“We are waiting for Deneen to get here from Red Deer,” Brandon informed me. “Brian and his family are already on their way.” A gathering of the Bertram clan because Bev was on his way out. It was Tuesday April 26th 2016 and outside the world carried on, oblivious to what was happening with the people gathered in a room at the University Hospital in Saskatoon.
Bev Bertran had not been feeling all that well for about a month. The Friday before Bonnie – his wife and support – insisted he go to the hospital. Reluctantly he allowed her to drag him there. Bev was never one to particularly appreciate or trust doctors. It likely had something to do with him having had polio as a child.
The hospital in Watrous immediately transferred him to Saskatoon where his conditional weakened.
Hooked up to life support to breathe, his bowel was perforated and it had poisoned his system. He quietly slipped into a coma, never to wake again.
“I’d like to say goodbye,” I choked through my tears.
“Do you want me to put the phone up to his ear or to put you on speaker?” Brandon asked.
“Oh, what the hell, may as well be speaker as what I want to say isn’t exactly private.”
Even though Bev likely couldn’t hear me, I told him how important he had been in my life as a teacher, a mentor and a friend. It wasn’t a rehearsed speech, rather it was a blithering emotional outpour. A message I wanted to send into the cosmos.
Back on the line Brandon commented, “Thanks for that. It made Mom cry, too. I think she appreciated it.”
Meeting Bev Bertram
In December 1967, the Hanson family moved to Watrous and I started school at Winston High in January 1968. That was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life, but a story I have told elsewhere.
In September 1968 – I had moved up to Grade 10 by then – Mr. Bertram was my English teacher.
To me, as a fifteen year old, Mr. Bertram was a larger than life character. He told us stories; he made us laugh; he was sarcastic; he challenged us. Most importantly, he taught us how to write and how to question. He also brought out an appreciation of literature in me, and that is one of the most treasured gifts I have ever received.
Then I graduated from high school and wandered off in search of adventure. From time to time I thought of Mr. Bertram when I was working on an essay for a university class. But he sort of faded from my active radar screen.
Reencountering Bev Bertram
In 1992 I bought an A-frame house on Mart and Wayne Potter’s farm about 15 km south of Watrous. It served as an ideal Canadian base for 19 years until, that is, the badgers became neighbors and I sold it.
I happened to be in Watrous for Mr. Bertram’s retirement dinner. As I walked to the Civic Center with my parents, I recalled the influence he’d had on my development. His was the sort of contribution that needs time and distance to appreciate, as high school students aren’t generally that good at reflection. Not their fault, however, as they don’t have the necessary life experience.
At the retirement dinner Mr. Bertram presented Bonnie – his second wife after Iris died – with a massive bouquet and publically announced how important she was to him. He was a generous spirit who could give praise when and where it was due.
A couple of years later — about 1995 or 96 when I was teaching at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand — I was at my parent’s house in Watrous.
“I’m going to call Mr. Bertram and see if he wants to meet me for coffee,” I announced as I picked up the phone.
We met that afternoon and it was when he morphed from being Mr. Bertram to becoming Bev.
“You know, Squirrely” – which had been his nickname for me in school – “you have done well. I might not have picked you as the one in the class to go on and get a Ph.D, but you could write reasonably well.”
“That was because I had a good teacher.”
One of the highlights of Bev’s academic career was doing a master’s degree at the U. of S and he enjoyed talking about his graduate work. Since I was teaching at a university we shared common interests.
And so it became a habit. Whenever I was in Watrous, I would ring Bev and we would get together at the Peppertree. Always at 15:00 and generally in the same booth. But such is coffee row in a small town.
Then Bonnie started to join us and I got to know and appreciate her.
Somewhere in this timeframe Brandon – Bev and Bonnie’s youngest son – appeared on the scene. We both love travel and share an interest in the developing world. I advised Brandon that the only way he could make a living overseas was to get a CELTS certificate and teach English as a second language.
“Paying for him to get the CELTA certificate was the best money I ever spent on that kid,” Bev announced a year later.
We moved from the Peppertree to their house where we would wile away the afternoon hours talking about whatever subject that came to mind. Usually Bev and I would agree, but not always.
Bonnie wanted to travel; Bev hid behind medial insurance being too expensive. But she did manage to convince him to go on a cruise through northern Europe. He, somewhat begrudgingly, admitted that he had totally enjoyed it.
For the last couple of years the pattern shifted and the Bertrams took me out for a long, chatty lunch. Sometimes Brandon was there. Not that we ever coordinated our visits, it just sort of happened that we were in the same place at the same time.
Spending time with Bev, Bonnie and Brandon – if he was in town– became a must-do highlight of my annual sojourn to Canada.
Grieving for Bev Bertram
“He wasn’t old. And he was one of the kindest souls I have ever met,” sobbed Tatiana, my young friend in Medellin, Colombia and the reason I learned about Bev’s situation.
So how does a student from the class of ‘71 get to know her high school English’s teacher’s son’s former girlfriend?
After he got the CELTA certificate, Brandon taught ESL in Calgary where he met Tatiana. When they parted ways they stayed friends and when I moved to Medellin we met.
“I already knew about you,” Tatiana told me at our first encounter. ”When I was in Watrous, Bev and Bonnie often talked about you.”
In times of grief we turn to those who are important to us, so Brandon sent text messages to Tatiana and she passed the information on to me. And so that is how I was able to say “adios” to Bev. Something that was very important to me.
I will miss Bev as my teacher, my mentor and my friend. His legacy for me Is of writing, enjoying literature and debating. And they will live on.
Thank-you for touching my life – and that of so many others — Bev Bertram. Go well.