Celebrating Life in the Style of Roger Berny

I have a deep appreciation for rituals and tradition, I also am known among friends for fun and familiar gathering, so perhaps that is why it seemed unlike me to not care to celebrate my birthday. Everybody has their own idea of how I should celebrate: a big bash, a small party, a dinner out, a night out to the theater.  My husband and I had talked about having another  Fushi Party – that one was an eclectic combination of Homemade Fondue and Sushi. I thought of perhaps a Pishi Party – this time offering Homemade Pizza and Sushi. I laughed at the thought. It would be fun. But in the end, I opted for nothing special.

RogerBerny014sm.jpgI am not forgoing celebrating my life. I love my life and am immensely thankful for it. I feel uniquely blessed with an abundance of love surrounding me. But when I looked deep inside I did not quite feel like celebrating. I had just blown off two weeks of working on my thesis due to Thanksgiving holidays. Kids were off and the holidays were upon us. Taking another week of no writing -no matter how fun the evening- was not going to give me peace. Then I also thought of my dear friends that would not be here this year – those that recently moved away. The party would reveal to me the gaping hole I still felt. Finally my decision was cinched when I got the sad news of Roger Berny’s passing.  I just do not feel like putting up a bash, nor a gathering. I want to write, I want to eulogize a person I cherished and move on to celebrate another day. There are things and emotions I need to work through before I can loose myself in the gaiety of a party. It being my birthday, I have asked to be allowed to tend to these things first.

I can still remember the first tiime I met Roger Berny.RogerBerny017_1.jpg

His twinkly blue eyes and loud effusive voice was always accompanied by a laugh. I was an exchange student in Zurich and on this particular evening we were being presented with our "godparents." Rita his wife looked so elegant and tailored, her short black hair was accentuated with grays colored in a playful burgundy color. She was sweet, thoughtful and organized, Roger was boysterous, ungodly smart and  quick witted.  I looked around the room and thought to myself: "How lucky can I be? I have an excuse to hang out with the most amazing and fun couple in this room."  It was also a happy coincidence that I befriended their son, Patrick, who had just arrived after a year abroad in Puerto Rico.

Patrick became my best friend and I saw Roger and Rita quite often. The Berny’s were very thoughtful and always coordinated with my host family to see when I could join the Berny’s to celebrate holidays and special occasions.  So though I have fond memories of celebrating with my host family, I also have a parallel group of memories for every occasion with the Berny’s.  My Birthday, Patrick’s birthday (a few days later), Christmas, New Years, Easter, a skiing trip, and of course the sheer pleasure of getting together just for the fun of it.

 I hold very dear and near to my heart how apparent it was that Patrick was Roger’s beloved son.  As a friend of the family, it warms my heart today to look back at all those moments when Roger just went from one story to the next telling me about how wonderfully smart or  athletic Patrick was.  The family joke was that even the Puerto Rican host family nicknamed Patrick to be "perfect." Whether he was or wasn’t is not the point. The real gem here is the showering of adoration that befell on my dear friend.  Anyone who growing up under such joy, teasing, and public expressions of love would be bound to be nearly perfect!

But Roger did not only light up when talking about Patrick, Roger had a story and an opinion about everything and anything. Roger had also traveled the world over so the stories and funny situations he found himself in were also plentiful. I loved hearing him go on and on.

Roger celebrated life, holding little back, everyday. His positive attitude and analytical mind were not at odds but found a unique way to balance each other out. He could find the most minute flaw in a design and raise a ruckus over it. Search for a plan. Implement it and enable himself to return to his positive outlook.

"Holding little back"… that is what was in part so refreshing. All around us people search fro perfection and normalcy in the holding back of their emotions. Emotions have become synonymous with weakness and failure, nakedness and embarrassment.  Roger thankfully missed that memo when it went around. Roger lived life fully AND that meant feeling angry, expressing disapproval or disappointment but also love and laughter and forgiveness. What is clear is that through ups and downs, in Roger showed me that when it all is out there the load of every individual is lighter and the balance favors love, laughter and forgiveness.

I have lived through many evenings of polite banter and small talk. I remember none. I can remember quite vividly however the day Roger and Rita came to visit my family.  I was recently engaged and nervous to see how my past, my parents and my fiancé were all going to mix.  To break the ice the evening began with Roger sitting on my parents terrace and offering up his take on America in honor of Jim. Roger had lived in America and admired it in many ways. Then abruptly came an equally effusive opinion on how America had lost its way, made recent boneheaded moves in international politics, squandered time and money attacking poverty with welfare, but have welfare diminish the spirit and drive of the poor. 

An ocean away from where I had met Roger, immersed in my cultural baggage, I cringed as I heard animated criticism of the US. Time seemed to stop. If my eyes were closed I opened them slowly to look around. Could the pleasantries recover? Did the charm of his opinions transfer to this different evening a world away?

The evening is etched in my memories, perhaps in part because of that moment when I cringed and time stood still. But the apprehension gave way to a wonderful evening of free flowing stories and debate on social issues, politics and life.  Roger’s candor was the key that set that evening apart from the rest. Jim and Roger got along wonderfully well. I think that was the first time Jim felt at home chatting up a storm in my parents house. There was no conversational protocol keeping facades in check. Conversations turned into debates and differences were aired, opinions changed and sometimes not.  The cynicism and superiority that attaches to opinions when they spend too much time held privately and unchallenged was not present. Ideas were free and the appreciation for each was not measured or challenged. We need more nights like that.

The next time we saw Roger and Rita, was when Jim and I lived in the Basque Country. My "swiss sister" was getting married and Roger decided that he needed an IT specialist and website for SIPAG. So for the price of tickets Jim and I were off to Switzerland. This time we stayed with the Berny´s as sponsors of the trip.  We had such a lovely time with Roger and Rita. Jim and Roger were like two peas in a pod. Debates and stories were jetted by a mile a minute. Roger insisted we accompany him to a famous Car show in Geneva and then enjoy a fabulous dinner at the Café de Paris where steaks were prepared so they could be sliced like butter. Nor Jim nor I are car aficionados but we enjoyed that auto show was like no other because of Roger. If I ever can afford an expensive car, we would consider a Lexus just cause that is what Roger had determined to be the best and in his talk of it, the luxury car we had never thought of having seemed a good investment.

Working with Roger in Zurich that week, Jim and I got a first hand look at Roger the entrepreneur. We drove to the city to his office. The office was nothing like the pictures we see of a cold faceless multinational. It was a small office with narrow hallways. Roger’s office had papers stacked in many places. As if someone knew we had just walked in, the phone rang. It was a French client calling to check up on an order.Roger was well versed in atleast 5 languages at last count.  He spoke French flawlessly and upon hanging up he commented on the call to me in Spanish and then turned to Jim in English and mentioned we were now off to the manufacturing site. Giving directions at the office as we headed out. I could tell that Roger enjoyed the feeling of each language on his tongue. He reveled in his use of each.

Along the way to the manufacturing site, Roger told us stories of business ventures gone sour.  Manufacturing plants he had to close due to mismanagement abroad. His life was not perfect and being an entrepreneur had its dark chapters. Through it all we saw an entrepreneur in love with his product. He thoroughly enjoyed what he did. Like everything in his life, he believed in his business so he poured himself into it. Nobody could live next to Roger and not become an expert as well.  Rita worked with him at the office. Over the years she had come to be very well versed in storage systems. 

The next time I saw Roger and Rita was in July 2004. That summer I was on my way to Germany for my brother’s wedding when I stopped over in Zurich for a few days. I was traveling with my daughter Olaia and I wanted her to see my stomping grounds of my year abroad and more importantly meet the wonderful people that opened their homes and lives to me. I called Patrick before hand to let him know of my plans.He told me that his Dad had been diagnosed with Alzheimers. My heart sank. 

I was only able to spend a day with Roger and Rita.  Rita picked Olaia and me up at my "swiss parents" home and we drove to a forest on the hills outside of Zurich. We walked around for a bit, talking, sharing, waiting for Roger’s therapy session to be over so we could then spend some time at their home.  Roger may not have always known who I was, but he was always charming and full of life and love and laughter.  We looked at pictures of his grandkids and talked about his trip to Puerto Rico and his times with my parents. It was evident after all these years he still remembered that very same evening I mentioned earlier. I was a great time. 

I left that day, knowing I may never see him again, hoping with all hope that I would. I wanted him to meet my other children. I wanted Jim to have the opportunity to see him. If only.

Roger Berny passed away on November 18th. 

I feel blessed and honored to have known him. The short moments in life that I shared with him enriched me well beyond he could have ever imagined. He is a testament to how one life can touch and change the world around him.

His constant analysis and quest for perfection surely left us the best storage system money can buy.  But more importantly Roger showed us that it was possible to balance the quest for perfection with passion and emotion. He poured himself into everything he did. He loved his family. He lived life earnestly and fully and found peace in his everyday. This was not the peace that means the absence of  hardship or absence of pain, its the Peace that we are taught gives us the strength to not despair.  Roger was true to himself. His opinions and brashness made him human and easy for others to accept.  I find my words insufficient, I wish my memories were more exact but with every fiber of my being right now I can say: "This world needs more people like you,  Roger. I thank God I met you."

To all of us left here on this Earth who know Roger, I pray to God that after we grow accustomed to the painful absence that we find a way to honor Roger’s life by living life fully: striving for perfection and for knowledge but daring to share opinions and our emotions, unafraid to connect with each other as with perfect strangers. In doing so we will be celebrating life in our everyday, in the style of Roger Berny.

One thought on “Celebrating Life in the Style of Roger Berny

  1. Laura,

    Patrick skyped me with the link to this article and he warned me to get a tissue before reading it. What a wonderful eulogy to a wonderful man. Thank you so much for your words. They mean a lot to me and I can only imagine how much they will mean to Patrick. Roger’s funeral truly was a celebration of his life and your kind words are perfectly fitting. Thank You and hey… Feliz Cumpleaños.

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