February 22, 2013, began as an ordinary day for Kathy Izard and her husband Charlie. But within 24 hours, they would begin a new chapter of their lives, one in which Charlie’s diagnosis with a rare medical condition that could literally kill him at any moment became a source of constant panic and worry. So how did Kathy eventually move from living in fear to living in faith? She shares that story in her memoir “The Last Ordinary Hour,” and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below).
While visiting their daughter in Massachusetts, Charlie went to work out in the hotel gym, while Kathy remained in their room. A short time later, Charlie returned complaining of arm and chest pain. He had recently been given a clean bill of health by his cardiologist, so they thought the problem might just be stress or exhaustion.
Charlie lay on the bed to take a nap, but soon after Kathy noticed his arms had turned white, as if there was no blood running through them. She quickly got him to an urgent care center. After examining him, doctors determined he needed to get to a hospital stat and had an ambulance transport him there. Charlie was rushed into emergency surgery, with Kathy still knowing little of what his problem actually was, other than a heart attack of some kind.
When doctors finally explained it, the news was shocking. Kathy recalled, “We found out that…it wasn’t heart disease that caused that heart attack that day. It was a rare disease, one that we didn’t know existed. It’s called Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD), and it caused the artery in his heart to collapse for no known reason…We found out…it actually can happen in any artery in your body. It can split and dissect at any time. So your carotid artery, your femoral artery. It can cause strokes, brain bleeds. It’s a very perilous disease to live with. And I think, at the time that he was diagnosed, he was one of only 10 known male survivors in the world…So we, all of a sudden…[are] living with that, and finding out that this rare disease has no cure, no protocol, no diet, nothing that will fix it. Our life went from relatively ordinary to radical uncertainty on how we were going to live with this disease, with the fear that it could happen again at any moment.”
When a person of faith enters a time of great darkness, it’s not uncommon to think, “This is not supposed to happen to me. God is supposed to protect my family from this because I’m a good person.” As a Christian who worked to help the homeless and mentally ill in Charlotte, North Carolina (and which she wrote about in her Christopher Award-winning memoir “The Hundred Story Home”), that was certainly the case with Kathy.
She said, “I realized in that moment, I had a very light faith. I had come from a place of maybe little faith. And then working with the homeless…I thought I’d found my way home to a real belief in God. But what I realized is, I kind of believed in the Sunshine God, the God of the miracles who were showing up for the homeless and building our homes. And really, I didn’t have a faith in the God that was going to be with me in the dark, and was present alongside me…I talk about how medical emergencies cause spiritual emergencies. ..That is what this book is about. It’s the second half of my faith journey, of realizing even in terrible times, that is when we need God most.”
One of the sources from which Kathy’s beliefs about God started evolving came through the writings of Father Richard Rohr. He helped her realize that tragedies occur in every life. They may not be as shocking as Charlie’s diagnosis, but they do still happen.
Kathy explained, “There is the before and the after in all of our lives. We spend all of this time making a life plan and setting up what we think is our perfect, idyllic life. And then something happens that shatters all that. When we’re putting our lives back together, growing deeper in our faith, allowing people to help us, and realizing we’re not alone – that we’re in this together and we’re here with God and grace – that is a much deeper way of living. And it points to a lot more of the important things in life.”
In “The Last Ordinary Hour,” Kathy discovers that walking in a labyrinth can be a metaphor for getting us through challenging times. In fact, she structured the book into the aspects of a labyrinth spelled out by Rev. Lauren Artress: Shattering, Releasing, Receiving, and Returning.
Though a labyrinth can look like a maze, this ancient spiritual tool is something completely different. Kathy explains, “There is a path, very intentionally, that winds its way around the circle into the center, usually a rosette in the center, and then you would wind your way back out. The idea is that as you are entering a labyrinth, you do it in a meditative way, you release something…old ideas, things that you thought you believed or know – or you set the intention for something along the walk that you want to think about. As you follow this path, it can be very disconcerting because you think, ‘That’s not going to lead me to the center. I can see the shortcut there, why am I taking this circuitous route?’ That is a metaphor for life, right? We see where we want to go and we can’t get there. We have to just trust the path in front of us.
“[Rev. Artress’s] work,” continued Kathy, “talks about once you trust that path and wind your way to the center in a very prayerful and meditative way. Some people pray at the center of a labyrinth. And you receive information, you receive maybe some insight that you didn’t have before. As you wind your way back out, you return to the world with this new knowledge to live your life in a different way.”
Kathy found an actual labyrinth to walk in and realized that she needed to release her vision of the life she thought she and Charlie would have. Instead, she needed to trust this new path she was on, with God at her side. She added, “As you walk a labyrinth, you spiral. And I think that is the metaphor for life, too. It is not a straight line. We are always spiraling. We are making turns. Sometimes we can’t see the twist or what’s happening at the other end of the curve, but we’re also doing an inward spiral in our faith towards God to live deeper.”
Growing in faith should also involve growing in humility, and for Kathy, that meant accepting acts of kindness from others. She notes, “I’ve always helped other people, but I’ve really not wanted to let people help me. I wanted to be the giver. So to receive the cards, the notes, the dinners, the flowers that were dropped off, the texts of encouragement, all of that, you realize you’re not alone.”
In addition, Kathy woke up every morning wondering if today was the day she would become a widow. Other times, she was unable to sleep at all because she would watch Charlie’s chest moving up and down all night to make sure he was still breathing. These are not issues an ordinary person can help you through, so Kathy found a therapist whose specialty was “dealing with death, grief, and uncertainty.” And it made a great difference.
That doesn’t mean everything was smooth sailing from then on. One day, Charlie was in the hospital again and this time flatlined before doctors brought him back to life. Because of the situation, the hospital sent a priest to the room to be a source of spiritual comfort for Kathy. His presence, however, brought out Kathy’s rage at God – and she railed and ranted at him for some time.
Kathy recalls, “That priest did one of the most holy things you can do. He was just present. He was just with me…He didn’t even understand where my anger was coming from. But I think sometimes, that’s the most holy work, just to be with each other…Be with someone in their hard times. And I do believe that’s what happens with God too. I might’ve been angry with Him, but I don’t think I was ever alone. And I don’t think He ever left us…[Charlie] miraculously survived in 2013. And we’ve had certain ups and downs, but oh my gosh, the things he’s been allowed to be here for: the graduation of all four of our daughters, a wedding of another daughter. We’ve had so much time together. I say a prayer every night and every morning, ‘Thank You for this day. Thank You he’s still here. Thanks for all the extra time we’ve been given.'”
Regarding her hopes for people who read “The Last Ordinary Hour,” Kathy concludes, “I hope it doesn’t take a heart attack in your life to make you feel that wonder for everyday. I wrote at the end, ‘May we all rediscover the wonder in our lives, recognize the holy in every day, and remember always, there’s no such thing as an ordinary hour.’ I hope in reading my story, it helps people with theirs, whatever you are going through – an unfair diagnosis, an unexpected death or disaster, this weird pandemic world that we’ve lived in. I hope it gives everyone a sense of how truly lucky we are to be here and breathing and with each other. So spend your time doing things you love with people you love, and being grateful for this time that we have.”
(To listen to my full interview with Kathy Izard, click the podcast link):
And here is my 2017 interview with Kathy Izard about her Christopher Award-winning memoir “The Hundred Story Home”:
Kathy Izard has made it her mission in life to provide housing for the chronically homeless in her adopted home of Charlotte, North Carolina. You could even say that she’s doing God’s work. It’s ironic since she spent much of her life doubting God’s existence since He never seemed to answer her prayers.
When Izard was growing up, those prayers primarily dealt with her mother Lindsay’s mental illness, which manifested itself in 1969, an era when these things simply weren’t discussed openly.
During a “Christopher Closeup” interview about her Christopher Award-winning memoir “The Hundred Story Home: A Journey of Homelessness, Hope, and Healing,” Izard noted that her friend’s cancer-stricken father was inundated with food and offers of support during his illness because everyone knew about it. Her family, on the other hand, had no help.
“Mental illness,” she explained, “is a very different problem. Families don’t talk about it. [They] feel somehow guilty or ashamed that this has happened, so people don’t help or don’t know how to help. I wish that was different in 2017. I think there still is the stigma to it. It’s very lonely for the patient…and the families.”
It took 16 years for doctors to correctly diagnose and treat Lindsay so she could live a relatively normal life. But the experience soured Izard on the idea of a loving, compassionate, personal God, even though she came from a long line of Presbyterian ministers and missionaries and went to church every week as a child. In fact, the way that her father John won over her mom when they were dating was by reading her the passage about faith, hope, and love from 1 Corinthians 13.
Izard said, “My father certainly demonstrated over and over that ‘the greatest of these is love.’ He was tested so many times as they were trying to understand my mother’s illness and get the right medicines and help for her. He never wavered in his faith. He didn’t waver in his love for her. For better, for worse, in sickness and in health, he certainly followed those vows. Later in his life, he had cancer, and my mother was able to provide the same for him. She was an amazing source of constant support.”
Still, Izard never felt that connection with God because of what she saw as her prayers going unanswered. She didn’t have much use for church or religion until one memorable experience after she became a parent herself. She and her four daughters had been swimming in the YMCA when they passed a portrait and her eight-year-old asked, “Mommy, who’s that?”
Izard recalled, “It was a picture of Jesus. I was horrified! I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve taken this non-religion thing too far.’ I started going back to church. That led me to volunteering for the soup kitchen and working with the homeless…Service is definitely something that my family grew up with, and then that led me back to a faith that I didn’t know I’d lost.”
That service began at Charlotte’s Urban Ministry Center, an interfaith ministry dedicated to feeding the homeless. Four thousand members from approximately 100 different houses of faith volunteer there each month, providing meals, showers, a place to do laundry, and more 365 days a year. And the people they serve are called “neighbors” instead of “clients” to create a feeling of community.
Izard admitted that she was shocked at the number of homeless who came to the Center. “We were feeding 600 people for lunch on any given day…There were men, women, children. All different ages [and] ethnicities.”
For years, Izard continued volunteering and believed she was making a positive difference in the world. But then two men named Ron Hall and Denver Moore gave her a different perspective and changed the course of her life.
Moore had been homeless for nearly 30 years when he met and befriended Hall and his wife Debbie, who were wealthy. The Halls ended up welcoming Moore into their home and family, and wrote a best-selling book about their story, called “Same Kind of Different as Me.”
Izard invited the men to come speak at a benefit for the Center. When she was giving Moore a tour of the facility, fully expecting him to praise their work, he instead asked her, “Where are the beds?”
When she answered that they were only a soup kitchen and day center, he responded, “You mean to tell me you do all this good in the day, and you lock them out to the bad at night? Does that make any sense to you?”
“No,” said a humbled and uncomfortable Izard.
Moore then challenged her: “Are you going to do something about it?”
Izard said, “It changed me. I knew that we weren’t doing enough. I didn’t know how to change it, but I knew that I couldn’t go down there and just serve soup anymore and pretend that people weren’t locked out to the bad at night.”
Izard gave up her job as a graphic designer to take a full-time position with the Urban Ministry Center and start researching how to move forward. She came upon an idea called “Housing First.” At the time, the prevailing idea was that the homeless needed to become sober or get a job before earning the right to housing. The problem was that living under a bridge in 32 degree weather and wondering where your next meal is coming from didn’t allow them to focus on anything else.
“The ‘Housing First’ philosophy,” said Izard, “started [exploring] the opposite. What if we just housed people and then worked on what they needed, whether that was sobriety or education or mental health treatment or physical wellness? That’s the way our program started. It was a ‘Homeless to Homes’ pilot program where we took 13 people who’d been chronically homeless for years in Charlotte – some as many as two decades – and we found them apartments. We moved them into housing directly off the streets, put them with a case worker and tried to work on the issues that had made them homeless. What we found out is amazing things happen when you restore people’s hope and dignity and you give them that shot.”
Izard also discovered that this approach was more financially feasible than the alternative: “When people are on the streets, they overuse jails, ER rooms, hospital beds. We did a cost analysis and it turns out the average cost of leaving a person on the street was about $40,000 a year. The cost of housing them was $13,000 a year…There’s a great economic argument, as well as a moral argument, to ‘Housing First.’”
Izard worked hard to further implement those plans. Today, the Urban Ministry Center owns and operates a facility named after Denver Moore, which offers permanent supportive housing for over 120 chronically homeless men and women. They’ve moved over 450 people off the streets and hope to build more housing.
In addition, because of her mother’s struggles, Izard helped create a “residential mental health treatment center” called Hope Way, which is giving patients with mental health disorders and their families the guidance and care they need to build a brighter future.
In the end, Izard is living up to the ideals she was taught from a young age by her family: Do good, Love well. No doubt, the homeless (and formerly homeless) of Charlotte will continue to benefit.