It wasn’t long before Bert’s friends trusted me. I would take them to the food bank to pick up groceries; I would offer encouragement or just a listening ear. I learned that homelessness in St. Albert had many faces, and many different expressions. One day I saw Bert and I stopped to say hi to him and some of his street friends. My little daughter Alexa really wanted to meet Bert, having a heart as big as the ocean and feeling completely ripped off that Nixon had got to meet him more than once. I asked Bert if I could bring the children after school for a visit and bring back some water for him and his friends, as it was a scorching day. He agreed. So I drove 20 minutes to the school, stopped by Macs for bottles of water and then drove 20 minutes back to Bert. The entire time Alexa was bursting with excitement. We pulled up and there was no Bert in sight. His friends were all there and they all proceeded to tell me different excuses and reasons why Bert had magically disappeared. One told me the police came to see him, another told me a friend needed his help with something and still another told me he had a doctor’s appointment. And I was left to tell a little heartbroken girl the truth – that he just didn’t want visitors today likely because he had been drinking and didn’t want the children to see him that way. And that was her first painful lesson in loving those who are themselves broken-hearted.
Months past and sometimes Bert would be at “the spot” to meet me so he could join me at my Kaleo event, and sometimes he wasn’t, and sometimes he was there but was too intoxicated to join me. I learned to manage whatever situation was before me and to always expect the unexpected. His birthday was October 27th and on the same day as Kaleo. I had asked the casino to make him a birthday cake for that night and I had gone and picked him up a birthday care package full of travel sized toiletries, new wool socks and a toque for the coming winter months, and some of my chocolate chip cookies he loved. I showed up to the meeting spot and Bert was not doing well. I hadn’t seen him in weeks and it was apparent he was at an all time low. He was more unkempt than usual and it was apparent that he has been drinking a lot more than usual. I didn’t think he could possibly come with me, and I didn’t expect he would want to. I was wrong. As I attempted to give him a ‘free pass’ on the evening, he earnestly begged me to let him come. “Please let me come Leanne. I want to come with you tonight. I don’t want to stay here; please take me. I promise I will be on my best behaviour.” Reluctantly, I agreed. It was our last night for Kaleo at the casino and the speaker was speaking about finding God in the midst of depression. We had our largest turn out of guests and Bert was serenaded by a room full of lovely people, singing him Happy Birthday and wishing him a year filled with blessings. He was used to being kicked out of establishments, given handouts and dirty looks a plenty, and hearing insults muttered underneath the breath of passersby, but it had been a long time since he had been celebrated. Since someone had a birthday cake prepared with his name on it, since someone had sung to him. And he was visibly moved.
When I had returned home that night, I happened to check my Facebook, and I saw a post on the Community of St. Albert’s Facebook pages that I had sent them earlier that day. It was just a picture of Bert and I, and I had written a message letting the community know it was his birthday and encouraging people who saw him to say Happy Birthday. They must have posted it when I was at Kaleo – and a few short hours later when I checked in, there was nearly 1,000 likes and over a hundred comments! And they were all so positive – people sharing stories about Bert, asking how they could help him, and wishing him a Happy Birthday. I couldn’t believe it!
The next day I went to stop by and see Bert. I had dropped him off by the pub the night before and many of his buddies were there. I thought I better go check up on him the next day to make sure he was ok. As I pulled up I saw Bert and a woman sitting on the bench. She had a huge bag with her and as I drove up she started pointing at me and I could tell she was excited but I had no clue why. I unrolled my window and heard her say in very thick French accent, “That is the girl! It is her from the picture!” She had seen the Facebook post and had sought Bert out. She brought him ski pants, winter boots and a big bag of clothing items. She had just moved here from Quebec and spoke very little English, but had found a fast friend in Bert, who, much to my dismay, speaks perfect French. He had told me that once, right after he told me he had been a Hall of Fame baseball player for the Chicago Cubs. Either way, I knew as I watched the two of them interact, he was a special man and he had provided something for this lonely lady that day, an easy friend. The same thing I would learn, he would provide to many others.
The months rolled on and I would see Bert occasionally; stopping in to check on him as I drove by his usual spots. He could usually be found in a small radius of the pub, which he was still banned from. He would move from one business to another. Eventually they would tell him he couldn’t come around, or that they had a restraining order against him and he wasn’t even allowed on the property. It always took longer than I expected, because he is so darn friendly. But I do suppose he is bad for business. It’s a double edged sword, with no easy answer. I have come to realize there are many layers to these types of situations. While I have never seen him beg, or ask anyone for a handout of any kind, nor have I ever seen him belligerent, I can imagine that paying customers at a coffee shop may be offended by his smell, his appearance, and maybe even his overly jovial personality or never ending stories. And business is business so they say; it’s not personal, until it is.
In November I started noticing that he was taking more trips to the emergency room than I had seen prior. It seemed he was constantly falling and hitting his head and thus being taken to the hospital by ambulance – only to be sobered up and put back on the streets a few hours later. The birthday presents I had bought him and the bag of clothing that had been given to him were but a distant memory. He had no clue where they were. His drinking seemed to be at an all-time high and his personal care at an all-time low.
I received a text message from a friend of mine who works at the hospital as a respiratory tech. She wanted to let me know that Bert was in the hospital again. She mentioned to him that she was a friend of mine, and he asked her to let me know he was in the hospital; I went right away. That trip to the hospital that day, forever changed our friendship. I went from being the girl who came by to check up on him whose name he was starting to remember, occasionally to the closest thing to family that he currently had.
His Name is Bert
To be continued…