A joyous reflection in the midst of loss

In 2018 I spent a week on a farm outside Fort Vermilion in northern Alberta, Canada, with the Simpson family. I enjoyed it so much that I returned in 2019 and was invited to stay for a week, which expanded to two months and felt like home.

John, the “father of the farm,” put me straight to work and I spent the rest of my time there trying his patience with my “city-slicker” stupidity when it came to farming. But, in the end, I helped them to bring in the harvest without breaking too much.

John, after a typically hard day out in the fields

Actually, I was always amazed at the confidence he had in my abilities. I don’t think I could have helped on the farm without his belief in me because to start with I didn’t know a tractor from a lawn mower, an auger from a hopper. But he would show me something once and then just expect me to be able to do it. And if I failed, he’d get frustrated, but then shake his head, smile and get one of his sons to try to teach me all over again.

On several evenings we harvested until the wee hours of the morning, when the wind was blowing just right to keep the dew off the crop. And the morning after, I would stagger out of bed in a semi-coma in search of coffee and would find John sitting at the dining room table having his breakfast, after having walked the yard already to check on the vehicles, grain bins and everything needed for the day ahead.

John, with two of his sons debating something harvest-related.

A few weeks into my visit, I developed a tooth abscess. John sent me to the nearest dentist and paid for everything. Generous to the core. Like the day he went to town, and we couldn’t understand why he was taking so long to get home. After all, there was a harvest waiting to be brought in, and we couldn’t start without him.

He’d apparently gone in to the store, bank, or wherever he was meant to be, got back into his vehicle to drive home and smelt something a little “off.” Turning around, he found a very smelly, inebriated man fast asleep on his back seat. After waking him, John learned that the man had no way of getting home – a fair way outside town, in the opposite direction to the farm. And so John drove him, but not before treating him to breakfast at the town’s only diner.

This was just one of many instances I saw John living out his Christianity, his faith. Sure, he could be a hard task master, but he was fair to a fault. A gentleman when gentle men are few and far between.

Two nights ago I received a call from Canada with the terrible news that John had passed away after a heart attack. I can only imagine the outpouring of grief right now, and I am sure that the whole community will miss him and mourn him. One of his sons described him as, “… a man of honour and integrity … always ready to help out, he spent countless hours volunteering within the Fort Vermilion area.”

As I thought about John, I was reminded of this poem I read several years ago, a poem which describes the life that he lived and for which he will be remembered.

The Dash
by Linda Ellis

I read of a man who stood to speak
At the funeral of a friend
He referred to the dates on the tombstone
From the beginning … to the end

He noted that first came the date of birth
And spoke the following date with tears, 
But he said what mattered most of all
Was the dash between those years

For that dash represents all the time
That they spent alive on earth.
And now only those who loved them
Know what that little line is worth

For it matters not, how much we own, 
The cars … the house … the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
And how we spend our dash.

So, think about this long and hard.
Are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left
That can still be rearranged.

If we could just slow down enough
To consider what’s true and real
And always try to understand
The way other people feel.

And be less quick to anger
And show appreciation more
And love the people in our lives
Like we’ve never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect
And more often wear a smile,
Remembering this special dash
Might only last a little while

So, when your eulogy is being read
With your life’s actions to rehash…
Would you be proud of the things they say
About how you spent YOUR dash?

A heart attack took John home to heaven at 4.30pm on June 22. But as we mourn, and those closest to him remember him for who he was, I think they can be proud of “how he spent HIS dash.”


  1. You told his story so well. He was a man with integrity. He will be sorely missed by all that knew him

  2. Sorry for your loss, Mark and family…your father will be miss by everyone who knew him.

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