Deacon Edward Stroesser proclaimed the Gospel reading from John 11 with confidence and conviction.
He injected familiarity into the story of family and friends grieving for a man who had died too young.
His eyes lit up when he recounted Martha’s profession before Jesus that her dead brother would rise again.
His voice thundered through the church as he echoed Jesus’s command to His entombed friend: “Lazarus! Come out!”
Deacon Stroesser knew what he was reading.
He had felt the warmth and seen the light and witnessed his loved ones’ tears.
He put the experience down on paper so his wife, Valda, and everyone else who had been praying for him could understand.
Deacon Stroesser tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 26, 2021.
“My quarantine was as normal as any other COVID-19 quarantine, I suppose,” he wrote. “I had been instructed by health pros to treat symptoms with over-the-counter products and was told that, if I had trouble breathing, I should go to the Emergency Room.”
Shortly after midnight on Feb. 4, he awoke with a coughing fit.
Mrs. Stroesser tested his blood oxygen level and insisted that he go to the hospital.
“I was definitely having trouble breathing,” he recalled.
Emergency Room personnel stabilized his breathing. The hospitalist sent him from the Emergency Room to the COVID step-down ward, noting that some patients there move to the Intensive Care Unit, and not all of them survive.
“With that brutally honest prognosis, I was taken to the COVID step-down unit,” Deacon Stroesser recalled. “Valda could not accompany me because visiting hours were over. She went home and prepared to return later in the day.”
The nurses prepared him for bed and turned down the lights.
“I drifted to sleep and began my Journey on the Plane of Death ... and Life!” he wrote.
In a dream, he awoke, lying on a smooth, dark, hard yet comfortable surface.
“The surface was wet but the water was a perfect temperature for me,” he recalled. “I couldn’t see anything around me; it was total darkness. But it was not scary at all. I heard the sound of dripping water in the distance, like you might hear in a cave.”
Every once in a while came a gentle nudge of water beneath him, “moving me slowly, very slowly across the plane,” he wrote. “It was comfortable, serene.”
He doesn’t know how long it lasted. Time was irrelevant to him.
“It was perhaps the most peaceful I’d been in a long time,” he stated.
The gentle nudges across the water and the plane continued.
“Still a very comfortable feeling,” he recalled. “Who knows how long this went on.”
In the dream, he was taken from the COVID unit to ICU and put on a ventilator.
“Then, I felt myself leaving the ICU and back on the dark surface, being eased across the plane,” he wrote.
At some point, Deacon Stroesser glanced up and saw three figures in the distance.
“They were bright and warm, facing my direction,” he recalled. “I thought I recognized them.”
As they became clearer, he identified his mother on one side and his wife’s mother on the other, both holding the hand of a girl who looked about 10.
“Mom and Mabel died years ago,” the deacon noted.
He figured that his father and father-in-law, both deceased, would also be nearby.
“And that young girl, I thought, could have been a baby that we lost years ago,” he wrote. “We lost her before she was born, but we had planned to name her Genna Mae,” in honor of the two women he now saw standing next to the girl.
Over the waves
Deacon Stroesser welcomed more easing, drifting, moving.
It eventually carried him to a funeral.
“Still, it was so comfortable, so pleasant, so calm, until I realized that the funeral was my funeral,” he stated.
He looked out and saw his wife, daughter, son, son-in-law and grandsons seated in the front pew.
“Their grief stabbed me,” he wrote. “I felt horrible because here I was still easing ... drifting ... moving across the plane, and it was just not right. I felt like I was taking the easy way out. How could I let myself go when my family needed me?”
He became acutely aware of others in the church, full of sadness.
“I thought, ‘These people have been praying for me. That’s why they’re so sad,’” he wrote. “I thought that if somebody there was thinking, ‘I told myself that I’d pray one more time, for Ed, and now I wonder about the power of prayer,’ I could not let that person lose his faith without some effort on my part. I knew I had to fight for my life.”
Immediately, Deacon Stroesser felt himself back on the plane — easing, drifting, moving.
“But I realized the water was flowing in the opposite direction and it was taking me back across the plane, back to where I’d come from,” he stated. “It was so comfortable, so warm, so gentle, so good. I was going back.”
A large wave suddenly lifted him above the plane and carried him a great distance.
“And then another wave. And then another. And another,” he recounted. “The waves carried me back. I realized later those waves were the prayers, best wishes, good intentions and sacrifices that all those people were offering. It was so comforting and affirming!”
He soon realized that he was in the hospital’s COVID step-down unit.
“I heard nurses around me, caring for me, helping me breathe,” he wrote. “It was exciting but kind of sad, because I was leaving the plane of peace and comfort and going back to the COVID floor to work.”
And work he did, fighting for recovery in tandem with the doctors and hospital staff.
Nine days later, he was on his way back home.
“If the prayers for me during my illness were not enough, you should have felt the immediate rush of thanksgiving to God for health restored by tens, hundreds, thousands of faithful pray-ers around our city, state, country and world,” the deacon wrote. “It made the hard work that I still needed to do to return to good health all the more worth it. To see faith, hope, and love exploding across the globe is humbling and beautiful. Thanks be to God!”
“We have God!”
Deacon Stroesser drew three conclusions from his journey through COVID: “God is good!” “Heaven is real, and it’s awesome!” and “Prayer works!”
He urged everyone to keep those waves of prayer coming for people who need them, no matter how difficult or hopeless a situation might seem.
“My prayer throughout this experience was simple: ‘Jesus, I trust in You!’ — again and again,” he wrote. “That’s a good idea: keep praying for people, but keep it simple.”
He thanked God for allowing him to be part of a parish, a community of believers, so eager to pray for him and for others who need it.
“That is the beauty of a parish, coming together for a common cause and seeing it through to the end,” he wrote. “Taking care of spiritual, temporal, and human needs, whatever is necessary. We have what we need, you know, because we have God!”
“I encourage you to keep your faith life absolutely glowing-hot with personal prayer, sacrifice and frequent participation in our beautiful Catholic sacraments,” he stated.
“Then, you will be ready, more energized, more able to help others in your parish.”