Editor’s Note: In 1988, Ed Lee and two of his brothers, Wing Lam and Mingo Lee, started what’s now one of Orange County’s best-known restaurant chains, Wahoo’s Fish Taco. The Costa Mesa chain is estimated to have systemwide sales of more than $60 million annually, and its founders are among the area’s more philanthropic-focused executives.
Lee has other restaurant 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 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. This July, he released a book chronicling the event, After: Learning How to Live After the Death of a Child. Excerpts follow below. Proceeds from the book, written with Ronald Ottenad, go to charity.
National Suicide Prevention Week is Sept. 4-10.
For more on local philanthropic work taking place in the area, see 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 how to work hard, cook tasty food, and take care of customers. These lessons were a gift, but the thing our parents most wanted to give us was access to opportunities unavailable in the country of their 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 down the street and walked to work.
My oldest 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 reflected our heritage. Our childhood was filled with the flavors of the places our family had come from, where we had lived, and where we had played. Growing up in and around Newport Beach, California, surfing became an important part of our lives.
We spent many days catching waves at the 32nd Street Jetty and lots of weekends surfing in Baja California. There, we developed a love for fish tacos. They hit the spot after a morning of surfing off Rosarito Beach in Mexico.
By the time the fall of 2016 rolled around, 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 had given us and built a chain of restaurants.
While I continued to give myself to operating and growing Wahoo’s and developing other business opportunities, I did all 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 pursuits, even when they were different from mine, and I made time and plans for us to create memories together—like eating at the best sushi places, going to sporting events, and enjoying family vacations. I was not a perfect father, but I did my best to parent 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 it all. It was so good that the life-altering moment that would become the dividing line between the “Before” and “After” was simply unimaginable. That moment came on December 5th, 2016.
As parents, we never imagine having to endure the death of a child. The idea is unthinkable. We dedicate much of our energy to keeping our child safe. We do everything in our power to provide protection. But not everything is in our power. Sometimes the unthinkable happens, and we are forced to live out a story we have done everything to avoid. My son died in 2016. He took his own life.
Part of my heart still breaks when I am reminded he is not there. I think others instinctively know this and so they have a tendency to not speak about Emilio’s life. They refrain from sharing memories or discussing the last time he popped into their mind in the middle of the day. They don’t talk about ways they see his life continue to impact theirs, for fear talking about it will just press on the wound, causing more pain. I am thankful his friends have not been constrained by that fear.
I was blessed to have people to reach out to who were not afraid of my grief and who could assist me in discovering the way forward. Eventually, as I began to recognize the destructive way I was handling the death of my son, it dawned on me that I was living out a pattern many men fall into when their lives are interrupted by the unthinkable.
More than anything, if you or a friend are living an unthinkable story, I hope this book helps you believe there is a way forward.