Thursday, January 08, 2009

For Jack Bertram

"They were the faces that you never expected to see...painted by an old master as the face of an angel"
Bella Swan, Twilight, page 19

When I taught at the University of Michigan-Flint, I struck up a friendship with an unlikely man. Jack Bertram. He was about 28 years old and mature beyond the years that were given him. My first meeting with Jack was when he took a flat patterning class from me. It was not odd for a man to take these classes but Jack stood out. 'Stood out' is an understatement...Jack had presence. He was approximately 6'4" and weighed about 350 pounds. The way he was proportioned made him seem like a giant. I have large hands for a female--from the bottom of my palm to the tip of my middle finger measures about 7 1/2 inches with the palm being 4 inches at its widest point. Jack's hands were easily twice that size. His brown curly hair and full beard made him seem like something out of Norse mythology. Basically, he could crush you but honestly he would never hurt anyone.

My friendship with Jack didn't flourish until after he was my student--safety, first; no fraternizing with the students. Anyway he would come up to the costume shop and volunteer or escape the noise/drama in the lobby. Drama is always the case in the Theatre Department. We would talk about what ever he wanted. Some days it was school. Other times it was women. And then there were days when all he wanted to talk about was myths, legends and how they tied into religion, but the one thing Jack especially loved to talk about was vampire myths. He was fascinated how Christianity treated or related to them. He LOVED this subject--he loved to argue them out with you and see all sides and I genuinely looked forward to speaking with him. I had a small vampire obsession of my own thanks impart to my father and Leonard Nimoy.

The time always passed too quickly when he was on a roll but he would always come back to banter more. For a long time Jack evaded my direct question on how he came to be obsessed with vampire myths. It wasn't until learned that Jack had an epileptic seizure and would be missing classes that a theory began to formulate in my mind: when you can taste your own mortality why wouldn't you want to be immortal; there will never be enough time to do all you want to do and immortality would allow one to fulfill dreams that illness would rob.

This had to be the reason. He loved the power vampires had and especially loved Joss Whedon's Angel--because here was an vampire with a soul. One who was harrowed up by the images of the innocent lives he had taken--"doomed" as it were to righting the wrongs of those who still were soulless.

Jack returned to school a short time later. He was not his usual self since he had this grand mal attack. I was shocked. Although his stature did not change his countenance had an almost child like quality, that of a scared child. He came to visit the costume shop and I asked the usual questions about his illness--the whats, wheres, whys and how comes. And then I just spat out,

" Does your obsession with immortality and vampires have anything to do with your epilepsy?"

He was quiet for a moment and then said,

"Holy Sh*t, Monica! Don't beat around the bush." I laughed because I knew I had hit the mark. Then he said, tapping my forehead with his finger, "Get out much?" I laughed again knowing this time he had hit the mark. I don't get out of my head much. I'm safe here inside my mind--I think.

We talked about my theory and the possible truths of it. "You're right, you know?" Jack said. "I will never have enough time in this body as it is now to finish all that I hope to start." I was struck by the sadness in his voice. It wasn't anger but regret for the things he'd never dare dream to do. "Ah, well. Die young and leave a beautiful corpse...or in my case a big corpse!"

"You really don't think that you'll live a long life?" I said.

"No, I won't make it to thirty-five" he replied. There it was. I could see it in his face. if by revelation, "I'll be lucky to see thirty." I was thirty-three at this time and could barely fathom what he was telling me, but I have never seen truth like the truth that I saw in his eyes that afternoon.

He went on to tell me that he felt as though his epilepsy was stealing his life one seizure at a time. Of course he was obsessed with being immortal--the stakes wouldn't be as great. As a vampire, strength and inhuman power would be on his side. He would be able to travel when and wherever he wanted, do whatever he wanted when he wanted without having to worry about the mind splitting pain that his gand mals inflicted. He wouldn't have to worry about taking his medications or being a guinea pig for the new meds that were supposed to rid his brain of the frequency of his seizures but always seemed to make them worse. I couldn't fault him. No one could. Looking at his scared and pain filled face that afternoon, I wished for his sake that he would have the opportunity at his immortal dream.

I left the University of Michigan-Flint in the spring of 2006, but I kept in constant contact with Jack. His friendship was one that I never wanted to lose. We always talked about religion and life after death and of course, vampires .

At the beginning of April 2007, Jack and I had a long conversation about his life and if I thought that he was good enough to go to heaven. He explained or rather confessed all he felt that he had done wrong in this world. He began to worry me a little with the manner of his questions and I asked him if everything was alright. As was usual, Jack said that everything was fine but that he'd been thinking a great deal about his family should something happen to him. He was worried about his little cousins but also his Mom. Although they hadn't always gotten along he worried that if he did die she would be devastated. Jack didn't want that but didn't know how he could stop it. I placated him with any answers I could think of but I knew it was in vain. I couldn't stop his Mother from grieving in her own way any more than Jack could.

And then Jack joked, "You know, if I was a vampire I could come back and appear to my Mom as a ghost. She probably would be less aggravating to my Dad if I did". It was funny to think of Jack doing this. Mostly it was funny because I imagined Jack "appearing" to his mother torn between his human promise to ease her grief and his new immortal thirst for blood. Should he concilate her or kill her and ease his father's pain instead? If you know Jack then you know how funny this image is...laugh it up, he would.

Two weeks later, while working for the Arizona Broadway Theatre, I received a phone call from Stevo Gilewicz. He told me that Jack had passed away from seizure related complications. Simply, he had gone to sleep and never woken up. I was shaking all over. My sobs were caught in my throat and everyone in the ABT costume shop stared at the strange guest designer who couldn't keep it together during a phone call. To put it mildly, I was a mess. I couldn't believe that he was gone--I had just talked to him. We had made plans to meet up that summer and catch up. Why now? I organized a phone tree and called everyone that I knew. When I was done I sat on the bathroom floor sobbing. And then I started laughing. I thought of Jack as a vampire standing in his mother's room fighting the urge to eat her for dinner so that he could deliver his last message to her, easing her grief all the while thinking it would have just been better to eat her!

We, who knew you Jack, miss you still...



Dee Jordan said...

Oh Mon, your writing is beautiful. Just as your friend felt the burden of his life span I hope your words gave him relief.

Jen Vesper said...

What a sad, adorable story. I love him just by reading this. I am glad that he had someone who really understood him in this life.