At the last possible minute, I found a TMJ specialist in Cleveland and paid for the rushed fitting of a jaw brace to give me some relief.

On my first step off the airplane, I realized that I was entering paradise. The warm, damp ocean breeze was so sweet and so delicious. My chauffeur gave me a proper Kauai welcome by treating me to my very first whole coconut. Even with my jaw clamped shut, I was able to enjoy sipping the milk from the coconut with a straw. Except for the challenge of living in this particular body, the weeklong harmonica retreat was a great success.

Hal, Greg, Ash and another student jamming on the beach.

On the last day before heading home, four of us hiked down a hidden path behind Ben Stiller’s mansion near Kalihiwai Bay. We were in search of an other-worldly location called the “Dragon’s Spout” where generations of volcano meeting ocean had created a desolate field of black lava formations. Unknowingly, we were walking into some very dangerous territory in a particularly dangerous time of year. On the other hand, on the way down the mountain, I experienced a glorious release in my jaw. I remember the feeling of relief and freedom as I bounded down the path toward the ocean. I was celebrating the fact that maybe I wouldn’t spend the rest of my life in pain.

The Black Lava Rocks of Kauai

At one point, JP, Ash, Greg and I stopped on a natural bridge of black lava that overlooked a 20 foot round pool of undulating water. The waves would travel down a wide canal, crash under the bridge and then explode from the rock crevices like a dragon’s spout. None of us sensed that we were in danger. We were on dry lava. I remember looking out to the ocean and seeing some very large waves coming our way. But we stood with our backs to the sea, poised with our phones waiting to capture the next amazing Facebook post.

In March, the ocean in Kauai gets particularly wild and unpredictable.

Very suddenly, with the devastating force of a locomotive, a huge wall of water swelled up and over the bridge and struck two of us from behind. Within a split second, I was submerged, tossed about like a rag doll and sucked into the belly of the dragon. Immersed in blue and white ocean turbulence, I was underwater for an extended period time. When I finally found the surface, I gasped for air and then I was struck again. Several times, my head hit sharp rocks and I gained a very clear understanding, "this is what happens when you're about to die in the ocean.” I remember thinking, “this Ocean doesn’t care that I’m Hal Walker and that I’ve got a life in Ohio that needs me.” Completely powerless, I could feel myself being pulled out to sea by the raging current.

Finally, there was a calm. I looked out at the vast gray ocean and felt the deepest terror and despair that I’ve ever experienced in my life. How could this be happening to me? I couldn’t believe that Hallie’s greatest fear was actually coming true. How would she face this? How long could I last out here? I wasn’t ready to die, but under the circumstances, it seemed like I didn’t have much of a choice.

JP started shouting for me to take off my shoes and my pants and start swimming. Overwhelmed with shock and fatigue, I floated for a moment and then started flapping my arms in the direction of safety. The current was like a raging river. It was so wild that my swimming didn’t seem to make any difference. But then a wave pushed me in the right direction. With bloodied fingers, I found myself hanging for dear life onto the side of a sharp black lava wall.

It was my incredible good fortune that Greg had picked up a four foot walking stick on the way down the mountain. JP reached for me with the stick and I was able to grab it but we soon lost our connection and I went under again holding the stick. The second time we connected, he was able to drag me to a more accessible spot. Miraculously, the next wave pushed me up onto the sharp rocks where I crashed. JP hovered over me shouting, "Keep moving, Hal! There are more waves coming! You gotta move 20 more feet. C’mon! You gotta move!” Plastered to the rocks and totally spent, I was dead weight. I shit myself while JP dragged me to safer ground.

Hal being loaded into a metal grate to be airlifted out of there.

Fairly quickly, the rescue people arrived with a helicopter. I remember three big, strong men holding me secure as the waves continued to crash down on us. As they strapped me into a metal crate to be lifted out of there, I learned that the other guy, Ash, didn’t make it. JP had seen him floating face down out into the ocean. Our sense is that Ash was struck in the head and made unconscious on the fall into the water hole. Phua Chuan Chin (Ash) was a lively 62 year old man from Singapore. He was a smoking cessation counselor and had dreams of using the harmonica to inspire people to quit smoking in Singapore. (see YouTube video below to see Ash in action)

I laid there in my underwear unable to move but knowing that I had survived. I was in shock, shivering with a loud ringing in my ears. The helicopter would carry me to an ambulance which would take me to the hospital. As I was lifted into the sky, I could see out of the corner of my eye a spectacular view of Kalihiwai Point. JP’s words just kept repeating in my brain, “You did it, Hal. You survived. You performed a miracle today, my brother. You’re alive.” I just kept saying, “I’m alive. I’m alive.”

When my friends showed up at the hospital, I burst into tears. (See I Love Crying) I was beat up real bad. My whole body was covered in minor cuts and abrasions. I lost my glasses, my iPhone, my shoes and my clothes, but I was in one piece. When we got home from the hospital, JP spent a couple hours cleaning my wounds with hydrogen peroxide, tee tree oil and noni fruit.

The day before my 47th birthday. I went to the edge and I survived. Now I get a bonus life. Today’s a bonus. Yesterday was a bonus. It’s all a bonus life. Thank you so much for reading. I appreciate you. Enjoy your bonus life. Hal

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The Kauai Harmonica Crew — Ash is in front on the right.