WHEN THE PHONE rang at 4 a.m. and a friend whispered, "Bernhart is dead," I thought that impossible. I had kissed his forehead, wet from fever, just three and a half hours earlier. He had fussed, "You already kissed me good-bye once." "I know," I said. "I'm cheating."
All of us friends who were able to visit him in those last days could not get enough of him. We went home only because we finally realized we could not save the moment forever. We would have to settle for memories.
Bernhart G. Mingia died of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) on July 17. He was 30 years old. He worked as an editorial aide at the Washington Post; and although he was the third person in the company to die of AIDS, he was the first in the newsroom.
It was a difficult distinction to wear, particularly because he worked in a world that thrives on curiosity and information, a place where stories on AIDS are reported and written almost daily. Yet Bernhart's illness and death touched us in a way reporting cannot. He was our friend, a member of our family, and his death made us face our individual prejudices and fears, reminded us that we are no different from the rest of society.
The newsroom, too, had to face the question increasingly being asked in office after office as AIDS haunts our lives: Where do we draw the line that separates the victim's privacy from another person's right to know?
In the end, because of the way we faced those questions, I like to think Bernhart brought out the best in his company, the best in his co-workers, the best in his friends.
I thought death would not dare touch someone so handsome. He was what we called a "pretty boy" when I was growing up. It was more a slur than a compliment. Pretty boys didn't know anything. They didn't have to, since their looks got them anything they wanted.
Bernhart had that "pretty boy" look: black wavy hair, perfectly smooth cinnamon copper skin (and here words fail), a tall body kept lean by regular visits to a health spa, a bushy mustache and dark brown piercing eyes. His mother is Jewish, of German descent, his father black. He took the best physical traits from each, along with his mother's straightforward honesty and his father's wry sense of humor.
Once a woman who caught sight of him at the grocery store followed him home and knocked on his door bearing a bottle of wine. He could have gotten anything he wanted with his looks, but he was always too concerned with substance -- people's motives, sincerity, kindness, honesty.
So two years ago when he first started getting sick, losing energy, coming to work with tired eyes, a result of restless nights and bouts of fevers and chills, AIDS crossed our minds but the word was something we wrote about and read about. It happened to strangers. It could not happen to Bernhart; he was too good.
His lean body got slimmer, but not so thin that strangers would notice. Still, he refused to go to a pool party, laughing and saying, "I'm not going to go and show these skinny legs. Anyway, my swimming trunks are too large." Gone forever were long days spent at the beach and morning dips at the neighborhood pool.
The fevers and chills came more often. The night sweats. The nausea. Then the difficulty breathing. He went from doctor to doctor, hospital to hospital. Most said he had pneumonia until finally, in August of 1986, on a night when he gasped for every breath, a doctor confirmed our nightmares. Bernhart had pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, an infection prevalant among people suffering with AIDS.
"It's a relief," he said, pausing. "A horrible relief." And then another time: "I'm lucky. I know how I'm going to die and I know when."
Of course, he did not know exactly when. But we could no longer ignore, pretend or deny. When he had been absent from work in the past, his co-workers would ask about his health, but those of us who knew him well could always say, "He is in the hospital, doing well right now. He should be back soon. He has pneumonia."
Now we could not say that. But what could we say?
During his first lengthy hospitalization, about a year ago, newsroom managers, Bernhart's immediate supervisors and a couple of co-workers and friends began to discuss what the company would and could do for him and what it had to do for his co-workers.
One of his colleagues called the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and the Whitman Walker Clinic in the District to make sure the company had the most up-to-date information and could make decisions based on facts. It was important that administrators be able to address any of the concerns of his co-workers might have and to ensure that everyone's rights be protected.
Whenever supervisors or friends were asked, "What's wrong with Bernhart?" the answer was, "Ask him." Since more than any other disease, AIDS raises questions about a person's lifestyle, everyone who knew Bernhart had AIDS felt it was up to him to answer.
Unfortunately, the process of determining how to handle all of the questions took longer than some of us thought it should have. Daily activities pushed to the side some of the necessary discussions. Managers went on vacation, big stories broke, and Bernhart was ready to come back to work before the office was ready for him.
A manager called to explain to Bernhart what was going on and asked him to delay his return by a couple of days. His friends thought this humiliating. Bernhart was understanding. He knew that being the first meant people had to ask questions that had never been asked before, make decisions that could stand the test of time because they might one day become policies.
When he returned he was a bit thin and weak, somewhat more reserved at first, but still handsome and elegant. A few people hugged him and welcomed him back; most stopped by his desk to say "hello." Those who did not know what to say said nothing or just looked down at their own fidgeting hands.
As it turned out, some people had guessed that he had AIDS but still others would not know until the final notice, the announcement of his death and the cause, was thumbtacked to the bulletin board.
The night before he returned from his longest hospitalization, Bernhart hardly slept. "I feel like everybody's eyes are on me," he said after walking through the newsroom for the first time.
His concern for others did not cease. He would sneak off to go to the men's room on another floor because he was afraid that no one else would use the newsroom facility if they saw him use it. He was worried that people would avoid his desk, be afraid to use his chair or his telephone.
There were a few ugly incidents, but I don't think he knew about them. "I don't wish him to die, but I think you get what you deserve," one man told me. There were a few cruel jokes about gays, a couple of hostile remarks about his being in the newsroom, and at least one person who would not touch the office coffee pot after Bernhart had poured a cup from it. But most people were calm and thoughtful.
Then he got sick again. And again. And again.
Notes went up on the bulletin board announcing that he was in the hospital and that he wanted to receive cards, but was too exhausted for calls or visits. If anything was said of his illness, it was that he was very sick and that he had pneumonia, both of which were true.
During most of the past year, even when Bernhart was out of the hospital, he had to stay at home. He was weak and had to be fed intravenously. The company made it clear that his regular pay and benefits were to continue. It would become one of the greatest gifts he received. It allowed him to die with dignity and without being a burden to his family, two of his last wishes.
Meanwhile, Bernhart's supervisor sent a message to him: "Tell him his desk is waiting for him. It remains the same until he gets back." Occasionally, someone did sit at it for an hour or two. But Bernhart's unused notes stayed in his desk drawers beside the tape-recorded interviews he had made for stories; his reference books stood under his name plate; on his bulletin board still hung the photo of his little nephew John, a picture of Bernhart-the-reporter with a notepad in his hand, and cards from what was his last birthday, his 30th on Oct. 22.
When he entered the hospital for the final time in May, his past paraded before his eyes. People he had not seen in years heard of his illness and came. Even on one of his worst days, a visitor might find at his bedside some young man whom Bernhart had helped as a counselor 10 years ago at the Catholic Charities Boys Home. When their emotions would not allow them to speak, they simply sat, offering their presence as a silent "thank you."
He had worked at the home while he was attending Georgetown University. But long after he left, the boys stayed a part of his life. They always found him when they needed a bit of hard advice or a buddy with whom to share a conversation.
Norman Beamon, 26, sat in the room one day sucking on a Popsicle, wearing a belt with "Marine" spelled out in big letters on the buckle. He and Bernhart had not really talked since the day five years before when there had been some dispute about whether or not Norman was doing the best he could with his life.
Then three weeks before Bernhart died, friends persuaded Norman to visit him.
"I was stubborn because I thought we had a lot of time left," he said to Bernhart, his voice cracking. "It's five years I'll never be able to gain. I love you and I'm sorry."
Raymond Herbert went to the room to thank Bernhart for encouraging him to finish college. Herbert, now 23, recalled he had run out of money after his freshman year and was not going to return to school, but Bernhart bought his stereo from him for $120 -- which was exactly what Herbert needed to rent a room -- and then threw in another $85 of his own money.
"I'm getting my degree from Hampton (Institute) before the summer's over and I'm going to law school next," Herbert told him.
It was typical of Bernhart to nudge people toward excellence. He knew I wanted to be the best writer I could be and he knew I admired the writing of another Post reporter, Sue Ann Pressley. So he would compliment me on a story by saying something like, "You wrote the hell out of that, Patrice. You're a damn good writer." Then he would pause a bit, squint his eyes and say, "But that Sue Ann Pressley is damn good, too."
He remained in love with life until his last breath. He had no time for sorrow or bitterness. He was still dishing out jokes, although he was most often nauseous, aching all over and suffering from severe stomach cramps. "Courageous" is the word most friends used. But Susan Taylor, the primary nurse on the team that cared for him at Washington Hospital Center, said, "I don't know if there is a word for him. You couldn't help but love the guy.
"I admired him," she said. "He never really gave up and he never gave up his concern for other people either. That is very impressive in someone dying. He wasn't afraid to reach out to other people for strength, but he wasn't afraid to be strong either.
"When someone is suffering as much as he was, you almost expect them, when they first see you that day, to ask for pain medicine," she said. "But he would always say, 'How are you Susan? How's your night?'
"Even at the point that he was dying, there was a dignity about him, almost a nobility," said Taylor. "He refused to be conquered by this disease."
He remained the alert, inquisitive reporter. He never stopped asking, "Why?" Every doctor or nurse who entered his room had to explain the medicine or the treatment. It was his way of maintaining some sense of control. He would half-jokingly say, "My life is too public now," referring not only to the questions hospital staff asked about his sex life, but also the fact that friends, relatives and doctors were handling nearly every aspect of his affairs.
To die of AIDS is to face other possible humiliations.
Wearing rubber gloves was the only precaution most nurses and doctors at Washington Hospital Center took when working with him, and that was only when they might come in contact with a body fluid. But one night a male nurse entered the room looking as if he was about to step on another planet. Every inch of his body, except his eyes, was covered by a piece of clothing or shield of some sort. He stared at the two visitors in the room, and we stared at him.
"Do they know what you have?" he said to Bernhart, and before he got an answer he began to misinform us, offering advice like "Did you know you can get it from soiled sheets?"
I tried to answer once, but it was obvious there was no stopping him. So we all let him have his say so he could leave. "He was a wealth of information, wasn't he?" I said to Bernhart, who shrugged. He didn't appear shaken by the episode. He looked at the nurse with eyes that seemed to say, "Poor man, to have to come to work and be so frightened."
At Bernhart's funeral, the church was filled with young people, most of them his newsroom co-workers. When we looked at his body, we saw ourselves and were more aware than ever that large portions of our generation are slipping away, that this new kind of death is becoming a ghostly constant among our peers.
Bernhart had in the beginning divided people into two groups, those he told of his illness and those he did not tell. As time went by, the list of those he told grew. By his last day, he believed it does not matter so much how a man dies as it matters how he lives. He trusted his real friends would know that.
Nurse Raymond Thomas said, "He was dying and he would say 'thank you' to me for taking his temperature. He thanked me immensely for the care I gave him. I told him you get in life what you give."
We all like to imagine that we will be brave when we face death, but how will we know? There is no trial run. You find your courage somewhere in the process. Bernhart's grew with each test, as if by jumping one hurdle he gained wind to jump the next.
Perhaps the last gift Bernhart gave while alive was to teach his friends how to die with dignity. He once said, "I prayed to die today," but he never really complained about his pain or how his life was coming to an end. "I have faced a lot," he said to his doctor. "I've dealt with my disease. I've faced the fact I'm going to die. Now I just want to get the most effective medicine I can get because I think I've had enough pain."
It seemed a modest request. While the doctor tried to find just the right medication, Bernhart wrote one of his last notes on a yellow legal pad: "Dear God, Please help me overcome this painful period in my life. Please provide strength so that I may face my destiny with pride and conviction."
Patrice Gaines-Carter is a Washington Post reporter.