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
The water was packed with broken bodies. The sobs and shrieks were almost deafening. A woman I recognized from the village was up in a tree, and she yelled at me to leave my perch, that another wave was coming. She gestured to an area 200 feet away, where people were struggling onto a strip of dry road. I couldn’t fathom leaving my rooftop, but then it dawned on me that Fernando must be over there. I lowered myself back down and swam and waded and willed myself to solid ground.

I kept asking people if anyone had seen a man who looked sort of like me, but no one had. Every place I turned, children were crying. I stopped to ask one boy—he was eight or nine—if he knew where his parents were, and he didn’t. “Tell me what they look like,” I said. Earlier, I’d met a British couple, both injured and hysterical, and I knew they were looking for their child. I found them, told them I’d seen a little boy searching for his parents, and that they should stay where they were. Then I went back and brought the boy to his parents.

Later that afternoon, I was reunited with Merete, Per’s wife from the hotel. Per was dead, she told me. We spent that night in a field. In the morning, rescuers began dragging bodies out of the water in wheelbarrows and taking them to a schoolhouse. I managed to call my mother from a cell phone plugged into a car battery, as well as a producer from The Oprah Winfrey Show. I told her I was surrounded by wounded people and children who had lost their parents, and she immediately mobilized a team of producers to help me and everyone else they could. I must have gone back and forth to the makeshift schoolhouse morgue about 40 times, where I lifted up sheets to expose the faces of the men and women who hadn’t survived, but Fernando wasn’t one of them.

That same day and the next, rescuers loaded the most injured survivors onto helicopters. I saw a man I recognized weeping by the side of the road. He was the father of that beautiful little boy Fernando and I had seen playing in the waves. His son was dead. I stood there frozen, watching him weep. It was the first moment I said to myself, That’s going to be me.

When it was time for me to evacuate, I resisted, but people advised me that it would be easier to send out a search party for Fernando if I were someplace with electricity, telephones, and Internet service. First I flew in a helicopter that had no doors, gripping a strap as we flew to the military hospital in Ampara, 25 minutes away. Next was an 18-hour truck ride to Colombo. Once there, I stayed for the next week and a half, watching the BBC news. A special security team was dispatched from Singapore on a mission to find Fernando. Every time my phone rang, my stomach turned, since I didn’t know if it meant good news or bad. I made up various scenarios: Fernando was lost. He had amnesia. He couldn’t talk and had no way to reach me. And every night, I lay awake thinking, One more day has passed. Where is he? Where is he? Where is he?

He used to tell everyone that he would never live past 40, and everyone, myself included, hated when he said that.

Fernando Bengoechea was 39 years old. His body was never found.

Since December 26, 2004, I have never defined myself by anything other than my ability to survive. I don’t think about whether I’m successful or not successful, famous or not famous, busy or bored. To me, the ultimate question—the only question—is, Can I survive or can’t I?

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