Spade, Bourdain and Me


My mother committed suicide 40 years ago when I was just 10 years old, my sister 3 years old. Committed is both an uniquely interesting and singularly specific term for choosing to make life, already so fragile and impermanent, an immediate and determined end.

Having grown up in a peasant village in rural Romania, my mom spoke 7 languages, was a self taught draftswoman, amazing cook, talented seamstress, artist, fashionista, model, devoted wife, glue that held our large extended family together and no surprise, fierce tiger mom.

Had she made the commitment to live past the age of 32, Anna Springer Shaoul would have been known to the world, as she was a renaissance woman who made every endeavor appear effortless and expertly executed.

What does a child of 10 or 3 do with that information when a parent of so much talent, drive, beauty, wit, and intelligence commits to calling it all quits? How does a parent commit to leaving a child behind? As much as we soldier on refusing to allow the act to define us, it does. Suicide is the wicked monkey wrapped around our necks and draped across our shoulders always reminding us its there, not lost in the back of some closet or left behind on some counselor’s couch, but very much there for the choosing, for the committed.

Learning that Anthony Bourdain leaves an 11 year old child and Kate Spade leaves behind a 13 year old child, I want to go to each of them, hold them, tell them, this is NOT your legacy. I revisit that girl of 10, I once was. I saw my father go gray, his lush dark hair and moustache turning white in just a matter of days. I saw the pain of my mother’s mother, losing her only daughter, her only child. I would contain my sorrow as I couldn’t bear contributing any further distress to my family members. My family needed me to keep it together and I think we all felt that way, containing our grief to keep it together for each other.

There are only a handful of actions that receive commit as their vehicle verb and it is usually related to crime. I looked up the definition of the word “commit” and found the first to be related to doing something wrong. This definition is quickly followed by a definition to promise to give your resources to a particular principal. I found another definition as a pledge to a course of action.

I don’t know why I choose to focus on this word “committed” today. I just know that 40 years later, my heart still hurts. While the word suicide is one that I rarely use in relation to any of my personal experiences, the time has come to start talking about suicide and the grief related to it.

Over the years the idea of taking my own life has always been there. (Remember that wicked monkey resting on my shoulders, reminding me of its presence). Its an option available to me. And when our idols, our heroes, our mothers, and fathers, with so much love, talent and passion for life commit to the finality of death, why wouldn’t suicide lay before myself and others as an option?

While many of you may read my words in fear and concern for my own well being, I can assure you that today I am committed to living. I have two children of my own, one the age I was when my own mother committed suicide and one just a few years older. I refuse to burden them with that wicked monkey my mother left with me.

Successful, brilliant individuals with mental illness and depression are masters of concealing their torment. Stigma associated with mental health concerns perpetuates the pretense that all is hunky dory. Removing the shame around mental illness and its perceived impact on our personal and professional lives is imperative.

Along with having attended The University of Kansas, I happen to share Kansas City as my home town with Kate Spade. I worked in restaurants through high school and college and found Anthony Bourdain’s writing honest, vulnerable and somewhat familiar to some of my own restaurant experiences. A dear friend who attended KU with me, called me a few years ago, very upset saying “We now share something else in common,” she began as she shared that her mother had committed suicide. I’ve been haunted by her first words in that phone call ever since. I don’t want our friendship tainted or defined by this thing we share in common. And how I wish I could enjoy the trivial commonplaces of a midwestern city and a kitchen with Spade and Bourdain rather than the end they chose as did my mother.

But now I’m choosing to see things differently. My friend and I have each other to look after one another. We share an unfortunate understanding. And I believe, like me, she shares gratitude for this life that will keep us both here, grieving and committing to living this arduous, joyous, mysterious life.

If you are hurting, feeling alone, please know there is help. Please know hands are ready to extend and make contact with you, but you need to let them know where to reach. No judgment.

Sarah Shaoul