Skip to main content
lives lived
Open this photo in gallery:

Gordon Bernstein.Courtesy of family

Gordon Bernstein: Brother. Bon vivant. Friend. Hockey fan. Born Oct. 21, 1944, in Montreal; died Dec. 26, 2022, in Montreal, after refusing treatment for pulmonary fibrosis; aged 78.

Last December, Gordon announced he was dying in the intensive care unit at Montreal General Hospital. A stream of visitors who played important roles throughout his life, from grade school, university and beyond came to see him. Family, friends, a lover – all who didn’t believe him but came nonetheless, in case what he said was true.

He sounded impatient when he called like he wanted to get it over with already. Was he being dramatic or confused by medication? When I arrived, gowned and masked, he dozed in bed, looking somehow diminished, an IV inserted into a vein in his gnarled hand. Because of the pandemic, we hadn’t seen each other in nearly three years. Instead, we had talked at least three times a week on the phone about everything from politics to pets. He was maddening. I loved him.

He opened his eyes as the door opened. “Who are you?” he asked.

“Gordon, it’s Lisa,” I replied.

He smiled. “Ah, Lisa. Your hair is too dark, dear. Lighten it a bit around your face.”

In that moment, there was clarity. Gordon was dying but there was no trauma or brain fog. He was still the same obstinate, opinionated arbiter of good taste and fashion, still the steadfast friend who always knew best. There was a push and pull between him and all who knew him, testing if not testy, not quite judgmental but somehow on the edge. Short in stature, with a barrel chest, a big voice and a bark of a laugh, he brazenly approached people he didn’t know because they looked interesting and cultivated friendships because of his ability to really listen and couch an opinion in a way that made it impossible to take offence. We all knew never to call when there was a Habs game on TV.

The second of Julius and Shirley Bernstein’s four children, he grew up in Outremont, attending the local high school and McGill University before quitting to take over the family business on Boulevard Saint-Laurent because he couldn’t pass courses in Latin and logic, both of which were required at the time. As head of the street’s merchants’ association, he was a fierce proponent of business owners, especially during years of drawn-out construction that caused many of them to close. He seemed to know everyone – and if he didn’t, he pretended he did.

Everyone knew him, too, from provincial cabinet ministers to film festival founders and restaurant owners. Former provincial Liberal cabinet minister Christine St-Pierre recruited him to sit on the board of the Office québécois de la langue française. Once, with his younger brother and a friend, he attended a rally for the Yes side during the 1995 Quebec referendum to witness for themselves the phenomenon surrounding Lucien Bouchard, then the leader of the Bloc Québécois. Whenever TV cameras panned the crowd they bent down to avoid having their faces shown.

Gordon was close to his siblings. To Nathan, a beloved English literature professor at Vanier College who died several weeks before Gordie was rushed to hospital. To his sister, Hannah, who lives in Los Angeles and was staying with him as they all mourned Nathan. And to Irving, the youngest of the four, who was invariably at Gordon’s side. You didn’t invite one without the other to anything.

He doted on his niece, Sarah, and nephew, Jesse – regaling me with tales of their accomplishments. He loved going to the theatre, to movies and the ballet, and travelling each year with Hannah and Irving to destinations such as Italy and Israel.

Soon after my visit with him, a psychiatrist visited Gordon to determine if his decision to refuse treatment was being made while he still had all his wits about him. I could have told her he did.

“I’ve had a good life,” he said. “Now, it’s time to go.”

Lisa Fitterman is Gordon’s friend.

To submit a Lives Lived:

Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go online to