If you knew what you were going to die from, would that change the way you live?
It’s a question I faced in the summer of 1999, when my Air Force doctor, a graying 50-something flight surgeon at Patrick Air Force Base, brought me in for my pre-deployment physical.
Talk about mixed emotions. If he pronounced me healthy, I’d go to Saudi Arabia for five months. If he declared me unhealthy, I might face a medical evaluation board and soon find myself unemployed.
During my 15 minute office visit, he hammered on my bony knees, peered into my frightened brown eyes and shined his flashlight into the airfoils I call ears. He’d put a tongue depressor in my upper orifice and a gloved finger in its southern cousin.
Just as I was refastening my uniform’s shiny belt buckle, his assistant knocked on the door.
“Enter,” the doctor barked.
A balding young airman appeared, handed the doctor a manila folder and was quickly dismissed with a perfunctory, “Thank you.”
“Ahh. Your test results,” he said.
The doc put on the eyeglasses dangling from his neck and flipped through pages of blood tests, urine tests and vision tests. All the while he was nodding, spouting numbers and mumbling approving words like “good” or “OK.”
He closed the file with a smile, and I ventured a guess.
“So, am I good to go to Saudi?”
“Yes, but there’s been a recent increase in your blood pressure, so I’m placing you on some medications.”
My face flushed with obvious concern, so he took a more optimistic tack.
“Look at it this way,” he said. “At least you know how you’re going to die.”
“Excuse me?,” I begged.
“Most likely a doctor will one day write ‘hypertension’ on your death certificate,” he declared.
I rubbed my eyes, in hopes of dismissing the grim reaper I saw draped in a white lab coat.
However, not to be dissuaded by my shaking head, Doc assured me that any thoughts I was having of an early demise were “greatly exaggerated.”
With some enthusiasm, he added that my problem would be defined as “service-related. That means that one day your wife, Becky, will get a nice death benefit, all because of your hypertension.”
“Bless your heart!,” I said. (Southerners know what this means.)
He was predicting a silver lining in my death, but I didn’t want to hear it. After all, I was planning to live a long life in a beach-side home with my officer’s retirement.
My thinking was much like the greedy farmer Jesus mentioned in the parable found in Luke 12:16-21.
The farmer was so successful that he built new barns to store his abundant crops. With his retirement set, the farmer told himself, “Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”
The story concludes with God prematurely calling the farmer to the Pearly Gates, leaving all his crops to spoil in the cavernous barns.
Then Jesus added his punch line: “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with self and not with God.”
These days, nearly every time I strap on a blood pressure cuff, I think about the survival odds quoted by that doctor. That cuff reminds me that although my earthly life is finite, God’s love is infinite, and God always gives better odds.
However, knowing how I might die has changed the way I live. I exercise regularly, eat better and take my medications. But, most importantly, Becky no longer has to see me as a potential dollar sign from a VA pension.
There are four slots remaining for Chaplain Norris Burkes’ humanitarian trip to Honduras in March. For more information, go to www.chispaproject.org/thechaplain or contact him at email@example.com, 10566 Combie Road, Suite 6643, Auburn, CA 95602 or voicemail 843-608-9715.