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Parts Unknown: What I Will Miss About Anthony Bourdain

written by Thu Tran, MD,FACOG
on Thursday, 14th June ,2018

Over the years, I have heard of many suicides from patients and friends, from the media on famous people like the Hemingway family members or actor Robin Williams.  There was an elderly patient who went to me for quite a few years, forming a mutual bond beyond the usual patient-doctor relationship.  I knew many details about her personal life including a very close relationship with her younger brother, a retired successful attorney.

One year, she came for her yearly visit and I asked the usual questions about her life.

“How are you this year?”

“Not a good year for me.  My younger brother just killed himself a few months ago.”

I remember saying to myself “ Now I know what that expression means, how the room is so quiet one could hear a pin drop…”

I let my patient tell her whole story, how her brother was taking care of his wife who was terminally ill, then he himself found out he had stage 4 colon cancer.  In the middle of the night, my patient was standing on the balcony of her apartment in Florida when she heard a gun shot from the building behind.  Her younger brother lived in this building and they had just talked on the phone about how desperate he felt about his life, a life unraveled by illnesses.  

My patient quietly got back into her bed and waited for a phone call from her sister-in- law.  The call happened just a few minutes later.  As she had expected, her younger brother took his life.

It was more than ten years ago since my patient died.  She went to me a few more times after her brother died and each time, we talked about her childhood growing up with him.  My patient survived two different cancers.  When her daughter called to let me know her mother had died, I still remembered the day she told me of her brother’s suicide.  I still saw her pain and the anguish in her voice.  Could she have done more to avoid his suicide? She thought she gave him some hope. 

Over this past week, there have been a lot of news about the suicides of Anthony Bourdain, a famous food journalist and writer, and Kate Spade, a designer.  Ironically, their deaths occurred at the same time the Center of Disease Control (CDC) updated its data on suicides.

Since 1999 to 2016, the CDC reports how suicide rate has jumped 30%, an astounding number for a country considered “blessed” by others around the world.   Middle aged men’s rate of suicide has increased 46%.  Suicide is one of three leading causes of death that are increasing, with drug overdoses and Alzheimer’s being the other two.  Last year, almost 45,000 people died by suicide in the U.S.  54% of people who died of suicide did not have a known diagnosis of mental illness.

Soon, like any celebrity who had died, Bourdain will be forgotten.  More chefs will come and go, and the next generation will not understand why a chef like Bourdain was even widely mourned when he was found dead in an hotel in Strasbourg, France, while filming a segment for his award winning show Parts Unknown. 

I hope Bourdain’s Parts Unknown will live on for decades from now so that the next generations will realize Bourdain was not “just a chef.”  He was a philosopher, writer, humanitarian behind an apron and a fascinating TV show.  He talked about food in the same manner a poet reads his prose.  He used food as a vehicle to present himself to the world.  I am a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain and will think of him for a long time.  Bourdain was the ultimate role model of living life with passion.  He was an adventurer of the five senses.

Anthony Bourdain was among the wise men who recognized how humans, rich or poor, Muslim or Buddhist, black or white, need the same foundation in life: food, family and friends.  The differences in cultures make many of us suspicious of each other.  We consider the “parts unknown” to us as “odd” or “weird.”   Many of us think only our God is true, only we care about life, only we belong to the civilized world while those who differ from us are savage.

Wherever he went to, especially in remote or impoverished areas, Bourdain treated the locals with such respect and awe.  He listened to them intensively, appreciated their outlook on social and political issues of their regions, regardless of their education or social economic background. He was a student who was thirsty and hungry for knowledge and wisdom.  He treated everyone equally ,whether they were rice farmers in Vietnam or important politicians In Russia.   He was grateful to be in their company.  Maybe he was grateful that they bear the burden of poverty and violence or wars.  He was inspired by their resiliency in the face of atrocities and injustice, by their happiness in simplicity, in conditions that many of his friends and American fellows would have considered unbearable.  

A few hours after Anthony Bourdain hung himself, his mother Gladys was quoted in an interview with the New York Times:

“He is absolutely the last person in the world I would have ever dreamed would do something like that…He has everything.  Success beyond his wildest dreams. Money beyond his wildest dream."

Obviously, Bourdain’s mother did not realize her son was wiser than ordinary men who often equate wealth and power to success or happiness.  Bourdain recognized his dark moments and often hinted about them. He recognized success has its exterior facade and illusion.

“Life is complicated. It’s filled with nuance.  It’s unsatisfying.  If I believe in anything, it is doubt.”  Bourdain once said.  

 Like an unpretentious  friend, Anthony Bourdain took us with him around the world to see what people eat, how they celebrate their lives, how they express their love, how culture, food and relationships intertwine in extraordinary ways.  He ate what we Westerners often think as “bizarre,” with such enthusiasm he made me have that yearning to try them someday.  Fear stops us from living an adventuresome life.  Fear stops us from getting to know the unknown which can turn out to be the most delightful experience.  Bourdain recognized how fear  often stems from prejudice and unconscious bias.  When he let go of his fear and prejudice, he made his life full and fascinating.

Many Bourdain’s fans, like me, have not had enough of the world he had explored for us.  Obviously, he had enough of his own world, to let the last tragic impulse take over his wondrous life.  Bourdain, in some moments of his Parts Unknown show, hinted about his loneliness.  He was surrounded by so many people who admired him and hoped to be his friends, yet he was lonely.  Again, how “fabulous” a life one lives in the eyes of others might not reflect how ones feels.

 Bourdain has left us with the recognition of faith in even the most remote parts of the world.  Faith, in Bourdain’s world, was endurance, resiliency, hope, and acceptance of a life with whichever hardship it might carry.  While engaging himself in his subjects enthusiastically, Bourdain showed me his complicated side in each segment of his Parts Unknown.  He presented the world of his subjects with such “Camus’ paradox,” a dualism of carrying on an ordinary and happy life  while being in an environment full of  darkness and misery. It was unfortunate that Bourdain had lost his hope and endurance for whatever inner hardship he had been carrying.  He was passionately seeking and presenting truth in his work and built extraordinary human bonds.  His, for however brief, was a life well lived.

 

I did my best, it wasn’t much

I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch

I've told the truth, I didn’t come to fool

You

And even though it all went wrong

I’ll stand before the Lord of Song

With nothing in my tongue but

Hallelujah

                 —Leonard Cohen

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