By temperament and profession, Bryan Bernfeld was an actor, and his portrayals were triumphant. The racist he played in a ninth grade James Baldwin play was so credible, some audience members actually accosted him on the street.
When cancer was first discovered, Bryan challenged it the same way he challenged everything—as an intelligent contrarian. In Hebrew School, he’d defended the Palestinians; in Honors French class, he was thrown out for making bird calls. After his sarcoma diagnosis—before the first chemotherapy port was surgically placed—he insisted on reviewing every line of the informed consent statement, and held up the operating room until he could consult with the surgeon himself. He was 13.
All kinds of unanticipated life accommodations followed. At Red Sox games, his protective brother doused Bryan in Purell so he could high-five strangers. But his actor’s life was never interrupted for long. Sitting in the Jimmy Fund Building, Bryan and his mother ran lines for Oberon in Midsummer Night’s Dream. He spent his junior year of college at the Moscow Art Theater, working from 7 in the morning until 8 at night, and when New York auditions were cut short for more treatment in Boston, he responded by enrolling as a graduate student at the American Repertory Theater Institute.
Even young professionals hurrying towards the future do a lot of waiting when they’re cancer patients—a lot of waiting. Some rounds of chemotherapy kept Bryan in the hospital for weeks at a time. In all the waiting, he acquired another art: he became—though he would never have put it this way—a kind of empath.
He noticed hospital workers rounding late at night in unpleasant jobs. He became the person who listened to his friends’ break-up stories, the one holding a door for a frail elder. The intelligent contrarian reveled in unsaintliness, but also, in the mastery of his formidable heart.
Bryan Bernfeld died August 16, 2015. He was 26 years old.
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