The next morning my phone rang at 8:05 am. It was Bert. He wanted me to know that he was alright. I could tell that 11 days of some sobriety had abruptly ended, but I was simply relieved to hear his voice. I must admit, I have opinions about his excessive drinking, but I was starting to have mixed emotions about it. Grey was creeping into an area that I had previously seen as black and white. I was starting to see the human side of alcoholism. It now had a face; a face I cared about. Drinking was something that eased pain and sorrow in Bert’s life; a constant companion. And the practical side of me thought that sleeping outside in a bush was likely better intoxicated. Either way, I was just happy to hear he was alright – whatever alright looked like that day.
When Bert was released from the hospital they told him it would take two to three months to get the surgery and that that was extremely quick, due to the urgent nature of his condition. The numbness had started to progress to the other arm, a sign that the compression on the spinal cord was worsening and the greater the likelihood of irreversible damage. Having no way to contact Bert, I became the point of contact for the doctor’s offices. Since Bert had got into the habit of calling me every day while he was in the hospital, he continued this upon his release. Each time a local phone number I didn’t recognize crossed my call display, I felt relieved. He would call from liquor stores, gas stations, or whichever fast food restaurant would let him borrow their phone that day.
At first Bert was pretty good at staying in touch with me, but after a while there were times I wouldn’t hear from him for days and days. This was nerve wracking. So I began to drive by the places I was learning he would seek cover at, usually a fast food restaurant. Often from the parking lot I could see his frame hunched over reading a newspaper, always right beside a window, and clad in his heavy grey work jacket with the reflective X tape that someone had given him along his travels. Sometimes I would go in and say hi, but sometimes just seeing him was enough – I didn’t want to scare him away. This was a man who had made many choices that had left him fending for himself and I didn’t want him to feel infringed upon. Backed into a corner of the life I thought he should be living, or leave him feeling like I had a set of expectations he couldn’t or wouldn’t live up to. They were not my choices, and there is dignity in being able to make one’s own choices; for better or worse. Instinctively I knew that if he didn’t phone me, it was because he didn’t want contact with me, so I tried to remember that and tried not to take it personally. His life was his own and I wanted to be respectful of that. At least those were the things I kept telling myself. The best laid plans…
One day, I decided to take a departure from my own logic and reason. My emotions got the better of me and it was a moment in time that I am not proud of. It had been days since I had heard from Bert, and frankly I was angry. I was hurt. I was all those things I knew I shouldn’t be, and sometimes when you react; it isn’t the best side of you. And Bert got that side of me. I had received a phone call from the hospital with the date of Bert’s surgery. It was to take place the next week! In fairness, this was much quicker than we had been told, and the fact that Bert had been MIA for days, shouldn’t have been a big deal. It was his misfortune that I now had ammunition in my gun – “How dare you not contact me for days when we are waiting for a call for your surgery” I hurled at him. No hello, no how are you? No care or concern for him whatsoever. Nothing about my words or demeanour was common for him. Never had he seen me angry or judgmental. It was disarming and he didn’t know what to do, so he lied. “I lost your number. I’m sorry”. I knew it was a lie. He had memorized my number weeks ago and had dialed it nearly a hundred times. I was mad and getting madder by the second as I realized that the truth was that he had been on a drinking binge and he was intentionally trying to hide it from me. The most maddening part was that I had seen him like this many times, and I had never treated him poorly because of it. Who he was, was not a secret to me, and this only served to make me more indignant. How dare he treat me like someone who was judging him – the one person in his corner? And then it hit me, like a slap in the face – I was the one person in his corner who was now judging him.
Part of the problem was that Bert was starting to care about what I thought of him. It had been awhile since someone had really cared about him and I’m sure it took some getting used to. I learned that part of this had to do with his accommodations. He was staying at a crack house. And he knew I would a) disapprove and b) fear for his safety. And he was right on both accounts. A friend of his had accidentally told me where he had been staying. Bert would stay a few nights there until he couldn’t take the drug use and all that comes along with that and then he would head back to the bush. Living around the drugs really bothered him, and he was adamant that he never touched the stuff. I believe this to be true. Both the fact that the parties there went 24-7, as well as his extreme uncomfortability with the drugs around him, were contributing factors to his binge drinking. But Bert was allowed to smoke in the house which was a massive plus in a situation that didn’t hold much upside. But when it was really cold out, he would put up with all of it for a warm place to sleep. Until he couldn’t. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
The days leading up to Bert’s surgery on his spine were filled with a lot of tension. He is a big ruddy man and there isn’t a lot he’s afraid of – but being paralyzed is one of them. Imagine life on the streets with no mobility. Extreme vulnerability. Terrifying. And the more he thought about this, the more he drank.
There were many appointments before Bert’s surgery and I was lucky to have a little angel named Penny help me get him there and back on days that I worked. She graciously took him for a four hour pre-admitting appointment in a part of the city she’s not comfortable driving in, and even bought him his favourite gift of all – John Players cigarettes. Penny was a friendly and familiar face as she would occasionally go visit Bert while he was in the hospital originally. She has a kind heart and Bert always enjoyed her company. Besides knowing many of the same people, Penny was happy to just listen while Bert shared tales of his adventures.
One of the things that surprised me the most, was that health professionals were constantly trying to come up with ways that he could still drink on medications etc and encourage him to keep his drinking at the same level, as to not create another problem – withdrawals. But Bert met an anesthesiologist who took a different approach. This tiny little female doctor explained to Bert that if he continued drinking, the drugs she was going to use to put him under for surgery on his spine, would not have the proper effect. She gave him a four day plan to prepare himself by cutting his drinking down ¼ a day until he was sober for surgery.
Bert took her advice to heart and he left the crack house and decided to take sobering up seriously. He called me every day, awaiting further news. At last the day before the surgery arrived. There were many things that needed to be done. His clothes needed to be cleaned and he was very self conscious about this. Being in people’s houses makes him very uncomfortable but he agreed to come to my place for a minute to change. My friend Leon Draisaitl plays for the Edmonton Oilers, and he is a big guy. He gave me an Oilers track suit of his for Bert. Bert put on the track suit and I threw his clothes into the wash. His thick beard needed to be shaved because the surgeon was going to get to his spine through his neck. We went to see Danielle at Voodoo Hair (Lauren’s sweet little sister) who had just completed training on the art of hot shaves and she gave Bert a luxurious hot shave. He was like a genie without cuffs – the beard was the man. Without the beard and without his street clothes, he was unrecognizable…until he spoke.
We got his regular clothes and as I was going to drop him off for the day when I received a call from the hospital letting us know Bert needed to be at the Hospital by 5:30 am the next morning. I decided that I couldn’t chance not knowing where he was, and I wouldn’t have the inclination to go hunting for him at 5:00 am, so I called my husband and asked for his advice. He thought a nice hotel close to where we lived would be the best option, so I went and checked Bert in. I had a conversation with the manager and gave him my home number should there be any concerns. I arranged a 4:30 am wake-up call, passed him the bag that held his dinner and left him to get some rest. The irony of it all didn’t escape me. This was the nicest place he had slept in years. He should have been able to fall carelessly into that plush bed and get the best sleep he’d had in ages. But the weight of the impending procedure weighted heavy on his heart.
I got home and called the hotel and asked to be put through to his room. It was great to be able to call him for the first time ever. “I just called to say good night. Sleep well Bert. See you in the morning. ”
His Name is Bert
To be continued…