Through the Eyes of Lazarus

March 2017

Rev. Kelly Isola

Rev. Kelly Isola

Rev. Kelly Isola is a culture-builder and catalyst for personal and organizational development. She is an author, consultant, visionary scholar-practitioner, and healer. Learn more at kellyisola.com

Life was moving along fairly quickly at the church I was temporarily serving in Arizona. Easter was fast approaching, and I was finishing a series of talks on a contemporary interpretation of the story of Lazarus.

The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead only appears in the Gospel of John. It’s a wonderful Hebrew allegory that offers a way to see how we could engage with unimaginable challenges in life—moving through the fear, grief, and uncertainty accompanying any journey of transformation. The narrative invites us to ask, “How do I move through something that appears to be impossible?” I didn’t know it at the time, but this question would save my life in the days and months ahead.

The next day, I felt like I was catching a cold, so I rested and used my usual homeopathic remedies. By the second day of feeling puny, the cold clearly had taken hold. By day three, flu-like symptoms were making their presence known. I was not headed in the direction of “getting better.”

Even the simple task of filling my ice bucket had become a challenge. On the way back to my hotel room, I began to collapse as I walked down the stairs, and I couldn’t see the doorknob to put the key in. Once inside my room I crumbled to the floor without the strength to lift my head, arms, or legs. I knew I was in trouble.

As I surrendered to my helplessness, the panic began to subside, enough so that I could roll onto my back and just lie on the floor. I think I passed out because I woke to find my cat, Murray, nudging my shoulder. I pulled myself into bed. Little did I know, new levels of powerlessness were yet to come.

The next day a friend came by with chicken soup. She looked at me and suggested we go to the emergency room. My fever was 105F and my oxygen saturation was at 74 (normal is high 90s). I spent the next 15 hours having X-rays, CT scans, blood draws, and oxygen before I was admitted with a diagnosis of Influenza H1N1 and viral pneumonia. Even then I had no idea how sick I was, fighting for breath as my lungs, heart, and organs slowly filled with fluid.

I spent the next five days on a roller coaster of medical care. During that time I texted with my mother and sister, keeping them in the loop, but by Tuesday I could feel myself slipping away. I sent a text saying I could not advocate for my own care anymore. Meal delivery was sporadic and I was getting little, if any, proper medical care. I was confused, exhausted, and alone. Within a day my mother was at my side.

By the time my sister arrived, I was spiraling down. Even though I had been admitted with influenza and viral pneumonia, the hospital had “gifted” me bacterial pneumonia and sepsis—both life-threatening illnesses. I was moved to the intensive care unit, where I experienced one complication after another—congestive heart failure, respiratory failure, and eventually was put on a breathing machine.

As I lay in that hospital bed, lungs and heart filling with fluid, sepsis spreading, and my body shutting down, life became so simple. Each time the machine forced air into me, I struggled to find my own rhythm, my own timing of when to inhale and when to exhale. The anxiety became paralyzing as I fought the forced air pushing in me.

The breath is the first thing you experience when you come into this world and the last thing to go when you leave it. Finally, it happened—I had no choice—if I wanted to live I had to surrender, to let go of life. Out of sheer exhaustion I stopped fighting. I looked at the heartless beast made of metal, plastic, and tubing as if to say, “Fine! You win!” I had to die in order to live. And with that, I collapsed into sleep and drifted into somewhere else. All I ached for was my own humble breath, but instead I had to hold nothing back because there was nothing left to hold on to.

During the darkest moments I have a few memories of my sister reading prayers that people were leaving on CaringBridge® and Facebook. While I don’t recall the words of the prayers, each time my sister read the person’s name who was praying for me, I was instantly transported to that person. It was not like a memory, but rather as though I was with him or her in real time, experiencing the power of our relationship, our love, our belonging to each other. This was the healing that began to sustain me and keep me in this world. Everyone became my savior, supporting me in my resurrection and making the impossible possible.

I slowly began to heal, and after almost three weeks in the hospital, I was discharged, arriving home to Missouri just in time for Easter. This was not without having been permanently altered by the trauma of the illness itself, several near-death experiences visiting the other side of the veil, a complete loss of self, and having to learn how to come back to the land of the living. I even had to decide if I wanted to be in this land of the living.

One day everything is right with the world—the relationship is solid, the job is fun, life is meaningful and rewarding, there are no clouds on the horizon to threaten your sense of well-being and flow of blessings. Then suddenly life begins to unwind and nothing is secure, not even life itself. Chaos and fear reign, you are rocked to your core, and nothing seems right with your world.

This is where I was. While I was grateful to be home, little of the life I had three weeks earlier made much sense. Things I believed, passions I had, foods I loved, all changed. The self I knew had died. Was there a way through this in-between place, this giant void, to a place of new life? Like the story of Lazarus, “How do I do the unimaginable?” I found myself alone many times as I navigated a new life, trying to put words to the wordless, to make you understand what could not be understood.

Strangely, I found relief in a most unexpected place. As Palm Sunday neared, I remembered those years growing up Catholic, walking the Stations of the Cross, one of the oldest devotions in Christianity. They are 14 depictions of Jesus’ final hours. We would walk silently and slowly, stopping at each one to recite words from a booklet. How I dreaded this yearly ritual. It was a depressing throwback that had held no meaning for me.

Interestingly, The Stations are as popular today as ever, perhaps because they represent the universal understanding of the presence of pain we all experience in life. We all endure suffering, dying daily to things in life in order to be brought to a resurrection of living life more fully and more abundantly.

The Stations of the Cross are called the Via Dolorosa, or the Way of Grief, which is quite paradoxical because in my healing they hold a universal story as the Way of Life. In Jesus’ journey, he suffered injustice, betrayal, had his faith challenged, felt alone, afraid. However, time and again he met someone to help him carry his burden, affirm his faith, wash his wounds, remind him he wasn’t alone, wipe away his tears, and give him the strength to take another step. Do we not experience the same things in our own lives? So how do we do the impossible? We walk this Way of Life together, whether we are the one suffering or the one offering care and the breath of life.

Every difficulty in life calls me to look again with new eyes, to stretch my soul beyond what I can imagine. Doing the impossible means awakening once again to the power of God acting through me and acting through you. In doing so, we cultivate a journey filled with compassion, kindness, help, conviction, trust, and faith. It’s a journey that stretches beyond what I know, but ultimately brings me to my place of wholeness, my resurrection, my new life.