Reaching For The Stars – The Tuesday Before Thanksgiving

An Ofrenda For Austen, photo collage by Suzanne Sahakian, November 2021.

Austen died on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving – November 25, 2014. So, no matter what date his death falls on (this year it’s Thanksgiving day), it’s the Tuesday before Thanksgiving that is the most significant.

In my November 5, 2015 post, An ‘Ofrenda’ In Honor Of Austen Berj Brooks, I explained that Dia de los Muertos, the ‘Day of the Dead’ is a Mexican holiday that is celebrated on November 1 and 2, coinciding with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.  Here in Tucson, the tradition is richly recognized and culminates in an ‘All Souls Procession’ downtown.  Family and friends gather to pray for and remember those who have died and to help support their spiritual journey. Private alters are built honoring the deceased with sugar skulls, marigolds, favorite foods and mementos.  It’s a celebration of life, a joyful occasion of remembrance, in which death is recognized as a part of the natural process of living.

After seeing a Dia de los Muertos exhibit in Tucson, I was inspired to create that November 2015 post, which helped me to look outside myself and focus on Austen’s spiritual journey, his favorite foods and mementos, as the 1st year anniversary of his death approached. This year, the 7th anniversary of Austen’s death, the gallery in the warehouse where I have a studio put on a Dia de los Muertos Exhibit – A Celebration of Souls. For the exhibit, I decided to try my hand at creating a photo collage Ofrenda for Austen, focusing not just on his spirituality but his physical presence, his concrete love of sports, playing video games, his deep intelligence, his shoes, his cologne, his favorite foods, the importance to him of his family, and the love and respect we all shared for one another.

The collage was meant to highlight Austen’s life and to honor and celebrate his soul and to say ‘this is a person you might have wanted to know.’ As a piece in an art show, it clearly stood out against the painted catrinas and sugar skulls, but I did see more than a few young men stop and actually look at the collage, as if they were studying it, looking at the details and the words. And, for me, there was a quiet joy.

I know people don’t know what to say when they learn about Austen, but it’s okay to ask about him, to wonder who he was. For those who knew him, Austen remains a luminous soul in the lives of many. He reached for the stars, he enriched our lives, and we continue to celebrate his life and ours with positivity, growth and love.

This Moment Is A Gift

Austen was born 30 years ago today on September 26, 1991. As a child, he had many birthday parties with friends and family. As he grew older, the day was always special but the birthday celebrations were fit in between soccer and hockey games. Then more long distance celebrations as he went to college, although for his 21st birthday, I did make a special trip to Bloomington, Indiana for a birthday dinner. And when he lived in the condo with us in Evanston, we did birthday dinners in Chicago after work.

Now, as the birthdays come around each year, I look through photo albums and his writings, pulling out photos, marking passages, finding words I don’t remember seeing, a flurry of moments and memories. I share some of them with you here. When I get to this point, I have gone through a myriad of emotions and feelings but I do come out on the other side feeling calm and ready to move forward with a smile on my face. Like he wrote, ‘This moment is a gift,’ and what we do with our moments, makes all the difference.

I am Austen Brooks. I’m ten years old. I love sports and I’m pretty good. My favorites are soccer and hockey. I live in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan. I have two cats who are mixed breeds and a dog who is a beagle. I them them all. I have one brother who is 13 and one sister who is 15. My favorite book series is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. I also love to write and maybe that’s what I’ll end up doing.

Austen Berj Brooks, Summer 2001

This moment is a gift. Life is so amazing, that’s the thing we all get to take part in this life but some people don’t understand. And you treat life like a lover who just can’t figure out how to be steady in a relationship.

Austen Berj Brooks, October 11, 2010

I am. Still here.
Can you tell me what there is to fear?

Belief, it’s a weird thing, it can empower and destroy, lead one to kill or sacrifice, and if we have it in ourselves…the sky is the limit. Where did my belief go, it tumbled through the grinder of life, it was lost, it was — fully healthy when I was younger, I thought I was going to do something. What that was… well I am unsure, but I was going to be good at it. Then everything falls apart, and I mean everything. What to do now, where to go, it is up to me if I choose to embrace it.

Austen Berj Brooks, 2012

Well, here is what I do know. I am unique, I am capable, I love myself for being a dreamer, a philosopher, a challenger of convention. These are my great strengths, which I interpret as weakness, my deep inward life. Introverts are looked down on in my society. People are afraid to look inward, but this is where I’ve spent my entire life.

Austen Berj Brooks, 2012

It’s all a big fucking mirage. Wishing, thinking, wondering what will make me happy, make me whole. Life is about experiencing. More to the point, life is about being. I have to be patient. Honestly, I’m still figuring out who I am. A single day or event does not indicate what I’m about or who I am. You can learn from everything, the good, and especially the bad. My core is burning with fire and energy. It shines and flickers and flows. Beautiful colors emanate in all directions. Brilliant greens, reds, yellows, oranges. Who I am at my core is great. Unfortunately there are layers and layers of programming resting on top of that shining center. I really need to strip it all away. Do things my own way. Know what kind of person I am. A good, generous person. Not someone people should be afraid of or unsure about. I am what I am. What ingredient is missing here. What will the catalyst have to be? Love. Love for myself and others. There’s too much suspicion, misunderstanding, thoughts lost in translation. I am this whole, peaceful, mystical human being. I have a body, a mind and a good soul. I can be happy without being sarcastic. I can be genuine and strong. I need to take a step or two back.

Where I’ve come from is a bottomless pit. The climb was long and treacherous. I slipped many times. I got up and kept climbing. Now I can see the sun’s light shining down on me, but the world still feels inaccessible. I’m still not to the top. My eyes look up to the stars and I try to grab them.

I question everything I do. You have to be strong in your position, in your path. Purify your soul. Open your eyes. Let go of who you used to be and embrace who you will be.

Austen Berj Brooks, Journey Through Sobriety, June 29, 2013

Austen, when I look up at the stars, I think I see you shining brightly. Love you always and forever.

‘My core is burning with fire and energy. It shines and flickers and glows. Beautiful colors emanate in all directions. Brilliant greens, reds, yellows and oranges.’ Austen Berj Brooks, 2013. ‘Rainbow Dreams,’ Catalina Foothills, Tucson, February 19, 2017, by Suzanne Sahakian

Let The Self Drift Away – In Memory of Austen Berj Brooks

Austen left us 6 years ago on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. In celebration of his life of 23 years, I give you an excerpt from his ‘Journey Through Sobriety,’ where his writings are filled with his spirituality and the search for inner peace and freedom – “I just want to drift away and let my mind flow like a surging river” (Journey Through Sobriety, May 15, 2014), the passage below ending with “Stay calm, let the waves take you out to sea.” We all struggle in life from time to time. Maybe Austen’s words can lend some calm and peace in the journey:

Austen, Indiana University, 2011

Time to take advantage of this amazing opportunity to exist on this wonderful planet. Who could have made up such a blessing. With all of its faults and imperfections, the world is still a tremendously interesting place. Reality is truly more fantastic than any work of fiction.

Take [ego] out of the equation. Exist without it. Free myself from the insanity that has dictated my dominant characteristics. Selfish and arrogant and egotistical. But, of course, I am not here to assault my self, just dissolve it. Always seek inner peace and walk with grace. Tranquility, love, openness. Be there for other people. Let the self drift away. I just want to be a good person. I know I am underneath the top layer, but it has been hijacking the entire show of late. I am tired of living like that.

Humility is not thinking less of oneself, but thinking of one’s self less. I trust the inner part of me. The part that has not been twisted by the various difficulties that I had to fight off. I understand why I reacted the way I did, but the defenses need to come down. There are a lot of truths that I need to face about me and my life. I have to walk forward, into fear and uncertainty, trusting that my ancient and eternal wisdom will guide me forward. The universe is alive within me, it can come out if I relinquish control.

Photo of Austen taken by his friend Reid Fragel in 2009.

Stay calm, let the waves take you out to sea.

November 18, 2014

‘Always Seek Inner Peace,’ photo by Suzanne Sahakian, Half Moon Bay, California, 2019.

Happy Birthday Austen Berj

Austen was born on September 26, 1991 on a beautiful Fall morning. He would have been 29 years old today. He was a delightful child, born into a loving family, surrounded by people who adored him and nurtured him and who he loved.

As the photographer of the family, I took many photos over the years documenting milestones, birthdays, sporting events, recitals, family vacations, school functions, graduations, getting 2 of every photo and ending up with boxes and boxes of family life. Well, those boxes have moved around over the years from Grosse Pointe to Chicago and now to Santa Fe, where I have been attempting to sort through them.

What I’ve discovered are boxes of smiling and laughing children, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends, putting in perspective that, on the whole, we’ve all lived a wonderful life, with its ups and downs, its challenges, its joyfulness, its sadness, its unfortunate situations, which make us appreciate all the more what we have in this very moment and what we had.

“There is a warmth to life that somehow makes all the negative energy in the world stay dormant.”
Austen Berj Brooks, June 15, 2014

So, in honor of Austen’s birthday, a few photos from the early years. Austen’s first haircut and first birthday with Alethea and Lee Gaizak:

Austen’s baptism in October 1992 at Christ Church in Grosse Pointe, the Brooks brothers in bow ties, and the grandparents, great aunts, great uncles, aunts, uncles, cousins, Martha and family friends I had forgotten all attended:

First day of school pictures – pre-school for Austen in 1993 and first day of first grade in 1997, almost 6 years old:

Austen started hanging out at his siblings’ sporting events and then eventually started playing soccer himself (last image is with Grandma Roxie):

And drawing about scoring goals:

Family trips to Mackinac Island, Washington D.C, and Longboat Key, Florida, where he insisted on taking ‘Biggie Bear’ with him:

A lifelong love of reading, here reading Harry Potter:

Celebrating his 9th birthday and his 13th birthday with friends:

Finally, not sure when Austen wrote this, most likely in 5th or 6th grade. It is entitled “Colorful Leaves”:

“The colors of leaves are amazing. Leaves glow with great reds and greens and yellows plus many more great colors and some other darker ones like brown. These wonderful colors make me happy, a glowing sensation. The colors are an amazing sight on the tree and off. . . . You might want to look at them before they go.” Austen Berj Brooks

Austen, the images and memories of you give me a happy, glowing sensation. With each birthday, we celebrate your birth, your life, your tremendous spirit and capacity, imagining where you would be, what you would be doing now. We settle with how blessed we are to have known you and how very, very much we love and miss you.

Letting Life Happen

As I approach the 5th anniversary of Austen’s death, November 25, 2014, I find myself in the position of having just lost my father one month ago at the age of 93.  And I think because of this, the memory of Austen’s death and the days leading up to it have been harder and sadder for me this year.  Austen at 23, my dad at 93 – two people whom I loved, cherished and admired, who thought life was amazing and who endeavored to meet life’s challenges with as much positivity and optimism as they each could muster.

Reading through some of Austen’s ‘Journey Through Sobriety’ has soothed my soul a bit and reminded me of Austen’s efforts and insights at trying to make a life for himself under the circumstances he found himself in. On this day, the day after, and most every day, I pay tribute to him.


Austen Berj Brooks with his grandfather, Torcome Gaizak Sahakian, Christmas 2011. Austen was 20 years old, my father was 85.

Letting Life Happen
by Austen Berj Brooks

Words don’t do it justice.  Life is amazing.  Opportunity is knocking.  I am ready to be me. What other people think and their judgments are their own business.  I am only in the business of cultivating greatness inside of me.  A pleasant place to be and self-assuredness.  It doesn’t matter what happened in the past.  Sure I’ve overcome a lot, but there’s not time to dwell in pity and resentment.  Go forward with everything you have at your disposal.  Think about you and being who you want to be. Never change to meet someone else’s expectations.  What is life? No one knows. There’s no right or wrong way to live. It’s all made up.  I’m going to do it my way.

If I live the right way, do the right things, walk the right path, things will be uncovered to me.  It might mean suffering in the short term to reap the rewards in the near and distant future.  I just want to let go of all the bullshit.  The narrative of my life is a fictional recollection of the events that actually occurred.  Nothing holds these events together in reality. They are interconnected, but not in the way that I pretend they are.  It’s made up.  I am whatever I want to be. My only limits are those I place upon myself. I have to nurture the talents that I possess. I have to use these abilities for good. . . Happiness will grow.

There is no magic bullet.  It’s just existing in a pure and honest way and letting life happen.    August, 2014

And life happens every day, in its own way . . .


A Tucson sunrise, ‘Pure and Honest,’ captured on February 5, 2016, Tucson, AZ. © 2019 Suzanne Sahakian.



You Have To Dream Big

4 Years – the Tuesday before Thanksgiving (November 25), 2014


Austen in Paris along the Seine, March 2011

You have to dream big.
You can never give up on trying to be a legend.
Not just a good person or a great person, but a truly special, unique, amazing individual.
If you don’t reach for the stars, you won’t be able to land on one of the planets.
Austen Berj Brooks, 2014

We love you Austen and we miss you terribly,
but we will, like you
strive to dream big and reach for the stars

with tears and smiles
and everlasting memories
of the truly special, unique, amazing you.


Mind Field: A Rap by Austen Berj Brooks


Austen’s rap, “Mind Field” was included in an abridged version in InsideOut Literary Arts Project’s 2014-2015 Citywide Poets Anthology entitled “Mind Fields.” In honor of his 27th birthday, I have reprinted it here in full in a version of how I hear him rapping it.

life is a journey, yo, not a destination
I’m anxious while I’m waiting
to escape annihilation

the basis of my trouble is distant and evasive
it bubbles up and suffocates
the bliss of my creation

my history sticks with me and keeps me in the basement
defiantly I color it with my imagination
a useful gift I use the spit for radical creatin’
with unique perspective
untarnished by some ancient written words
too absurd for sober contemplation
be patient and think about it
before you try to take it apart
so smart

my words of warning are a lesson
all the answers lie within
reflective introspection
obsession breeds perfection
and I want it so I’m pressin’
the pedal down to make a sound
that shows a new direction

I’ve been around and what I’ve found is happy and depressin’
up and down and round and round
no seconds spent on restin’
the present is a gift but the future’s still in question
my heart’s about to quit and my journey’ s with my essence

living is easy with eyes closed
but what they show on TV
might just corrode your soul
some music from the past remains
it never gets old
I wanna make something that lasts to me
that’s worth more than gold

my mind is a mine field I have to patrol
scavenge eternal secrets between the blasts to unfold
my future and past together like they’ve been wove
like my hands are tied and tethered
with one pressed on the stove

I don’t have time to stand in line when I’m tryin’ to reach my goals
hindsight’s 20/20
it took 20 years to see they stole
innocence and happiness in quantities I do not know

accept my humble challenge
keep your balance
truth is what I show
but only if you seek
cause some of us were born to see
while others never get a peek

the one who gets caught in between is lost forever in his dreams
I’m just saying what I’ve seen – drugs are fun but shame of fiends
throw a kid into a cell – does that help him to get clean?

I’ve got friends whose lives are damaged
they were young, they couldn’t manage
they grew up and found themselves
distant shells of former selves

self-deceived rights the lies we tell
sentenced to hell but we prevail
pour out drinks to those that fell
sit and talk of pasts we held
cause hope and energy still run through us
paint our lies and help us to trust
that tomorrow’s a brand new day –
that this work is worth the pay

free my mind I rap all day
beating time and gravitay
looking deep into your eyes
still I’ll never truly find
what’s projected in your mind

we connect with honest lies
I’m in love with cloudy skies
how do I fall for what I despise?

Austen Berj Brooks, November 2012

Space Between The Molecules

September is Austen’s birthday month.  He would have turned 27 on September 26.  In honor of his birthday, I have selected a few excerpts from his writings and looked through photo albums to pick out a few essence-of-Austen shots. From a sweet little boy to a handsome, complex young man, we celebrate his birth, his life, his curiosity, his spirit, the depth of his understanding, his resolve, his destiny, his words.  From his Journey Through Sobriety:


Austen’s first communion  in 1999 at Christ Church in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, age 8.

I remember happiness. I think I am close to attaining it again. Being me, pure, real, not anxious about something that may or may not happen. Even if something happens, I am resourceful enough to handle it. Everything will be okay, Austen. Trust yourself, trust your instincts, trust the universe to guide you. There’s a deeper level to this. I want to tap into it. Love and understanding. True feeling. Embracing life. Feelings, thoughts, emotions.  June 5, 2014


Last day at Maire Elementary in Grosse Pointe in 2002, age 10.

What do I want to be? Cool, wise, intelligent, creative, open, empathetic, spiritual, confident. Positive, sober, understanding and fresh as fuck. Hip hop aficionado, politically in tune, clever, funny, happy.  June 13, 2014  


Austen in his basement ‘mancave’ with his stacked Dr. Pepper cans, phone in hand and football game on TV, Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, 2004, age 13.

It’s so crazy how you walk through life bored and unimpressed, and then all of a sudden one day you see things for what they are and you can’t believe how beautiful everything is. You appreciate the sun and the clouds, the trees and the air they allow us to breathe. You realize that everything is actually connected in a real sense. I’d like to think you can never go back after coming to this conclusion, but that’s not true. That’s why you have to be in tune with who you are and the reality of existence. The universe has billions of galaxies. Here I am in just one of them, in just one solar system, on just one planet, revolving around just one star.   July 1, 2014 


Austen’s first Homecoming Dance at Grosse Pointe South High School, 2007, age 15.

The distance between who I am and who I want to be
lights the fire inside of me
I’m tired but inspired, lie awake wired
by who I aughta be
used to spend time worried
about what people might of thought of me

Brown eyes and soft replies
Loves the only real high
It’s pure it pulls me toward the sky
We’re fighting now no reason why
I miss you back when you were shy
October 24, 2014


Austen on graduation day at Indiana University, BA in Psychology, 2013, age 22. 

We rejoice in the moments we had with you Austen, all of them, from start to finish and the moments we continue to have with you through your strong, positive presence in our daily lives.

you are the space between the molecules
a love that has no end
a life without boundaries


‘No Boundaries,’ Glencoe in the Highlands of Scotland taken by Suzanne Sahakian, Austen’s mother, while hiking the Pap of Glencoe in July 2018. © 2018 Suzanne Sahakian


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Neighborhood Club soccer, Grosse Pointe, Michigan, 1996, age 4

Austen was born almost 26 years ago on September 26, 1991.  I was born in October and always considered Fall to be my favorite season, but since he died in November of 2014, I think I prefer Spring now. I can appreciate the yellows, oranges and reds and the Indian summer days that tease us to forget about jackets and sweaters, but there are too many memories to contend with – his birth, his death and all that occurred in between those 23 years, floating up to the surface of my consciousness. Yes, I am grateful for the memories, even the not-so-good ones, but I still struggle with how Austen struggled during his last 5-6 years, how he put up a valiant fight trying to keep persevering with his life in order to beat the demon that haunted him.  In his ‘Journey Through Sobriety’ at 7 months sober he wrote:

I feel a little better, I talked about my cravings with my friends and got to hang out with them and kick it.  I still am feeling overwhelmed and very anxious.  I don’t know… I can’t risk my addiction.  It creeps up on you.  I can’t ignore it and not treat it for a week.  It doesn’t ever take time off. It’s always watching and waiting with bated breath. Ready to jump on me when it gets the chance.  Austen Berj Brooks, September 19, 2014

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Austen playing for Vardar Soccer Club in Michigan, age 17

Lately, I think about the concepts of destiny and legacy – finding and fulfilling a purpose before we die (fulfilling our individual destiny) and what we leave behind. Austen did not believe that life is predetermined:

Things may happen for a reason but that is just the universe expressing itself with perfect creativity and spontaneity.  That’s just how the universe meanders through the channels of life. One day I’ll be able to fully appreciate what I have here.  Of course I’m not satisfied.  There is so much more to be, do, think, and feel.” Journey Through Sobriety, May 23, 2014

From the day he was born, like all of us, Austen began forming his destiny – being, doing, thinking and feeling.  His sensitive nature and natural inquisitiveness grew into an empathetic intelligence, and his physical energy and persistence grew into athletic prowess.  At a young age, he seemed to have an understanding of the meandering universe and the twists and turns of life.  Here is a poem he wrote in 2009 during his first semester at Indiana University (age 18) already (unbeknownst to us) addicted to drugs:

Don’t ever doubt
Don’t count me out
I will be there
One day I’ll care

I point to south
When I should go north
I look bad now
But hope is not gone

The day must be embraced
Despite problems I have faced
A new day could begin
When the old day comes to an end

And on this new day all will be well
All will be balanced, in heaven and hell
I will be smiling like a limitless child
Looking back at the life I compiled

Precious life giving earth
Why can’t we treat you what you are worth?
And beautiful impossible life
Why do I live you like nothing’s all right?

What an experience is all I can say
I lived it, I woke up every day
I smelled and heard and loved
One day I will remember what was

Life is a gift and I can’t forget it
But life will get to you if you dare let it
What a journey one day I will say
“I never thought it would turn out this way”

Austen Berj Brooks, October 18, 2009

Compiling a life, that’s what we do during our lifetimes, no matter how long or short.  We take the good with the bad, the beauty with the impossible, and we meander through, creating our legacies, fulfilling our destinies, hoping, loving. In memory, forever, of Austen Berj Brooks.


‘Looking Back At The Life I Compiled,’ Chicago Botanic Garden, September 18, 2017, ©2017 Suzanne Sahakian|SuzanneSahakianPhotography




“Looking Back At The Life I Compiled,” by Austen Berj Brooks

Time To Switch Lanes

Austencloseup I love this photo of Austen, his maturing face, his direct gaze, his calm and cool demeanor.  He was sensitive, caring, loving, intelligent, thoughtful and reflective.  He was also addicted to opiates – not by choice, not by will, not intentionally.  In his second, focused attempt at sobriety, he attained a clarity and maturity I had not seen in him before – he was 22 years old, had graduated from Indiana University, and he wanted to get on with his life – he wanted a ‘normal’ life but knew he could never have the kind of normality he was seeking.  It would have to be a new ‘normal’, one created to fit his circumstances and to allow him to thrive.  ‘Happiness is right around the corner,’ he wrote in recovery.  He never stopped appreciating the natural beauty and loveliness of the world.  And that is where I feel closest to him – outdoors, whether standing on a balcony or taking a morning walk – he is there in the gentle wind, the fresh flowers, the majestic mountains, the vast blue sky, the stars on a clear night, the endless beach, the wandering trail – that is where I feel his warm, encouraging presence.

From his ‘Journey Through Sobriety,’ 3 months sober:

Everything is ok.  No it’s better than that.  Still, driving around on a summer day seeing all the young people going out with their friends, buying beer, having normal lives, I felt a little left out of it.  Like I’m missing out and like I will have to miss out for the rest of my life.  Like I need some drugs to truly feel the beauty of summer time.  This is just not true.  I just have to open my mind up to my surroundings and these new emotions.  I don’t need any drugs to be me.  I don’t need to change my consciousness into something different, I just have to expand what I already have.


Lake Michigan at the beach in Evanston, IL, taken by Austen on May 26, 2012, with my Nikon D50.

 Tomorrow I want to walk by the beach, breathe in the ocean, smell the warm air, think about existence, smile and know that I’m right where I am supposed to be.  . . . Drugs are an immediate dead end for me.  I’m not interested in giving away all that I have.  It’s kind of funny that I even need to continue having this discussion.  . . . My addiction brought me to my knees, then it swept me deep underground, then it went after my soul.  There is no going back for people like me.


Taken by Austen on June 29, 2012, with my Nikon D50.

I’ll always find things that are not perfect about me.  I don’t have to be perfect in any facet of my life.  I know I’m good looking, good natured, smart, intuitive, mature, wise.  I know I am a beautiful soul.  I just need to go out and be me.

I can find love within my self and the world.  I love the smell at night, I love that I struggled and came out stronger.  I love the sun and the trees.  Happiness is right around the corner.


At one of the Evanston parks, taken by Austen on May 26, 2012, with my Nikon D50.

A little more swag.  Some new clothes.  Some new goals.  A new outlook.  More positive, more sure of myself.  Getting their everyday.  . . . My vision is no longer clouded.  My Achilles heel is finally healing.  I’ve always been destined to be exceptional.

It’s time to switch lanes and start really speeding.  Passing these people and leaving them in the past.     Austen Berj Brooks, June 7, 2014



Along Lake Michigan at one of the beaches in Evanston, IL, taken by Austen with my Nikon D50.