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Expiration date

The time we leave this life is stamped from birth

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I haven’t seen the Barbie movie, but the major plot­line seems clear from the trailer. The key scene occurs during an endless Barbieland party, when the title ­character asks, “Do you guys ever think about dying?” (Talk about a party-killer!)

My hand goes up. Me! Me! I’ve thought about it because I came close to it once, though totally unaware at the time.

In the middle of seventh grade, I caught a virus. Maybe flu, or a really bad cold. Whatever it was, my chest pains and semi-delirious state led my parents to take me to the doctor. Too sick to sit up, I lay across the back seat with my head in my mother’s lap. The doctor must have rearranged appointments to see us quickly, and just as quickly told my parents to take me to Baylor Hospital while he made some calls.

At Baylor I revived enough to notice how much blood they were taking from my arm. But when transferred to Dallas Children’s Medical Center the next day I only remember slumping in a wheelchair, barely breathing, while they checked me in to a ward. A chatty nurse shoved my head in an oxygen hood—a steamy plastic box—and my bottom under a bedpan. Later I was moved to a private room and draped in an oxygen tent while a team of doctors (including one of the city’s top pediatricians) looked me over.

The diagnosis was myocarditis, a rare inflammation of the middle layer of the heart wall. The doctors conferred with each other and with my mother, who was there alone while Daddy stayed home with my two ­sisters. The sun was setting when they finally left.

Months later, while I was taking a year off school to recuperate, my mother told me about that night. The last thing the prominent pediatrician said to her before leaving was to ask if I had been baptized. The answer was yes, but she didn’t see the relevance. Only later, sitting in that dark room with the steady hiss of oxygen and soft footfalls passing in the hall, it struck her: “He was asking me if you were ready to die.”

Whether I was or wasn’t, I didn’t. In the morning, she said, the doctors on my case were amazed to find me still alive.

The story hit me like a sandbag. Me: so close to ­fading away like someone else’s dream. Yet still alive. I’ll admit, it made me feel special at the time. I must be here for a purpose!

But then, we are all here for a purpose, until we aren’t. Those grim headstones in old Puritan graveyards stand as a warning to anyone taking the time to ponder: As I am now, so you will be. From the moment of birth, life is in us so strong it’s hard to imagine an expiration date, but that, too, is stamped from birth. “Teach us to number our days,” wrote Moses, as he drew near his own end. You guys ever think about dying?

The Thessalonians were probably thinking about it when Paul advised them not to grieve as unbelievers do. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). To “fall asleep” may be a comforting euphemism, on the order of “called home.” But I am struck by the comparison: Jesus died so that we might fall asleep. He descended to depths unknown and experienced wrath unimaginable to draw the sting of death from us.

I think of my mother through that long and terrible night, pleading for my life while bearing alone the dread of my death. Imagine that pain, multiplied by thousands, as Christ entered a darker night and hit the wall harder than any mere man could—before breaking through. When that once-postponed day finally comes for me, whether hard or peaceful, calm or violent, so will I.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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