“Tell us about a time when you came close to dying,”
the hospital commander asked our staff during my
deployment to Balad, Iraq, last year.
It was one of the icebreaker questions he regularly
posed at our weekly staff dinner. The question came
during a particularly poignant week in which many
of those in our dining tent had spent moments deep
in the cavities of dying men.
At first, there was an uncomfortable silence. Our
stories felt as though they’d be an unworthy
contrast with those we’d saved, but the commander
assured us he was looking for some lighter stories.
Some responded with stories about car accidents. A
few spoke of serious illnesses, and one told of
domestic violence. However, most of the stories
concerned what medical folks call risk-related
The phrase is usually rendered by lay people, as
When my turn came, the staff looked to me for a
more spiritual answer, but the truth is, I’m not much
different in the dim-witted department.
“When I was 13,” I began, “I found a discarded bullet
on my father’s disheveled workbench. Curious to
know if I might be able to separate the bullet from
its casing and obtain the gun powder to make a fire
cracker, I applied all the engineering finesse of a
13-year-old boy. I got a hammer.”
I’ve since learned that an apparatus exists to do this
job. Sure, now they tell me.
Timing my experiment with my father’s afternoon
nap, I placed the bullet on the sidewalk just outside
our garage door. Then, crouching from behind that
door, I reached around with my hammer in hand
and slammed the bullet several times.
The stucco-sided garage in our residential
neighborhood offered me no protection, but it
emboldened my stupidity. With each strike, I’d duck
back behind the garage door. Somehow, I operated
with the harebrained assumption that I could duck
quicker than a bullet could fly.
With one final blow, the bullet did what it was
designed to do. It exploded from the cartridge and
presumably landed safely somewhere.
“That was my first close call with death,” I
announced to the medical staff around our table.
“My second came a few moments later when my
father, who was raised around guns, bolted through
the garage door asking what had happened.”
As I stuttered my explanation, I recognized a look in
him that told me I might be closer to dying than I
realized. I expected him to pull off his belt the way
he’d done when I was a child.
But in adolescence, I faced something worse than
his belt: his disappointment. He was incredulous
with how close I’d come to killing someone. I’d truly
surprised him with my stupidity and disappointed
him in the worst way.
Later that day, when my mother returned with
groceries, my dad reported: “Let me tell you what
your son did today.”
My father’s disappointment that day taught me there
really are things seemingly worse than death, like
disappointing those who love you.
So, since that little incident, my prayer has always
been, “God, I know I have to die someday, just
please don’t let it be doing something stupid.”
The Christian Scripture adds that “it is appointed
unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.”
If that’s true, I can only pray that the judgment
pronouncement I hear following my death won’t be
my wife mumbling over my grave, “Idiot! What an
Burkes is a former civilian hospital chaplain and an
Air National Guard chaplain. Write
firstname.lastname@example.org or visit thechaplain.net.You
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