Where do you even start? I tragically lost a grandfather at a very young age, I lost my step grandfather as a teenager to colon cancer which could have been prevented if he had gone in for regular doctors check ups, I lost my stepfather to what we were told was a blood clot in my early twenties, I lost my second grandfather in my mid twenties to a long battle with several cancers, I lost my ex-father-in-law to cancer in my early thirties, I lost my friend Mark, that was closer to me than my biological uncles, in my mid thirties, and I’ve lost a handful of friends and acquaintances along the way.
I’ve got mixed feelings and curiosities about a few of the deaths, I have a feeling of sadness for a couple others who were not in my life for nearly long enough, and I have an active relationship with a couple that still show up for me in loving, encouraging, and sometimes funny ways from the other side.
My favorite is my Papa. He was an artist, a salesman, an amazing gardener, a fantastic father and grandfather, and he LOVED to travel. I grew up spending a ton of time in my grandparents yards in Fremont, where they had an astounding Eureka Lemon tree with massive thorns, and larger than life lemons. A Santa Rosa plum tree that produced hundreds of pounds of sweet and sour fruit. There were Concord grapes that grew over a pergola, a kumquat tree my cousin would climb, blueberry bushes that never really took off, and my favorite, rows of raspberries I would pick with their Springer Spaniel, eating more than I would bring back to the house in the little green plastic containers. My favorite picture of my Papa was of him painting a picture of a dock house, while sitting in the backyard, and a mountain of fresh picked plums are piled up on a table next to him. When I was little, I used to fixate on a painting of an Iris that he did. I don’t know why, and looking at it now, it’s a little eerie. There is no context, just an iris against a gray background. But something about it felt like it was physically sucking me in.
Flash forward to three decades later, I started noticing Iris’s showing up in unexpected and profound ways. One of the first times I really remember it was at a winery in Chinon. It was my first trip to Europe. A 10 day work trip visiting the wineries and vineyards of Alsace and the Loire Valley. We were being told what turned out to be a hilarious story from the winemaker, when I noticed the large patch of pale purple Irises, and I thought, I wonder what they smell like? I’d never really smelled one, and the ones they sell in grocery stores, while beautiful, are sterile from scent. The scent was subtle, almost creamy, and beautiful, and I now detect the scent in their wines. This memory became ingrained.
Two years later I had basically runaway from home to spend a month in Northern Italy. Barely a year and a half out of my divorce, and with an unexpected tax return and a settlement from a terrible car accident that happened the same time my marriage finally fell apart, I was out of work and almost completely lost. The best advice I was being given was along the lines of, “If I knew that I was going to be unemployed as long as I was, I would have spent the time traveling.” Seriously, in this day and age of wifi and skype, you can look for and apply to jobs from anywhere in the world, why be stuck at home surfing the infinite job search platforms when you can be doing it from a private villa in Tuscany? So that’s what I did. I booked a flight to Verona to see my best friend, visit wineries, and figure my ish out.
For my second week in Italy I had booked what ended up being a stunning property in the hills above Alba, and I had it all to myself. Battling Siri pronouncing Italian names badly, and driving a micro Peugeot with a worn out clutch down dirt roads, I came to a fork, and just as I was thinking, “Where the f*ck am I?” aloud, a large outcropping of Irises appeared and I knew I was not only going to be okay, I knew I was literally, and figuratively, on the right path. It happened numerous times, when I would wonder if I was doing the right thing, and the Irises would show up. To me this came to symbolize guidance, affirmation, and pride from my Papa. He was in awe of my adventures while he was living, and he spent the last decade of his life traveling the country in a luxury RV with my Granny, once visiting me at the CIA in Hyde Park. My Granny still talks about it every time I see her.
I’ve read so many books on life after death, on reincarnation, on near death experiences, that I am very comfortable and comforted by the thought of dying. That being said, if it happened to my immediate family, I would probably be beyond devastated, so I am living with the belief that we’re all going to live forever, and nothing bad will ever happen to my family. Here’s a list of ones I’d recommend you check out.
Many Lives, Many Masters (and anything else by Dr Brian Weiss)
So here is my current situation. I’ve just learned that a good friend and mentor from my early days as a chef is in the final stages of his life. And I’m not sure how to reach out to him. What I do want to do, is fill his final days with any and all of his last meal requests. This man was larger than life. Literally. His best friend and mentor was Paul Predome, and he became even larger than him. It was about five years later when I ran into a man greeting me with a huge smile, and bright eyes, at a celebrity chef event in San Francisco. I had no idea who he was, but boy did he remember me. Jan had had gastric bypass surgery and was now a tenth of the size he was the last time I’d seen him. His voice had even changed. He finally had to show me his ID, because I absolutely couldn’t be convinced that this was the man that had welcomed me at this chef’s counter every night that I could make it in from the time I was 18 to when I moved to New York at 20 to go to the CIA. His jolly and flirtatious friendliness was unrivaled. I have a picture of us standing together in front of his wood burning oven at Catahoula, that Monte recently found when he was cleaning up the garage.
This larger than life man, who I haven’t seen in a couple of years, is about to leave us. A decade ago a book came out called My Last Supper by Melanie Dunea. It was a gorgeous book that interviewed chefs on what their last meal would be. I don’t think Jan was part of this book, but how nuts to think, a dying chef, could pick his last meal. Well, I just googled it and he does indeed have a list of his last meals in San Francisco, so I’m trying to rally friends of his to bring it to him and make it happen.
I just got off the phone with a mutual friend that had just spoken to him, he was bragging that he’d been drinking $700 all week. Good for him. How I’m going to deal with seeing him, what I’m going to write to him, are yet to be determined. But I want him to know that he is loved and appreciated.
I opened this draft, and it said it was last opened 4 days ago. I knew the piece was scattered so I chose not to post it yet, but was thinking about it almost daily.
Then this morning I woke up to news that a friend had taken her life a few weeks ago. I started wondering why a mutual friend was posting old pictures of them together, but didn’t think much of it. Melody was the most happy, glowing, proud, and devoted wife I’ve ever seen. Her posts were always about how happy she was, occasional posts about her and her husband’s band performances (they’d just celebrated the 24th anniversary of their first date), and before that posts of her and her mom. They’d grown so close over the last ten years. That was one of the first things we’d bonded over, our mutual terrible relationships we had with our mothers growing up. And then theirs got better, and then her mom got cancer, but she survived, and their friendship was stronger than ever. She was just starting a new job that she was over the moon about. So I just sat there, looking at an invitation to a concert memorial for her thinking, What the actual fuck?!
I didn’t realize she was manic. The friend that called to tell me told me everything that she knew, and that she was acting irrational at a concert with her husband and ended up leaving. She then checked into a hotel, and the police contacted her husband the next morning. There was a note, but it was being held by the police until after the investigation. So we don’t know what it says, we may never know. But my god. The permanence of that decision to take her life. We all agree that she wouldn’t have done this if she was in the right state of mind.
And then the third loss that week. Anthony Bourdain was reported to have taken his life. I still don't believe it's true, buy I can be a sucker for a conspiracy. That, and I still feel like I know him after all these years. I just can't believe that he did it, with no note, and on vacation with his best friend Eric Ripert.
I was shook to my core. I sent Jan a thoughtful email, but don't know if he ever received it, and I felt truly guilty about that, wondering if I could have done more, if I should have made a greater effort to get to him in person before it was too late. The memorial for him was beautiful and exactly what he would have wanted with friends and fellow chefs in attendance, incredible wine, and tons of caviar, at his restaurant Epic right under the Bay Bridge, which he would routinely swim to in his healthier days. We all mourned Tony in different ways. Our industry as a whole was devastated and in disbelief. This man had everything. When I went to the restroom of a restaurant in town, I realized they were playing one of his audiobooks as background music, and when I figured out the voice, I had an epic out of character meltdown. That week, I was at work and I just couldn't hang, so I went into the walk-in freezer to cry like any self respecting chef, and got locked in there. I finally made it out, but was convinced for a moment that this was it.
Two unexpected deaths, and one with very short notice, in one week. Two peers, and one friend. I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around these ones and finding solace. How do you let go of people that had such a tremendous impact on your life? How do you get through the grief and honor them? How do you cope with the nagging feeling that you could have and should have done more?