Uncle Fern was married to my mother’s sister, Leona Grosjean. They had five beautiful children: Lena, Robert, Doris, Roger and Maurice. All of the children, like their mother, suffered from an extremely debilitating disease similar to MS, and consequently, pre-deceased my uncle. Outside of my own father, Uncle Fern was the most devout and loving man I ever knew. I was never able to tell him how highly I held him in esteem. Now that it is too late, I am compelled to write these words and share all he taught me about loyalty and love. From distance and observation, I saw this man suffer greatly from the time he learned of his wife’s disability and as he witnessed each of his children slowly be ravaged by this most debilitating disease.
I remember my mother telling me stories of how Uncle Fern cared for Leona. He got her out of bed, fed her, changed her, and for as long as he was strong enough, he would undress her, carry her to the tub, and gently bathe her. The whole essence of love and loyalty was branded into me through that one story. For me, Uncle Fern was a man like no other.
My earliest memory of Uncle Fern dates back to the late 1960s. By that time, Uncle Fern had moved his family to the small city of North Battleford. He continued to farm, so he would drop Aunt Leona off at the home of her sister, Cecil Lavoie, and pick her up on his way back to North Battleford. Later, when caring for his wife and children became all-consuming, he rented out the family farm. Living in the city was essential since he could no longer care for his wife and those of his children already stricken with the disease while still running a farm. For Uncle Fern, family came first, even if it meant giving up working the land he loved so much. His greater love, his greater priority, was his family’s health and wellbeing.
Every summer when our family drove from Regina to our summer cottage at Loon Lake, Saskatchewan (a one-hour drive north of North Battleford), we always stopped at Aunt Leona and Uncle Fern’s house. Farmers to their very cores, Aunt Leona and Uncle Fern had dedicated their entire backyard to a garden. They had the largest, lushest garden I ever saw outside a farm. And every year, both Auntie and Uncle encouraged Mom to harvest fresh vegetables for our first few days at the lake.
While Mom visited with her sister, on those trips when Dad wasn’t able to come with us because of work, Uncle Fern would entertain us children. I remember him most for the finger games. He taught me the Spock salute and a cute little finger jest where he’d clasp his fingers together and chant, “Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the doors, and see all the people.”
Later in life, my father told me a story about Fern’s youngest son, Maurice. He was the hardest hit with this disease of all Fern’s children and deteriorated faster than the rest. Despite his condition, Maurice liked to go for walks, but he always waited until the evening when he’d have fewer encounters with others. One night, my young cousin was escorted home by the police, who thought he was drunk due to his erratic walk and slurred speech. When the police arrived at his front door, Uncle Fern did not berate the officers for their mistake. He explained his son’s condition and they apologized profusely for their error. I wonder at the depth of strength in a man who could hold his temper at a moment like this.
The disease attacked Maurice most virulently, and he eventually had to be hospitalized at Regional Care. (My dear auntie also passed away at this Care facility.) Maurice was the first of Uncle Fern’s immediate family to pass away. I’ve heard tell how difficult it is for a parent to lose a child, and the loss of Maurice, a young man in his early twenties, was but the beginning of the heart-wrenching sorrow to come for my kind uncle.
As is almost always the case with large families, interconnection between cousins can wane. I saw less and less of Uncle Fern and his family over the years, only to reconnect with them when I moved north to Fort McMurray. Uncle Fern’s second youngest son, Roger, owned a small home and was working there. His two children were living with him. When my parents came up to visit me for the first time, we went to see Roger. On this occasion, Roger spoke of his divorce and the impact it had had on his sister, who was the last of his siblings to still be in a lasting relationship. Doris, Roger told us, had sighed when she had learned of Roger’s divorce. She had turned to her husband and said, “I guess I’m next. It’s your turn to leave me.” As I said, all of Uncle Fern’s children were stricken with the same debilitating strain of MS my auntie had. Well, Doris’ husband was having none of that. Roger spoke with pride when he repeated the man’s words to us, “Your father never left your mother, Doris, and I will never leave you!” Uncle Fern had set an example of human behaviour that another was able, with love, devotion, and sacrifice, to emulate and live up to! I will carry uncle Fern’s stolid example of putting family first with me for the rest of my life.
One day, Mom announced that Uncle Fern was to remarry. Many years after my auntie died and those children still surviving had married and moved on with their lives, Uncle Fern was once again blessed with love. When he told Mom that he felt like he was betraying Leona, Mom reminded him sternly how Leona wanted him to move on and find someone else. Uncle Fern was doubly blessed, and doubly cursed. He remarried and was happy for a time. His happiness was received with joy by all of Leona’s family members. If any man deserved happiness in life, it was this man! Sadly, that joy was not to last, and Uncle Fern had to bury his second wife, whom he lost to emphysema.
In his twilight years, Uncle Fern moved away from his hometown of North Battleford to live closer to his remaining child, Roger. For a few months, father and son cohabited in an extended care facility in the Edmonton area. After Roger passed away, Uncle Fern lived the last of his days in the loving embrace of his grandchildren.
My uncle Fern lived a difficult life, but I can assure you it was more than merely noble. Fern Bernier’s life was one filled with the deepest bonds of love imaginable, the bonds that keep a man strong for his family and working at every opportunity to keep them happy and safe. If he could, he would have made each and every one of them healthy, and if ever a man had the strength of love to accomplish such magic, that man was my uncle Fern. His love was that strong. With him as their rock, his wife, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have weathered the worst of life’s many storms.
And, now, having received news of his passing, I envision him being embraced by those he loved and cared for all his life. I see Auntie Leona, all their children, and his second wife walking towards him, smiling and happy, with no debilitating illnesses to mar them. They reach out to him and welcome him into their loving arms, the arms of all those he had so faithfully loved, cared for, and sheltered all those years. I see them now cradling him, caressing him, caring for him, gently erasing for him a lifetime of loss and pain. If anyone deserves a heaven like this, it is my uncle, Fern Bernier.
Patricia Marie Budd
Special thanks to my sister, Michelle Gavigan, cousin Lillian Searle, and dear aunt Cecil for confirming details regarding Uncle Fern’s life.