Let’s talk about Bernard, a man who really wanted to live.
On Thursday, I received the news of Bernard’s demise. He had been fighting cancer for three years. And since then I have been processing this news.
Bernard and I worked on the same team. I interviewed him and was very delighted that he joined us since he was a very strong candidate, and the role we were interviewing him for was not that well defined at that moment. I was involved in the pitching, and when he joined I felt a certain sense of connection with Bernard that made our relationship quite subtle, yet special. You always remember the people you bring on to Google. I personally feel very invested in their growth.
Bernard needed little patronizing. He was a star from day one. He was so bold, and yet so compassionate. HIs presence lit up rooms. His quirky humor, rather dry for some people, was quite reliable in diffusing tension. He was always the one bringing out the elephant in the room. I started to prep with him, to encourage his behavior in meetings I really needed support to bring out the elephant in the room. He was that kind of a person. You leaned on Bernard, and he partnered.
His ramp up in Google was fast, and one of the shortest. He carried the stripes even before he joined. So for him, he found home. And we found a truly Googley comrade.
After I left the team, our interactions became far and few. It was also around that time that he was diagnosed with cancer. With little details, and knowing Bernard’s disposition towards challenges, I was certain this was one of those stories, where with a few rounds of chemo, cancer will take a back seat.
I realized there was more to it when there was a summit, and he was invited to one of the sessions, and he took the VC from a hospital room in his hospital gown. I still thought, this was him being Bernard. He will fight this.
And then, after a long gap, I visited NY last year. I met the old team for lunch. He was also there. We spent 40min together. And 35 of those 40 minutes I spent with Bernard. He now walked using a stick. And he had a lot to share. He wanted to tell me all the details of his road to recovery. He was still as animate, and as full of life as he had always been. But when he stood up, I realized the discomfort he was in. He was in pain. I observed how the team had adjusted to his new situation. Everyone paced themselves as they walked to the elevator. They decided if a hop to the 4th floor was worth it, since it would make him more tired, and when we went for coffee after lunch, one of us always matched pace. with him, while others walked ahead to make sure he gets a chair when we get there. I observed a lot in those 40minutes, and understood the gravity of the situation.
Bernard’s zest for living was obvious in our conversations. He used phrases like – having to pull through, I’ve got this, this ain’t going to cripple me, and how he had walked around the block, without his stick for the first time just a few days before, and is now waiting for the day he can do that without his wife. He talked about overcoming pain with experimental medications, and using his work as a way to channelize his energy. He had a lot to say that day. He wanted someone to hear. He was also showing signs of resentment towards his team because they can be over caring sometimes.
I came back from the trip and was disturbed for days at stretch. Bernard was in decline. And I was worried that even if he makes it, his mobility will never come back. And that will crush his soul and his spirit. Because at that point, he really just wanted to start walking again like a normal man. He had cancer of the spinal cord. And the prognosis was not promising. Since a lot of people in the bay area had not seen him in a while, they could not relate to what I was telling them. We all thought he was improving and out of it. But my trip revealed that he was battling and things were declining at a pace we did not know sitting far away.
After that trip, I was battling my own life’s challenges, and had no time to check on Bernard. So when the news came on Thursday, I was not surprised. But I was disappointed in the way things had turned out. I pushed away the act of processing this news all of Thursday. I thought I will get over it. But I did not. I had mental image of an animated Bernard, his usual self, so full of life and with so much will to live, being buried. I felt suffocated, and weak. I gave up on my workout mid way, and broke down in the shower. I needed help since I could not process his death.
Fortunately, we have friends. V reached out on IM and shared with me what the grief counselor had told her. She is brave she seeks help when needed. I am weak. In my defense, I understand death. But I don’t understand Bernard’s. He wanted to live. He was so young.
I had a 1:1 with a friend who also knew Bernard, and also knows me. And he opened the meeting by asking how I was feeling. You know when you get to a certain point in your career, no one asks you that question anymore. You are not supposed to have feelings. Or if you do, then you ought to hide them. I told him that I am fortunate that I am starting my day with this meeting, because I am not fine, and I am weak enough to not admit it.
He let me vent a little. It helped, and I bounced back. Only to come crashing at lunch, when I started to read Bernard’s condolence card.
I took the second half easy, let this loss sit in, acknowledged that science and will only go so far. And then I did what I am now an expert at. I found some good in what had happened. If he had survived, Bernard would have taken a lot of time to settle in with his mobility challenges. And a vibrant personality like his, might have struggled with the notion of being dependent on others. And secondly, his wife would have spent her life in his care, and that would have changed the trajectory of her life. She now has a second chance. It will be hard, but she does have the chance.
We lost a good friend with whom we shared many memories. My favorite memory of his is when he was visiting Bay Area for a team summit. He saw the Google bikes and opined, that he has never ridden one, and wondered if this was just a showoff for sunny California. I was listening to his commentary from far, and challenged him to ride the bike with me to our lunch cafe that was a few blocks away. He loved the idea and we rallied a few more people to join us and biked to MP5 for lunch. Bernard did not know the way, but Bernard could not follow or take instructions from someone else. That’s what made him quite unique. So I slowed down and let him lead. He looked back and said, I don’t know where I am going. I yelled, but I know you will find your way. He pointed to the building we were heading towards, and raced ahead. He got there before most of us. He was always ahead, and charted his own way, just like with his battle with cancer.
I will miss those big eyes, lean and tall posture, heavy voice, and his warm embrace. But I know he is in a better place. And as for us, we are resilient humans. I went from – Denial to Anger, to Depression to Acceptance in 48 hours.