An Unwanted Story – Orange County Business Journal
Editor’s note: In 1988, Ed Lee and two of his brothers, Wing Lam and Mingo Leelaunched what is today one of Orange County’s best-known restaurant chains, Wahoo Fish Taco. The Costa Mesa chain is estimated to have system-wide sales of more than $60 million annually, and its founders are among the most philanthropically-focused executives in the region.
Lee has other restaurants and business ventures, and this year was named the Business Journal’s Restaurateur of the year due to his work with Newport Beach’s Toast Bread Kitchen & Bakery and Tableau Kitchen and Bar at South Coast Plaza. A second Toast opens soon in Tustin.
In 2016, Lee lost his son, Emilio. In July he published a book about the event, After: Learning to live after the death of a child. Excerpts follow below. Product of the book, written with Ronald Ottenadgo to charity.
National Suicide Prevention Week is from September 4 to 10.
For more on the local philanthropic work happening in the region, check out this week’s stand-alone OC Philanthropy special report.
I was born into a family of restaurateurs. As children, our parents taught my four brothers and me the ins and outs of running a restaurant. We learned to work hard, cook tasty food and take care of customers. These lessons were a gift, but what our parents wanted to give us most was access to opportunities unavailable in their country of birth, China.
They first moved to Brazil, where I was born and where we lived above the restaurant they owned. Eventually, they brought the family to the United States and opened a Chinese restaurant on Balboa Island in Orange County, California. We lived on the streets and walked to work.
My older brother became a lawyer. The second in line is a doctor. The three younger brothers followed in our parents’ footsteps and built a fast-casual restaurant that reflects our heritage. Our childhood was filled with the flavors of where our family came from, where we lived and where we played. Growing up in and around Newport Beach, California, surfing became an important part of our lives.
We spent several days catching waves at the 32nd Street Jetty and many weekends surfing in Baja California. There we developed a love for fish tacos. They arrived there after a morning of surfing off Rosarito Beach in Mexico.
By the time fall 2016 arrived, Wahoo’s had grown from our original store in Costa Mesa, California to over sixty stores in six states and two countries. Our parents built a life for us with their one restaurant. We took what they gave us and built a chain of restaurants.
As I continued to focus on operating and growing Wahoo’s and developing other business opportunities, I did everything I could to share life with my sons. I showed up and celebrated them when they had events at school. If they asked me to do something with them, I made sure I was there.
I encouraged their activities, even when they were different from mine, and made time and plans for us to create memories together, such as eating at the best sushi restaurants, attending sporting events and enjoying family vacation. I was not a perfect father, but I did my best to raise my sons well.
All of this – a successful business, a loving wife, the boys I loved and lived for, and the growing opportunity to mentor others – made up the “Before” of my life. I felt like I had everything. It was so good that the life-changing moment that would become the dividing line between “Before” and “After” was simply unimaginable. That moment arrived on December 5, 2016.
As parents, we never imagine having to endure the death of a child. The idea is unthinkable. We devote a great deal of our energy to keeping our child safe. We are doing everything in our power to protect you. But everything is not in our power. Sometimes the unthinkable happens and we are forced to live a story that we did everything to avoid. My son died in 2016. He committed suicide.
Part of my heart still breaks when I’m reminded he’s not there. I think other people instinctively know that and therefore tend not to talk about Emilio’s life. They refrain from sharing memories or discussing the last time it occurred to them in the middle of the day. They don’t talk about how they see his life continuing to impact theirs, because the fear of talking about it will only press on the wound, causing more pain. I am grateful that his friends were not constrained by this fear.
I was lucky to have people to contact who were not afraid of my grief and who could help me find the way forward. Eventually, as I began to recognize the destructive way in which I dealt with my son’s death, it dawned on me that I was living a pattern that many men fall into when their lives are interrupted by the unthinkable.
More than anything, if you or a friend is going through an unthinkable story, I hope this book helps you believe there is a way forward.
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