I met Chris Childers 12 years ago near the batting cages at Vine-Ingle Little League. At the time, Chris and his family owned Macon Christian Bookstore on Bethelea Avenue off Eisenhower Parkway.
He gave me a book he wanted me to read, Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life.” It had just been published and would go on to become the best-selling nonfiction title in history and the second-most translated book in the world, next to the Bible.
Somewhere at the top of page 37, I found these words: “One day, your heart will stop beating. That will be the end of your body and your time on earth. But it will not be the end of you.”
Little did I know one day Chris would ask me to write the obituary for his oldest son. Three years ago, their voices choked with emotion, Chris and his wife, Ashley, made another request. They wanted Austin to tell me the story of his life.
It was an honor and a great privilege to spend that special time with Austin, one of the most courageous young men I have ever known. Even though I wrote many stories about him and his long battle with mitochondrial disease, this was his chance to look in the mirror and thank people for being part of his life.
He was 20 when we sat down for the first interview, the video camera rolling. Blowing out 21 candles on his birthday cake was on his bucket list. I cannot imagine anyone ever having to wish for that.
Each time I met with Austin, I left wondering if it would be the last time I shook his hand or hugged his neck. There must have been a revolving door at The Children’s Hospital at The Medical Center of Central Georgia, where his head spent more nights on those pillows than in his own bed. The red bench outside was dedicated in his honor. He went to Pine Pointe Hospice last spring, then came home in the fall. He returned to hospice care two weeks ago.
He died there last Wednesday night, less than a quarter mile through the woods from First Presbyterian Day School and the football field named in his honor last August. His family and friends will gather at the field Friday for visitation from 4 to 7 p.m. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at Ingleside Baptist Church.
Austin and I would retreat to his “man cave” in the basement of his home. Other times, we would talk in the stillness of the living room. He would sink into a big, comfortable chair, the afternoon shadows dancing on the floor behind him.
Tubes dangled from his arm, and he would sometimes stop to wipe tears with the sleeves of his shirt. He was in constant pain, but I never heard him complain. He always had a cheerful disposition and huge smile planted on his face.
As we walked through the chapters of his life, he told me about when his mother was pregnant with him. Every ultrasound test showed he was a girl. Ashley’s friends gave her baby showers, and she opened gifts with pink and lace. She and Chris had a girl’s name picked out -- Kristen Ashley Childers.
So Monday, Oct. 8, 1990, arrived with sticker shock. At least they didn’t have to scramble for his middle name, Christopher. “Austin” was not for the capital of Texas but was the first name of the author of one of the baby “name” books they had read.
In our interviews, Austin shared stories about close friends, baseball cards and peanut butter and apple jelly sandwiches. He talked about his younger brother, Garrett, and their close relationship. He told me about how Chris had coached him in Little League, and Ashley had coached him in voice lessons. He once had a solo in a school play.
When he was young, his father would sometimes take him to the bookstore on Sunday afternoons and let him put labels on the books. He never got an allowance. He had to earn it.
He got sick in the seventh grade and had to quit playing football. He still attended every game he could and went to every practice. He was voted a captain his senior year. No. 31 never made a tackle or scored a touchdown, but FPD’s field of dreams now bears his name.
Austin’s face would light up whenever our conversation turned to the great outdoors. Hunting and fishing were his passions. He made three trips to Africa on big game hunts. So many animal heads and antlers hung on the walls of the Childers’ home, every visitor who came through the front door would think they were on safari.
But the experience was much more than the thrill of the hunt. Even those times when they returned empty-handed, when they literally got skunked, were among the best days because of the time they spent together.
Austin left a long exclamation point at the end of short sentence. The Childers family has been a testament to the strength they drew from Austin’s sweet spirit and sunny-side-up attitude. His story inspired people he never knew. Just like the words from the book Chris gave me years ago, it might be the end of his time on earth, but not the end of him.
Even as he was dying, Austin taught us how to live.