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.

Photograph by Frederic Larson/CorbisThe first time I walked into Fernando’s loft, I knew we’d end up together. His place was bright and light and filled with objects that he’d dragged home from Russia and Vietnam, Italy and Thailand, Patagonia and the Basque Country. His glazed pottery was from a small village in China, his incense from Esteban in Paris. His pots and pans from South America were so fine that they almost made me want to cook (I said almost). The things in his apartment and the stories that went with them opened my eyes to cultures I only dimly knew existed. Fernando made me want to watch the sun come up over the Sea of Galilee and study the tile mosaics of Marrakech and buy saffron and curry at the Malaysian bazaars. He showed me a bigger life than I’d ever dreamed for myself.

Fernando was a photographer and rarely went back to the same place twice. One day, he and I were arguing about how I never took any real vacations. I was trying to build a career, and if somebody needed me, I had to be available, so when he suggested we go off somewhere for three entire weeks, he may as well have suggested I bungee jump off the Chrysler Building. “You can make it happen,” Fernando pushed. “Where do you want to go?”

You have to pick your battles, and I knew this was a fight I was not going to win. “You decide,” I said.

He chose a little fishing village off the coast of Sri Lanka that he’d visited a decade ago, and he planned out an itinerary. We’d land in Bangkok and stay for two nights. Then we’d go to Cambodia to see the temples of Angkor, spend two nights in Sri Lanka’s largest city, Colombo, visit the tea plantations in Kandy, and end with a week on the beach.

On our first day in Bangkok, we crossed the river to have breakfast at a restaurant where the water outside the window came up to our table. You know how every great once in a while you have a conversation that stays with you forever? We looked out at the water that day and talked, really talked, about how we had both come to this place in our lives where we knew we were exactly where we were meant to be, with exactly the person we were meant to be with. Fernando hadn’t had an easy relationship with his father, and later on, he’d had a number of complicated relationships. Parts of his past clearly made him uncomfortable. On the ferry back to our hotel, he became distant and quiet. “What’s wrong?” I asked. He was worried that he’d revealed too much. The sun was out, and the sky looked like a pearl, and we sat there on the boat for a few minutes, just feeling it rock and skim across the river. “Look,” I said, “wherever you have been, whatever you have done in your life, it doesn’t matter. We’re together now.”

Our trip was full of wonder and fun, but when we got to Colombo, our charmingly shabby hotel failed to charm Fernando, so we left a day early for the beach. As we drove, we passed two orphanages. Christmas was only a few days away, and I felt that I should stop the car and try to do something for the children, but I didn’t have the courage. I guess I was afraid of being perceived as the rich American guy who shows up unannounced and invades their space. I am still haunted by my mistake.

The Stardust Beach Hotel was owned by a Danish couple, Per and Merete. Every day, for breakfast, Per would bring bread fresh from the oven. Fernando and I swam, sunned, read, and went for walks. Our simple hut had an iron bed with a desk, a chair, and hooks for our clothing. At first, I was afraid that turning off the cell phone would leave me feeling lost. On the contrary, I felt liberated. I remember seeing a father and his son on the beach. The little boy was one of the most beautiful children I had ever seen. “Look at his face!” I said to Fernando. It was magical, this absolutely gorgeous little kid laughing with his dad.

Fernando came up with a plan to help the impoverished children we kept seeing. We’d find the 20 poorest families in the area and assemble backpacks for their children. With Per’s help, we got a list of names, and then we went into town to buy fabric (for new clothes), toys, and school supplies. For the rest of the day, we filled backpacks. We were excited about the celebration we had planned for the next day, December 26, when we’d invite the families to the beach in front of the hotel and hand out the presents.

Fernando and I were still in bed at around 9:00 the next morning when we heard a cracking sound. “What is that?” I asked. As if in response, water started trickling and then pouring into our hut. The children’s backpacks we had arranged so neatly on the floor began swirling around. The next thing I knew, it was pitch black, the roof was torn off, and Fernando and I were swept out.

Courtesy Nate BerkusCourtesy Nate BerkusWhen 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.

Courtesy Nate BerkusCourtesy Nate BerkusThe 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?

Fernando Bengoechea/CorbisComing back to Chicago alone was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. When I walked into my apartment for the first time, my mom and dad—who had been divorced since I was two—were sitting on the sofa. They had been together for days, waiting for me.

I spent the first two weeks in bed, not showering, not doing much of anything but sleeping when I could and crying and smoking cigarettes. Because I was on such a crazy pharmacological cocktail—the doctors at the Sri Lankan hospital prescribed antibiotics but neglected to explain that they’d also given me Klonopin, a strong tranquilizer—it’s no wonder that I couldn’t sustain a conversation.

One of my greatest comforts was being inside a home that was overflowing with memories. Before we’d left, I’d told Fernando that the best Christmas present I could ever receive would be one of his woven photographs. Fernando had always been inspired by woven crafts. He’d been cutting up his photos, then weaving the strips together so that they resembled pictorial textiles. He sliced apart a moment and remade it on his own terms—more intricate, more fragile, more resonant. At the time I made my request, all 12 of these woven photographs were on sale at a gallery in Manhattan. Fernando was angry that I had asked him for one. The truth was, he didn’t want to sell any of them, and if he could have afforded to keep them all, he would have. He wanted to know how I could be so insensitive as to ask him for something that had been so hard to part with in the first place. Yet the day before our flight, Fernando arranged to have not one but two of them sent to the apartment. When I got home that first awful night, they were leaning against the wall in the foyer.

For about a year, I left my apartment exactly as it was. Then one day I was sitting in my living room, and I found myself wondering, What if those chairs faced the opposite direction? And what if I moved that metal bookshelf over to that wall? Then I thought, I can’t move them; I’d be moving him and the memories we shared.

In the very next instant, I realized that reshuffling interiors and surfaces was a profound part of our relationship—that the best way to honor Fernando was to follow my instincts, to mix it up and continue the experiment. Fernando was alive in all the things I surrounded myself with—he still is, however they are arranged.

The Things That Matter, copyright © 2012 by Nate Berkus, is published at $35 by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, Inc., 1745 Broadway, New York, New York 10019.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest