"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Ed Spaans, RIP+ By what measure a man?

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May 20 edit: Ed’s obit is now up on the funeral home website with a simply smashing photo of him (below).

I was just collecting together some things of iconic significance to Ed’s place as a commissioner – the things that marked his vocation here, and also marked who he was in our small community. It got me thinking about the question of what it is that defines our personhood, what measure reflects the man? (this is a question of ontology, the fundamental nature of being, but that’s my only word intended to impress). Please excuse the rambling.  (the photo I boldly borrowed from Ed’s obiturary – too good a photo to pass up).

Flying Officer Vivian Rosewarne died during the Battle of Dunkirk in May 1940 at age 23 when his bomber was shot down. In his last letter to his mother, he included this line, “The universe is so vast and so ageless that the life of one man can only be justified by the measure of his sacrifice.” It is an interesting suggestion, but one that is only really at home in a time of war, and we’re not at war. What is left for us now is service and relationship – but more on that in a minute.

At a military funeral, it is usually clear what the person did while in service. The casket or table will have objects that represented their occupation. For pilots, there would usually be a photo, their helmet and mask, and an officer’s sword and headdress. The individual’s medals would be placed nearby. While those things always reminded me of the person who had died, they failed to transmit the true nature of the person they represented.

As I looked through the physical things, it struck me how they carry little sense of the person. Even Ed’s hearing binder, the one he carried with him for most of the recent 639 hearings he sat on over his nine years here, did not contain even a hint of the essence of who he was.

This has reminded me of a few fundamental truths.

The singer Florence Welch captured an aspect of dying in her song, “My Boy Builds Coffins”:

My boy builds coffins for the rich and the poor
Kings and queens have all knocked on his door
Beggars and liars, gypsies and thieves

The truth of death is that it remains the great leveler, and sacrifice or service aside, when we reach the moment of our death, we share a moment of great equality with all humanity. Even Jesus died, and so too shall we.

This is not fair.  As my friendly neighbourhood priest pointed out at a recent funeral for a dear member of my parish, it is also not God’s plan for us.  Death is God’s enemy, and it too will be defeated for all of us.  While it sucks to be living the loss of Ed, I do know with sure confidence that this is not the end of the story.

On my desk I have two photos of my (at the time) young daughter, one with some face painting I had done, one with me in uniform after a parade in front of “my” airplane (the one with my name painted on the side). Those photos are pleasant to look at, but the real memories, the dear ones, are the ones I still hold within me. I remember her running to me after the parade had been dismissed, and jumping up into my arms. I remember that day’s street fair and the process of applying the face paint. The photos, in the end, are only signs along the road that point to the destination, which are the memories within. Without those photos, indeed even if I lost my sight, the memories are still there, still vivid, still a part of me.

In that is an aspect of that ‘measure of a man’ question, and what it is that defines us ultimately are the parts of our being that others reflect back to us. My daughter (now 13 years older) reflects back to me who I was that day on parade. Our measure is contained not in the physical, but in the things we have written on other’s hearts, and they in turn have written on ours.

RS Thomas, Welsh poet, captured this beautifully in his poem, “The Country Clergy”:

…They left no books,
memorial to their lonely thought
in grey parishes; rather they wrote
on men’s hearts and in the minds
of young children sublime words
too soon forgotten. God in his time
or out of time will correct this.

That is perhaps where our measure is maintained, in the sublime words our life and our love has written on the hearts and minds of those we touch.

Against a life of service, like that of Ed’s: 38 years in uniform with the RCMP, 9 years in the uniform of a commissioner, what does that mean?

My father-in-law went missing on his farm one day in August 2005. The local RCMP came to co-ordinate the search. During the search, an adult male black bear charged from the woods. It was an RCMP constable that stood in the breach and killed the bear with his sidearm. That young constable stood in the place that Ed had stood many times in his life of service. That act engaged us in his life, even though we have not spoken since that day.

Those who serve, and particularly our police, are those citizens who step forward with a willingness to take on things on behalf of the rest of us that we have no desire to do. As Colonel Dave Grossman says, they are the ones who chose to run toward the sound of gunfire instead of fleeing. A life of service in uniform means tens of thousands of lives touched in ways that only God, in His own time, will make clear:

• The first on the scene of a traffic accident, bringing comfort to the dying and wounded.
• The first on the scene of a death notification, bringing a gentle word while delivering a message of horror.
• The one who stands between the threat and those threatened.
• The one who willingly hides who he is, in order to detect and stop crime that only desires chaos.
• The one who repeatedly chooses duty to the nation, over duty to self.
• All those in uniform who were led and mentored so they too in their turn could write their own words on the hearts and minds of those they touched.

What about 9 years and 639 hearings as an appeals commissioner, hearing workers’ compensation matters? The Appeals Commission seeks truth and justice, such a good fit for a man who made those things his life’s work. And so those words written extend to include those 639 hearings, those who participated, and all those who shared that task with Ed. It is truly awe-inspiring to think of all those who have been caught in that net, Ed’s net, throughout those 47 years, including me:

• The words written on my heart and mind include the importance of good practical jokes as a tool of leadership and community-building (I remember particularly the year that the surveillance cameras were going to be mounted in the washrooms).
• The importance of relationship, and how Ed was always the one who would show up with cake or ice cream to brighten up an informal gathering (the ice cream scoop still sits in his office).
• The always present source of support and guidance for anything that might be going on: computer problems, electronic flight check-in, innovative ways of doing old tasks, all reminding me of the importance of time with others meeting them where they need to be met.
• Just being a real person in community with others.

So, in the end, what is the measure of a man, but the weight of himself that he leaves with all those who knew and loved him. Ed’s own memories, that early morning traffic accident he responded to, remain with him. Our memories of Ed, those words he wrote on our hearts and minds, remain with us. In some ways we each maintain that part of Ed.

More importantly for me is the question of how my life is changed by those written words. How does Ed’s life call out to me to grow as a person? How am I now to act with others at work, at home, in my faith community, to continue to reflect the measure of that man, Ed? That is my task as I seek new life on the other side of grief.

Now comes the really hard part:

That question of the measure of a man gets thrown into sharper relief when you consider those last few days of a life well-lived. What means that measure when you lay in a hospital bed? What means the decades of service, and words written on other’s hearts?

For my friend Ed, like with the military friends I have seen buried, those last days turn not on the trappings of office (even while these are dear items to we who remain behind):

– a sword,
– headdress,
– a scarlet tunic,
– medals,
– or those riding boots reversed in the stirrups of a too-empty saddle

Rather they turn on a life well-lived, a life full of memories and experiences, love and passion, anger and grief, birth, joy and death, but a life that is only dimly captured in the snapshots and physical things that we surround ourselves with.

The measure of that man stands in those around him as he lies in a hospital bed, on the border between life and death.

The measure of that man rests in his four children, his spouse, and all those who stand in silent vigil with them, row upon row, marking Ed’s place.

The measure of that man remains in all of us who love him, and were in turn loved.

In the end, all that remains, is love.

Give rest, O Christ, to your servants with your saints,
Where sorrow and pain are no more,
Neither sighing, but life everlasting.
Into your hands, O merciful Saviour,
We commend your servant Ed.
Acknowledge, we pray, a sheep of your own fold,
A lamb of your own flock,
A sinner of your own redeeming.
Receive him into the arms of your mercy,
Into the blessed rest of everlasting peace,
And into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

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Written by sameo416

May 18, 2012 at 3:21 pm

One Response

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  1. […] I had written previously about the untimely death of my co-worker, Ed Spaans. […]


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