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Nate's Long Good-bye


In a tear-soaked, classic Oprah farewell, interior decorator Nate Berkus yesterday told the story of his experience with the tsunami in Sri Lanka, where he lost his partner Fernando Bengoechea.

"It's not just the sight — it's the sound and the smell that will be with me forever," Berkus said, describing in horrific detail how the scene unfolded in a hut about 50 feet from the shoreline.

"We were in a room making plans for the day. All of a sudden water started coming in between the wall and the roof...Fernando jumped up and started lifting our things onto the desktop. I said, 'What is this?' Then we heard a crack and I was pressed against the wall and the floor."

Berkus described how the hut's roof was torn off by the force of the water and the immediate sensation of drowning. He claimed that "a heightened sense of consciousness" allowed his survival instinct to take over.

"[Fernando and I] ended up popping up together and he swam over to me and said 'Stay together,' and then a minute later we were drowning again, and then we popped up together again, and the water was calm...we were trying to hold onto each other. You were just swirling, just trying to keep your face up," explained Berkus..

When another wave took them the designer thought they would become separated. "And then we both popped up about three feet away from one another. Fernando and I came back to one another and there was a telephone pole and we both held each other."

Finally, his last moments of contact with Fernando provide the painful, wrenching picture so many tsunami survivors experienced as they saw their loved ones taken from them...

"And I felt his hand on the back of my shirt and I felt his hand slip away..."

Berkus choked back tears and was reunited with some of the other survivors he spent time with at Arugam Bay. Marcello Bengoechea, who had set up the recently deleted "Fernando and Nate" blog was also on hand. There has been speculation as to why the blog has been deleted but I can only imagine that finding a sense of closure necessitates the difficult letting go.

The lack of closure and feelings of helplessness must be the most difficult aspect for victims of a disaster like this — the absence of a corpse, the neverending search for details and answers.

All the criticism of the attention placed on Nate and Fernando because of their "celebrity" connections seems an attempt to place the scope of the disaster in perspective for many people. Certainly there are thousands of stories as tragic as Nate's. The sense of "milking" this particular story for TV ratings is unavoidable. Yet putting a face to the tragedy is important in the public's comprehension of it. And the fact that Nate and Fernando were a gay couple behaving like any other couple on that beach is something the world has now seen.

And that's important. For outside of the tragedy they became unwitting examples that a gay couple's love for one another can be as real (and as ordinary) as anyone else's.

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  1. I geuss Im a little confused...i thought they sent out marines to look for him...did he never turn up and they assume the worst or did they find a body?

    Posted by: Music Videoz | Jan 18, 2005 12:21:28 AM

  2. the site was not run by the bengoechea's. harpo forced that site down as i guess they now have full rights to the whole story?

    Posted by: Karim | Jan 18, 2005 12:58:03 AM

  3. "i have been requested to take down this blog.
    Please visit for information on Nate Berkus" FISHY!

    Posted by: PaulZ | Jan 18, 2005 1:01:14 AM

  4. No doubt! Amazing how Oprah capitilizes on every opportunity! No wonder she's a billionaire and we aren't! It's all about the ratings for her. Business as usual.

    Posted by: Kathy | Jan 18, 2005 1:03:28 AM

  5. Well said, Andy. The grief must be overwhelming, but Nate held up quite well yesterday. If this story is not about true love, I don't know what is.

    Posted by: Paul | Jan 18, 2005 1:05:07 AM

  6. I don't really feel like this is capitalizing on grief, per se. I agree that it is putting face on the tragedy -a face that we can identify with and recognize, as a country -in spite of the fact he was gay.

    I think it was brave of Nate and I think that it was logical for Oprah to use her platform to air a story that would not only present a more personal side than the evening news, but also to present a personal struggle of a personal friend. To me it made sense, as I would have done the same.

    I never got a sense that Oprah or anyone was DOWNPLAYING the trajedies of the other victims/survivors, which quelled any fear of capitalization on tragedy, or the celebrity "milking" that others seem to describe.

    My parents, being conservative christians, staunchly feel that homosexual connection is based solely on sex and not a deep sense of emotional love. I wish they had seen this.

    Posted by: M@ | Jan 18, 2005 2:40:56 AM

  7. just so sad...

    Posted by: cafegogo | Jan 18, 2005 2:49:16 AM

  8. I watched this Oprah and for the most part found it "inbounds" in terms of taste and context. One thing Nate said did bother me a bit however. While talking about his ordeal and how he and Fernando were separated and the swirling water, he said that his survival was a miracle and that it proved he was spared for a reason. What reason? To decorate? It felt like that comment was in poor tast considering that members of Fernando's family were in the audience. I am sure Nate, unlike Star Jones, does not think God specifically spared him and took Fernando and others but I could see how others might think that.

    I will say that his emotions seemed real and heartfelt.

    Posted by: HoyaBoy | Jan 18, 2005 3:33:13 AM

  9. "Harpo forced the site down"?
    Oprah couldn't force a blog down. There is still such a thing as free speech in this country. Even if Oprah does have the rights to Nate's story that doesn't mean you or I can't talk about it or have a web page about it. She or Nate or the Bengoechea family may have asked that it be taken down, Nate may have explained how it pained him in some way, and the person may have decided to take it down as a result.

    I'm not a big fan of Oprah generally. I become uncomfortable at all the Oprah worship that goes on (including what she allows to go on on her own show, which makes me squirm sometimes), and she has indeed made herself a billionaire by capitalizing on every opportunity. That's America, though and, I guess, good for her. She seems like a nice person at heart, and she often gives good advice. I don't care for at least 9 out of 10 of her shows, but once in a while she has a terrific don't-miss episode (giving away the cars, giving away a house to a poor mother who has adopted more than a dozen kids & they all live in a tiny apartment, and yesterday's Nate Berkus show).

    The Berkus show was incredibly moving.

    Posted by: Stosine | Jan 18, 2005 7:52:03 AM

  10. "One thing Nate said did bother me a bit however...he said that his survival was a miracle and that it proved he was spared for a reason...It felt like that comment was in poor tast considering that members of Fernando's family were in the audience."

    Survivors of calamaties often feel this. It bothers me, too. It's a fantasy some people have to believe in order for it to all make sense to them, because frankly what they went through is so horrific it's hard to make any sense at all out of it. So people turn to fantasy, to religion, to rationalizations of supernatural for create some meaning out of something that is totally random and meaningless. It seems to be important for them.

    Posted by: Stosine | Jan 18, 2005 8:00:36 AM

  11. That show was done to aid Nate's career, nothing else. Oprah doesnt want to lose on that investment.

    Posted by: Kostal | Jan 18, 2005 8:13:05 AM

  12. "That show was done to aid Nate's career, nothing else. Oprah doesnt want to lose on that investment."

    I'm a bit taken aback by that comment; it seems unduly cynical. I don't believe that the wealthiest individual in media, who has a relatively marginal investment in Nate's career, and who has done so much to help disadvantaged people world-wide, would be driven by that sort of thing. She's a savvy businessperson, but she's not a monster.
    As for me, I confess that I have had a hard time wrapping my mind around what it must have been like for the people caught in the tsunami. Perhaps it's because I've been afraid to go there (and if so, shame on me) . . . but seeing stories like Nate's has indeed helped me put faces to the tragedy, and brings it home for me. It's just one man's story, but it's also the story of hundreds of thousands.

    Posted by: kimmer | Jan 18, 2005 9:22:13 AM

  13. I liked the story on Oprah, but everything Oprah does makes me a bit cynical, but we can't forget that Nate experienced this tragedy and lost a real loved one in it. I think it was probably a bit soon to hear his story, personally, as I don't understand the concept of "putting a real face" onto a tragedy. Are we Americans so self absorbed or shallow that we can't see a horrific tragedy on the news and be able to relate to it? Are there people who actually have to wait for someone to come on Oprah or other TV show before we can feel for someone else we don't know? I think not.

    As far as Nate saying he was somehow saved by a miracle for some purpose, this statement doesn't bother me. I don't think he really feels God saved him because of some greatness he has to do....but the greater purpose could be as simple as him just being able to speak to people about the devistation he experienced. That of which he is doing. The danger comes when he feels his purpose is to tell his story with all the financial gain by telling this story that comes with it (whatever exclusive deal he has with Oprah and any books, movie deals in the future). Oprah herself has said many times that her purpose is of God and all the fame and fortune that comes from it are her just rewards. I hope Nate doesn't adopt that kind of twisted philosophy.

    As far as people putting closure to this, isn't it a bit soon for closure? This just happened. Mourning usually takes several months and in the case of a tragedy like this...probably years, especially when the remains of people aren't found. Closure comes after mourning and is a process that evolves.

    Posted by: Patrick | Jan 18, 2005 11:15:55 AM

  14. We have to believe that we are going through life with a purpose and that even the end has meaning in it. WIthout hope, without purpose, we lose the will to continue living life -even withOUT tragedies like this.

    Saying he believes he was spared in order to "decorate" is incredibly myopic. There's a person underneath the facade as there is in all of us.

    "Are we Americans so self absorbed or shallow that we can't see a horrific tragedy on the news and be able to relate to it? "


    [Generalizing here:] Seeing a trajedy with hundreds of faces we don't know does not drive it home for us anymore. America as a general culture *(you have to think of ALL of America) cares primarily for Americans. Seeing that WE were affected makes this feel more relavent to many people in our nation.

    And yes, I think it is a bit too soon for "closure"... but closure takes time as well. If you have ever sat wondering if your loved one is dead or alive, then you know how all-consuming it is. It is often easier to give them up for dead and then allow them to possibly come back to surprise you than to cling to the idea of their survival only to have your invested hope wasted.

    the world is poorly made but it's the only one we have, so...

    Posted by: M@ | Jan 18, 2005 11:36:52 AM

  15. Also, if I'm not mistaken, isn't this the first time Nate has ever publicly or at least on Oprah come this close to basically saying that he is gay?

    Anyway, no matter how you look at this broadcast, Oprah's motive, Nate's grief, and the ramifications of it... it's still a horrific tragedy to lose your love in such a meaningless way.

    My heart goes out to every victim.

    Posted by: thatmattdude | Jan 18, 2005 11:57:57 AM

  16. While respecting and empathizing with Nate’s loss, before anyone starts building yet another statue to St. Oprah, let’s open a window and let in the below freezing air of larger truth, not the least of which is the strange hybrid she is of Mother Teresa and Marie Antoinette. She does a lot of good, but so much of my appreciation of it has, more and more, been extinguished by her rolling in all of the adulation she receives for it, along with her perpetually glorifying conspicuous consumption and sexist lookism. And, much of the adulation is naïve. Those cars? I won a bet with a cousin who insisted that Oprah had spent at least some of her own money on them when I proved with a quote from “Newsweek” that they had been donated. And how many heard the subsequent screams of shock from many of the dirt poor recipients when they learned they were obligated to pay taxes on their gift. And, while her public persona is a hell of a lot more cuddly that Elton John, like him does she spend more on herself [some estimate her multiple 50th birthday parties cost upwards of $4 million] than on the charities she so eagerly takes bows for supporting? At least on today's show she skipped the customary sick-making walk-on to squealing audience members reaching out to touch her holiness.
    Still, I might forgive her narcissism if she used her power for more sociopolitical good. This was definitely a five BOXES of Kleenex event, and, judging by the reaction of the studio audience and a sample of e-mails on her site, it will unquestionably have a great INDIRECT positive impact on many regarding gay relationships. HOWEVER, both she and, again, with all due respect, Nate missed the opportunity to say something proactive about society's not understanding the reality and legitimacy of our relationships. This would not have required even use of the word “gay” to make the point, but simply something along the lines of, “We’ve all learned something from the incredibly moving example of Nate and Fernando’s love.” Or “It's sad to think that had Fernando been found alive in a hospital Nate might have been refused permission to see him as he was not a legal relative.” Nothing more. But a lot less was what we got.
    Yes, the heartbreaking witnessing of Nate's loss alone could have been innocently, consciously thought to be "enough," but, based on her recent history, and the fact that, while two or three pictures of Nate and Fernando together were shown today, NONE of those pictures are on her site about the show--only pictures of them separately, one can only be cynical. I firmly believe that, had this horrendous tragedy not happened, on Nate's next appearance on her show to talk about decorating she would still be implicitly feeding the audience's heretofore belief that he was straight in one of her frequent remarks a la "the ladies love you."
    While not a regular viewer, in two different shows last year with gay guests she said something like "Do gay people STILL have problems? What about Ellen? What about 'Will & Grace'?...." There is NO excuse for such willful blind ignorance. (If she heard someone in her position say "Do blacks STILL have problems? What about Oprah? What about 'The Bernie Mac Show'?" she would understandably wet her expensive panties.) One could think them rhetorical questions had she followed them with “OF COURSE, gays still have problems.” but, worse still, she followed them, in subsequent months, with TWO Jerry Springerish shows about the scandal, cruelty, and sexual ruthlessness of "millions" of closeted gay men married to women. That one was aired A FEW DAYS BEFORE the November 2nd election was unconscionable! If this couple meant so much to her, if she’s such a great, wise humanitarian, where was the show called "Nate & Fernando--Why Can't They Marry?" But I guess there's only just so much time five days a week when urgent issues like 900 thread count sheets and the latest beauty treatments cry out.
    The stunning goodwill Nate has apparently sown on his own in the past--a cancer survivor was flown in to acknowledge his once lifting her spirits simply by telling her she was beautiful despite her chemo-induced baldness; his ability, still, to talk about having felt and celebrated a feeling of humanity and kindness among the shocked and injured group of survivors he ended up with even as he wondered where Fernando was; the cinematic image of him stranded on a roof, the water still rushing around him below, calling out Fernando's name; the pictures of them together, however few; the pain still etched across his face today like Capt. Ahab's scar; his saying that he was choosing to live because that's what Fernando would have wanted [a chilling hint of thoughts of suicide implied but not stated]--all of this clearly opened many hearts and minds. We can only hope that, along with his finding peace, Oprah will find a voice for the reality and the rights of those like him and Fernando she claims to love. Speak its name, O, speak its name!

    Posted by: Leland | Jan 18, 2005 12:40:40 PM

  17. Yes, the people who got the cars had to pay tax on it if they kept it. All income is taxed. They also had the option of selling it and pocketing cash (then perhaps using the cash to buy a less expensive new car).

    If her multiple birthday parties cost $4 million - well, she IS a billionaire. A billion is a thousand million. That means she'd still have 996 million left. Some people say why not forego the parties and donate the $4 million to charity. That is a legitimate observation, do without and give the equivalent to the poor, but watch what you're saying or someone could say that to you. If you drive a Saab or Lexus - someone could say "why?" to you - why not drive a cheap car and give $25,000 to the poor. I'm sure Oprah donates many millions to charity. If she wants to spend some on herself, well we all do that.

    Yes, the Oprah worship makes me squirm. There's too much of that, on and off the show. She's a popular personality and a great humanitarian but she isn't a deity.

    Yes, this show brought Nate out of the closet officially. I agree that it would have been nice to hear the word gay or more about their relationship. For example, does anyone know how long they were together? I'm not doubting their love for each other by asking that. I'm just curious.

    Posted by: Stosine | Jan 18, 2005 2:49:01 PM

  18. A lot to think about here.

    I think Nate is right...he is still alive for a reason (and I doubt he thinks it’s to decorate).

    It is easy for all of us to cast judgments about what we think about Oprah or Nate or what they should take away from this (as I have found myself doing over the past few weeks as well.) We are only looking at a snapshot of someone’s life in this instance and trying to figure out what part this tragedy plays in their overall life span. I believe that none of our lives are any harder or easier than anyone else’s (regardless being a billionaire or being on TV). Nate's reason for still being alive is very personal...for a reason he may not even know yet himself.

    There are things we all need to learn in life. For some us that comes through great tragedies, deaths of loved ones, bitter ends to relationships, loss of jobs...whatever the instance, what we take away from those on a personal level is usually greater than what most others may see or think. I think the most we as humans, at least myself, can do is empathize with that feeling of loss and struggle; recall those difficult times when there was something for me to learn and remember how I felt when people I knew and didn’t know felt the need to comment and tell me how I should react or behave.

    While this may put a “face” to the tragedy for many(and that’s OK), moreover, for me, it has forced me to look at my own life (not as a gay, white, American, male, but as a human being) and examine how and why I react to difficult situation (or fail to react) or at times unjustly judge others. I think the important thing is not "How did Nate or Oprah react to this?" But how did I, since I am the the only person I am have any controll over.

    Posted by: Robb | Jan 18, 2005 3:07:22 PM

  19. open the window for the larger truth? The white gaze that views and considers the action of this icon reveals a relentless, persistant assertion that all of us are subject to a final judgement bestowed by the entitled who may tsk tsk from a distance at all the materialism and self-promotion displayed...
    She is a black woman who has the power to get the massive engine of corporate america fine tuned to her pitch...A BLACK WOMAN. The show aired on the MLK holiday and featured a homosexual relationship as a keystone for a compassionate examination of how we are connected as humans all over the planet...knowing that Oprah has clearly embraced the exceptional in our country and strives to envaginate her status of 'larger than life' icon with positivity and generousity lessens my dissappointment with the American experience of being of color...if ones gaze through this is a bit different one might say that she representn' homie
    and you need to back up offa it.

    Posted by: greg | Jan 18, 2005 3:51:04 PM

  20. "I'm a bit taken aback by that comment; it seems unduly cynical"
    Oprah fans run to her defense! Oprah does not give anything from her pocket! very rare! all the gifts and surprises are donated.

    Posted by: Luq | Jan 18, 2005 5:53:49 PM

  21. The plot thickens, or coagulates, with a poster at who claims to have an "acquaintance" who works for Oprah who claims that she (they?) had planned a full Hallmark event--details about how Nate & Fernando met, many more pictures of them together, etc., but that he allegedly didn't want to distract from the larger disaster, though the post could also be interpreted to suggest that Nate was uncomfortable for other reasons. I can imagine either and both. I can't imagine that he would go so far as telling them not to put one of the pictures of them together among the near dozen about this particular broadcast on O's Web site. The poster is also, apparently, a card carrying member of the Rim Oprah club, and albeit a gay male, both ignores her willful, indefensible silence on our disenfranchisement and her contribution to our demonization [through her TWO shows leading up to the election about gay men in straight marriages] and, worse still, characterizes criticism of yesterday's show as "personal political agenda." We're doomed....

    Posted by: Leland | Jan 18, 2005 6:27:19 PM

  22. I have to comment - the bitchy cynicism on this particular post amazes me. Nate works with Oprah, he's probably friends with her and he went on to tell his story. The people he met in this tragedy joined him. Does it have to have a dark side? Oprah frequently has on far less glamorous people to tell their stories (eg the woman from Rwanda who survived incredible hardship -did you even see that one a few weeks ago?).

    Oprah is a completely self-made women who has bucked numerous odds (female, black, fat!) to become perhaps the most famous woman in America. She was handed nothing, but knows how to take advantage of the snowballing effect of her own philanthropy. She is a force for good, perhaps complicated -of course! - but she is there to help and inform. That's the difference that makes some people squirmy- she is at a point where she is crossing out of a pseudo-journalist/host role into more of a teaching role.

    Does anyone know of any Oprah-is-a-bitch stories, because I do not. We all knew about Martha Stewart. We all knew about Rosie. Oprah is peddling something far deeper than that. The amount of money swirling around her is inevitably going to taint some proceedings (or people), but really, the woman DOES give out of her own pocket. She also gives of her TIME (which ain't cheap). Grow up. She has done incredible good in the world. What have you done? Did the bitchers on this thread even donate money? Maybe yes, maybe no. But really, this blog's demographic is drowning (pun intended) in disposable income, so maybe you ought to step outta the glass summer house. (I am not even going to TOUCH the idea of Oprah as a demonizer of gay men. Get REAL, Angry Queen! That's YOUR reality, but it doesn't jive with the facts.)

    Anything cunty anyone want to add about Nate? Everyone on that stage said they felt they were saved for a reason - I doubt I would have said that on TV - but do you really want to go through that experience to find out what you would say? I also think it was pretty blatant that they were lovers - esp based on the pictures they showed. Would it have been appropriate for him to say "We were LOVERS" on this show about the tsunami? And if Fernando's family is pissed at her, why did they go on the show?

    Puleez do not brand me as a crazed Oprah fan, petal. I am educated about her, yes, but not joining any club. I am just vaguley disgusted by the cattiness of this thread. One would hope for more.

    Posted by: xolondon | Jan 18, 2005 6:39:08 PM

  23. A quick PS: she addressed the car/ property tax issue on another episode - I think it was the Christmas giveaway.

    Posted by: xolondon | Jan 18, 2005 6:42:04 PM

  24. "all the gifts and surprises are donated" So? I'm no Oprah fan and I never watch her show but I'm in agreement that at least she attempts positivity and has always been so open to people of various races, creeds, colors, regions, and yes ... sexual orientations. So what if the gifts were donated? The impact positive impact is still there regardless.

    Posted by: myke | Jan 18, 2005 6:52:04 PM

  25. I know what you mean about the adulation and having a bit of cynicism about Oprah. But I have to concur that she is the opposite of everything we hear makes a person successful in show business. And she never EVER has a hateful word to say about anyone. She is about positivity and inclusiveness. And if that is the secret to her success, how much better than the materialism and bitchiness of a Donald Trump or Oh, so many others.

    Posted by: BB | Jan 18, 2005 8:09:29 PM

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