I was in my early 40s when a doctor promised me that he knew how I was going to die.
The doctor was a graying 50-something flight surgeon at Patrick Air Force Base, where he was giving me a routine physical for a deployment to Saudi Arabia.
During my 15-minute office visit, he’d hammered on my boney knees, peered into my scared brown eyes and shown his flashlight into the airfoils I call ears. He’d put a depressor in my upper orifice and a gloved finger in its southern cousin.
Just I was refastening the shiny belt buckle of my uniform, there was a knock on the office door.
“Enter,” barked the doctor.
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 as he put on the eyeglasses dangling from his neck.
For a few moments he flipped through pages of blood tests, pee tests and vision tests, all the while nodding, spouting numbers and mumbling approving words like “good” or “OK.”
When he closed the file with a smile, I ventured a question.
“So, am I good to go to Saudi?” I masked my disappointment at missing year-end holidays.
“Yes, but…” he said. He went on to explain the “but” as a recent increase in my blood pressure. He was placing me on a lifetime of blood pressure meds.
When my face flushed with obvious concern, he attempted 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 write ‘hypertension’ on your death certificate.”
I removed my eyeglasses, hoping to dismiss the grim reaper I saw wearing a lab coat. I rubbed my eyes, feeling as confused as the woman in the blonde joke who stays up all night studying for an early morning blood test – and still flunks.
Not to be deterred by my shaking head, the doctor assured me that any thoughts I was having of an early demise were “greatly exaggerated.” With some enthusiasm, he even added that since my problem was “service-related,” I’d likely enjoy a veteran’s pension and that my wife would get a death benefit – all because of my hypertension.
Bless his heart; he was trying to anticipate 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 my beachside home and retire as an officer.
My thinking was much like the greedy farmer Jesus mentioned in a parable. The farmer was so successful that he built new barns to store his abundantly large crop. With his retirement set, the farmer told himself, “Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”
The story concludes with God 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.”
Now 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 life is finite, God’s love is infinite and God always gives better odds.
Fortunately, I can report two final things. First, my recent weight loss from running has lowered my blood pressure. But most important, my wife no longer sees me as the potential dollar signs of a VA pension.