To be or not to be.
Four hundred odd years after William Shakespeare wrote those immortal lines, that is still the question.
The main question of human life.
In the past two weeks, two famous people, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, who spent glorious summers on the East End and owned expensive apartments and triumphant businesses in Manhattan, took their lives at the apex of their professional success, each leaving behind a young daughter old enough to be marked by these events for the rest of her fragile life.
Kate Spade touched so many girls and women with her pretty but utilitarian handbags and other designer accessories. She hanged herself at age 55 from a doorknob in her luxury Manhattan high-rise.
How cruelly ironic that Kate Spade’s final bag would be a body bag.
Anthony Bourdain was 61 with a hit CNN food/travel/celebration-of-the-human-experience show and sporting a better physique than most college athletes when he fastened a bathrobe belt around his neck to hang himself in the bathroom of an upscale hotel room in France, destined for the ultimate of parts unknown.
Sadly, this will be the final course of his moveable feast for which Bourdain will be best remembered.
Both just gone.
But Spade and Bourdain must have gone through their separate Hamlet moments before they ended their celebrated lives that still had so many valuable years in front of them.
Oh, they might not have channeled Hamlet’s fourth soliloquy before they took their lives, but certainly some less eloquent meditation on life and death than Shakespeare’s must have crossed swords in their minds in their final moments: “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles/ And by opposing end them. To die — to sleep . . .”
Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain ended their sea of troubles by choosing to die, to sleep.
I feel sorry for them.
But I have greater empathy for the loved ones who must now mourn and bury them, and live without them, especially the kids, two girls, one 11, one 13, who will wrestle with the dark choices of their parents until the end of their own lives of troubled seas.
I feel this personally because there was a recent death in my family, not a celebrity, not a suicide, but a valuable and well-loved life that ended at age 44. He left behind a brokenhearted little girl of eight who happens to be my granddaughter. She has wrestled with her father’s loss through every distracted school day and every fitful night since.
I will have to step into the breach on Father’s Day so that she can give a man she loves a card and a hug. And this year, I’m sure, they will come with a thunderstorm of tears because Pop is the nice old guy who spoils her and makes her laugh on Sunday afternoons. But he will never be Daddy, who ate breakfast with her every morning and helped with homework every night and told her all was safe when The Bogeyman awakened her.
She wears a locket with her father’s ashes around her neck “so that a piece of Daddy can always be close to my heart.”
There will be similar slings and arrows for the daughters of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.
But perhaps the best we can mine from their suicides is the national dialogue that has begun about this growing problem.
Maybe these celebrity suicides will make the rest of us reach out to a troubled loved one who might be marooned on an ice floe in the nuclear winter of a family’s “tough love,” a concept which I have come to see as a way of summoning our inner Scrooge more than solving the problems of the mentally challenged Tiny Tims in our lives.
On the morning after Anthony Bourdain took his life in Kaysersberg-Vignoble, France, I read an item about a man who jumped from the 16th floor of a Manhattan building on W. 57 St. and 10th Ave. His name was not even mentioned. His life, his motives, his family, his pain as anonymous as another quarter in a parking meter.
Was his loss any less tragic than Bourdain’s or Spade’s?
Or the 22 military veterans, most suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, who commit suicide in this nation every single day? Few ever get an inch or a glimpse of news attention.
Or the 2000 teenagers — five every day — who commit suicide in America every year? Many of these tormented young people were driven to their Hamlet moments by vicious bullying at school or by humiliation on social media.
This has to end.
The Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics report that in 2016 there were 44, 965 recorded suicides in the USA, up from 42, 773 in 2014. The suicide rate had increased 24 percent between 1999 and 2014, making it the nation’s 10th leading cause of death.
For every suicide, 25 people attempt it.
Many will try again.
Last week, as Spade and Bourdain were mourned, the CDC reported that suicides have been increasing for years in every state and demographic.
Nearly 84 percent of suicide victims are white, 77 percent men. Half of American suicides are committed with guns. States like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, and Maryland with the toughest gun laws have the fewest suicides.
The tragedy is that Spade’s and Bourdain’s suicides seem so preventable. They seemed to have possessed everything one could want in life and yet life, for both of them, no longer became worth living. They were clearly wrestling with screaming demons between their ears that the rest of us could not see or hear.
The demons finally won.
We need to hear the demons of the people we love.
When Robin Williams took his life in August 2014, I searched my bookshelves for my dog-eared college copy of the brilliant French existentialist Albert Camus’s great book The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he writes, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or 12 categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.”
Spade and Bourdain answered by tightening belts around their necks in New York and France. “To sleep, perchance to dream — ay, there’s the rub:/For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come.”
Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain will never swim again at Cooper’s Beach, never dine in East Hampton, or marvel at another sunset at Montauk.
Their joys and their pains have ended.
So, I reserve my empathy for their loved ones, especially their children, who like my granddaughter, must now live with the death of a parent for the rest of their young lives.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.
Contact Denis Hamill at email@example.com.