Nate Berkus on the Things That Matter

The loss of his partner in the devastating 2004 tsunami underscored for Nate Berkus a guiding principle of his design career—our homes should tell our stories: who we are, whom we've loved, and what matters most.

By Nate Berkus excerpted from his book "The Things That Matter" from Reader's Digest Magazine | October 2012

Nate Berkus on the Things That MatterCourtesy Nate Berkus
When something like this happens, your brain goes into a very primal place. It wants one thing: to survive. You don’t ask yourself, Where am I? or What happened to my wallet? What you think about is breathing. I remember telling myself, The only thing I have to concentrate on is that moment when I come up for air. I have to take a really deep breath and hold on to it.

I felt like I was trapped inside a washing machine. I would see light, which meant I was near the surface, so I’d shoot up and take a deep breath before the water slammed me back under, sometimes for 20 seconds, sometimes for a minute. I thought, I am going to die.

Under the water, I forced myself to calm down. For a moment the currents seemed to calm too. Now I was able to come up and swim. Things were moving past me: babies and barbed wire, cows and cars and men and women, and I was trying not to get hit or cut or pulled back under. Suddenly Fernando popped up out of the water, only four feet away.

By now we were traveling at about 40 miles an hour. The best analogy I can think of is that it was like white-water rafting over rapids, the difference being that these rapids were filled with human beings and animals and enormous hunks of sharp metal and glass. The water was taking us toward a telephone pole, and I thought, If we hit that thing, we could both be knocked out. Just then, a thin mattress from one of the huts floated by and wrapped itself around that pole, so we collided not with wood but with the mattress. “Hang on, hang on!” Fernando called. I reached over and grabbed hold of his hand around the pole. Should we try to climb up it? I wondered. Then I remembered being taught never to touch wires in water and realized that if we made it to the top we’d probably be electrocuted. So Fernando and I stayed where we were, clutching each other’s hands.

“What was that?” I asked Fernando. “What just happened?”

He didn’t know either. “Be strong,” he said to me. He said it a second time, and then a third. “Just be strong. Whatever it was,” he told me, “it’s all over now.” A few seconds later, another wave slammed us off the pole. I remember Fernando trying to grab me and missing.

I started drowning again, and that primal instinct kicked in and all I wanted was to breathe. Just when I thought there was no way I could survive, I broke through the surface and spotted a house with a chimney. I reached for the lowest roof tiles, boiling hot from the sun. To this day, I will never know how I did it, but I pulled myself onto the roof, with my legs on fire from the blistering heat of the tiles, and I kept screaming Fernando’s name. Fifteen feet away, a naked, bleeding stranger sitting on another broken house was sobbing, and at that moment I realized I had blood all over me too. Another man floating behind the house yelled for me to help him. I reached for his hand, but, to my horror, I didn’t have the strength. He fell back under the water, and I never saw him again.

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