I have eaten some of the best meals of my life because of Anthony Bourdain. When my son chose to go to New York as a celebration of his high school graduation I knew that we had to have a dinner at Le Bernardin. The reason we had to eat there is because Anthony Bourdain made it clear that Le Bernardin was where one went to experience the best. We went and it was everything Mr. Bourdain promised. My wife and I visited Austin, Texas and ate at the restaurant Barley Swine because Mr. Bourdain made it look so good and so exciting. I have been watching Mr. Bourdain’s travel shows for years and I like to think I was the kind of audience he was looking for in that I not only enjoyed watching, but his travelogues made me want to experience what he was experiencing.
I woke up this morning to the news that Anthony Bourdain killed himself. The news has really knocked the wind out of me. This was a guy who seemed to love life. He seemed to embrace challenges. He seemed to have it all…money, a family, a dream job, handsome, etc. And now it’s all gone. The recent suicides of people like Mr. Bourdain, Kate Spade, and even a man like Robin Williams, makes it clear that suicide, and the types of emotional challenges that leads to it, know no boundaries based on money, success, intelligence, fame, or lifestyle.
In a social media world where many of us do our best to put out best possible face in order to show that we are “doing well,” it is clear that many of us struggle. This morning I think of my father. In the last few days I have been cleaning up some of my dad’s stuff and in many ways doing the last business of his life. I’m throwing away a lot of old business stuff that was just taking up space. I have found it difficult to throw away his things, because it is all stuff that were pieces of his life. I don’t want to lose these last pieces of who he was.
I am sure that some of the sadness that I feel in hearing about Anthony Bourdain’s passing is related to some not-so-resolved feelings I have about my father. You see, while my dad didn’t commit suicide, he did pretty much give up at the end of his life. I haven’t said that to many people because it’s hard to say out loud. After the passing of my mom in 2012 my dad had hoped that he could start a new life. Ultimately he wasn’t really able to start all over again. He missed my mom, he retired from a job he loved, and although I was able to get closer to him in his final years, he missed his old life too much. Then, at the end, he just didn’t want to fight. In my last conversation with my father (before my wife and I took our trip to Austin, TX that Mr. Bourdain had inspired), I told him that I knew he was pretty sick and that I didn’t feel like going on the trip to Texas. He told me to go. He told me he loved me and I told him that I loved him. We both cried for a moment. I said, “there are things we aren’t saying right now, but I know that’s how you want it to be. I’ll miss you.” That was the last time I saw my dad. I did send him a text when my flight to Austin stopped in Denver. My text: “Just landed in Denver…looking forward to a great trip to Austin.” My dad’s text response: “You were conceived in a little house near Larmier Square…you should go visit.” And that was it, my last communication with my dad. He didn’t want to fight any longer and he had passed away by the time I got back to his home in Des Moines. My dad was fighting battles, some battles I knew and some battles I didn’t know. I tried to get him help, but mostly he didn’t want that help. He, like Mr. Bourdain, Ms. Spade, and Mr. Williams, were fortunate that they had access to the best possible mental health care, and yet, we have lost them. That’s the hard thing about this, access to help is just one piece of the challenge.
There is some good news though. Young people recognize the stigma around mental health and depression and many of them are doing something about it. A group of alumni from the school district I work in have formed “Project Silence No More,” an organization dedicated to collaborating with students, parents, schools, and their community to address mental health in our homes and schools. If I have one regret with my father it is that I knew there was more help available for my father, but the stigma of the challenges I believe he was facing made it so that we left things unsaid that should have been spoken. That’s why the name of this organization, “Project Silence No More” is so profound to me. I encourage you to look at what these incredible young people are doing (https://www.projectsilencenomore.org). My hope for the future lies in the fact that there are young people not just talking about the challenges they see in the world, but they are doing something about them.
There is hope. Thankfully there is hope. You see, I struggle from mental health issues. It is important that I am able to say that. I don’t get all of the help I should, but I’m trying to get better about that, and the fact that I can say that I face challenges is an important step, made easier because of the young people around me who have made it clear that it’s OK to say it out loud. I want to say to all of my friends, young and old, to reach out for help when you need to. Don’t feel like you can’t talk about the challenges you are facing. It will never be so bad that there isn’t a solution. Find a dog to hug, a friend to text with, a travel show that will transport you to a better place, call a friend or a family member, or just write about your feelings; all of it can help.
So, all of this makes me think of three of the greatest meals I’ve ever eaten, all in one restaurant. When I was a teenager my father took our family to New Orleans and he was very excited to take us to a special dinner at Antoine’s Restaurant in the French Quarter. He had read that it was the height of good eating and civility. I can remember the waiters in their white coats, I can remember the Oysters Rockefeller, and I can remember how proud my father was to be able to treat us to that fantastic meal. Move the clock forward to just a few years ago and I was watching Anthony Bourdain eat at Antoine’s and I had an incredible flashback to my childhood. As Mr. Bourdain sat eating with the well dressed waiters serving him the finest food in New Orleans I realized that I needed to go back, so we organized the last real trip of my father’s life and we traveled there with my him, my wife, and my son. In the winter of 2013 I had one of the great meals of my life with family at Antoine’s. My son can tell you in detail about the rack of lamb he ate. My father told the stories he knew of the special rooms off of the main dining room, and the waiter told us that he couldn’t tell us the secret ingredients to the Oysters Rockefeller. It was a wonderful meal. Flash forward one last time to a few weeks ago when I was able to take a friend to Antoine’s and share my stories; it was cathartic and wonderful. I got to share a special place, but most importantly I got to share an experience that was the kind of thing that my father, me, and I believe Mr. Bourdain loved.
I know I have more experiences like that in my future and that is what keeps me going. We all have wonderful experiences in our future if we embrace them when they are presented to us. My good friend Joe Turner, in his final days said, “Choose Joy!” Amen Joe, let’s choose the joy!