When I was 16, my father died unexpectedly of a heart attack. I was practicing the flute, playing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in our living room. My mother was making dinner. While cleaning out the garage, my father collapsed in the driveway. Nobody knew it.
It was on that day I realized that people died, everyday, unexpectedly.
Although I knew this happened to others, I never thought it would happen to me. Call it a turning point in life. A coming of age realization. I suddenly had an awareness of my own mortality, a revelation that we are not guaranteed any number of days, no matter how much we think we deserve it.
This awareness of death hasn’t been a morbid thing. It’s a guiding principle, a litmus test that occasionally reminds me of the gift of life, of what’s important and what’s not, and how in the end, our lives are never long enough.
Sometimes it’s the little things that teach me this lesson, like during a recent screening test at the hospital. As I was completing registration paperwork at the check-in desk, an announcer came over the intercom saying,
“Code blue, hospital floor, room…”
Code blue indicates a patient who needs immediate medical attention, usually from cardiac or respiratory arrest.
The two ladies at the registration desk typed on their computers. Their faces were placid. They didn’t seem to notice the announcement or this was how they were instructed to react.
“Code blue,” the announcer repeated.
As I stood there waiting on my paperwork, I scanned their faces for some flicker of recognition. This was serious stuff, but no expression registered on their faces. Their faces were set like stone. Their fingers pounded the keyboard.
Someone might be dying that very moment. Someone’s dad or mom. Grandma or grandpa. Son or daughter.
Maybe these ladies had learned to tune out the announcer’s hospital emergency codes because they heard it so often.
Maybe for them, the business of death was the business of life. Their awareness of the brevity of life had become complacency.
We all die sometime, they might be thinking.
For some people, this awareness is too heavy of a burden to carry daily. Like these hospital workers, they can’t live with this knowledge all the time, or even part of the time. They push it to the back of their mind and become numb. It’s all they can do to deal with real life.For others, this awareness is not a burden, but instead, offers a perspective that informs how they live and the choices they make.
In the Psalms, Moses says,
Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12).
If there’s something that grief does, it teaches us to number our days. It tells us that we do not have forever. We may not even have tomorrow. So do what’s important now, because it’s all you’ve got.
When we realize this, we begin to live differently. We hug more, we say what we feel in the moment, while we still have the chance.
Code blue, in a sense, is for all of us. Some of us have more time, some less, but our days are numbered either way. We will never know when it’s our turn.
Moses’ plea to see our limited time on earth was also a plea for perspective—to spend our days carefully, knowing we don’t live forever.
But this awareness shouldn’t paralyze us from living. If we are working so hard to become aware of our numbered days, if we are trying to record every event, then we are not truly living.
In the movie Autumn Hearts, Susan Sarandon is a concentration camp survivor whose ordeal prompts her to record human atrocities around the world. As she struggles to heal from her past wounds, her obsession over her past and the things she records become divisive, a stumbling block that keeps her from enjoying her present.
Another character, realizing her inability to live in the present, remarks, “I shouldn’t have told you to remember. I should have told you to live.”
In other words, we shouldn’t get so caught up in remembering the brevity of life that we cannot enjoy life. It’s a balance, and like everything else, that scale must balanced between not getting caught up in one or the other.
If we can enjoy life, be fully present in the moment, and yet remember the brevity of our days without fear, then we will have discovered a valuable insight that most people never realize until it is too late.
This awareness is the gift of enjoying life while maintaining an eternal perspective.
The mindset shifts the weight of those things the world calls success—the awards, the accomplishments, the stuff we envy, showing us how it no longer measures up. The scale tips towards the eternal, the weight of what truly matters—showing us that loving God and loving people are never wasted moments.
Although this awareness doesn’t extend our lives, it allows us to prioritize our days with greater wisdom, so that we don’t become one of those people dying with regrets of how we lived.
In the end, this awareness saves us from ourselves and allows us to live with more joy. When our time comes, we will not have missed what matters.
Code blue might be the final word on this life, but as Christ followers, it is never the final call.