Austen’s Birthday

Austen Berj Brooks was born 24 years ago today, September 26, 1991, at 6:57 a.m. He weighed in at a hefty 9 pounds, 8 ounces, was 21 1/2 inches long and had a 14 1/2 inch head.  He was almost one week late and looked like a 3-month old. Fortunately for me, he was my third baby and the delivery was so fast my doctor missed the birth.  That was just like Austen – take your time and then when you finally decide the moment is right, go for it.

Austen was named after one of my favorite authors, Jane Austen. I told him this one day when he and I were sitting on the couch watching the BBC’s version of Pride and Prejudice. He must have been around 4 years old. He looked up at me and said incredulously, “you mean I was named after a girl?,” only he couldn’t pronounce his r’s so ‘girl’ was more like ‘geeil.’ “Well,” I said, Jane’s father was Mr. Austen,” which seemed to pacify him.

Austen’s middle name, ‘Berj’, is an Armenian name which has various meanings depending on the source: superb, sumptuous, luxurious; magnificent, splendid; elegant. When we saw how big he was at birth, we quickly determined that ‘Berj” was a perfect middle name.

Here is what I wrote in “The Austen Journals” shortly after his birth:

Austen has come into the world surrounded by love from his parents, his sister and brother and his grandparents.  I cannot get over the amazement I feel when I look at him — amazement at his very being, his size, his good nature.  I don’t seem to be able to grasp the concept of a third child.  He is not a given, but something given to me as a kind of reward.  I am forever grateful for his being, his conception, the good pregnancy I had, his apparent health and vigor, his beauty, his wantedness.

And today I found a letter my mother wrote to Austen from Longboat Key, Florida, when Austen was 2 months old.  I believe I read this to him when it came in the mail and then I put it away safely in his baby album. At the beginning of the letter my mother presents her ‘resume’ and then expresses her gratitude:

Name:  Roxie Sahakian
Age:  64
Education:  marriage
Experience:  raised 3 daughters
Specialized in:  grandchildren
Courses:  pancakes, gatah (Armenian pastry)
Extra curricular:  loving 7th grandchild, Austen Berj.

How lucky I am to be your grandmother.  How lucky you are to have wonderful parents and siblings.  How lucky we all are to have each other.

As I reflect on all that’s happened, I have concluded that the day Austen was born was one of the best days of my life, a joyous day worthy of the happiest of memories – of all those family celebrations, those children’s parties, gifts, balloons, cakes, candles, birthday dinners in Bloomington, and then in Chicago. I am hopeful that on this day each year I will always feel a serene joy and a profound sense of love and gratitude. How lucky I am to be Austen’s mother.  And as his grandmother wrote, ‘How lucky we all are to have each other’.


Austen’s 11th birthday celebration in 2002 with his maternal grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan.

Austen in Paris 2011

This week Austen’s brother, Lee Gaizak, started graduate school in Paris at the Panthéon-Sorbonne, also known as ‘Paris 1’. This is a dream come true for Lee. In 2010-2011, Lee was living in Paris and taking French classes at the Sorbonne.  Now he is taking philosophy classes in French and working on a Masters in modern European philosophy. While he was there in 2011, Austen and I traveled to Paris over Austen’s Spring break.

HotelWe arrived in Paris on an early morning in March and took a taxi to our hotel in Le Marais, a hip, historic part of Paris on the Right Bank.  As Lee had a morning class, we headed out on foot towards the Sorbonne, in no particular hurry, stopping along the way to take in the breadth of the city.


First morning in Paris.


Espressos at a café on the Place de la Sorbonne.


Meeting up with Lee G, 2011.


Lee G, September 2015.


Austen and Lee G, 2011.

The next feMexicanRestaurantw days we walked everywhere, Austen using my iPhone to navigate, seeing the sights, exploring the neighborhoods, eating wonderful meals, where Austen attempted to order in French, much to the delight of the waiters, marveling at the scenery, the history, the culture, the bigness of the world. Photo: A French Mexican restaurant where we celebrated Lee’s 23rd birthday and where we all agreed that the margaritas were very strong.


On this trip, Austen was 19 years old and in his sophomore year at Indiana University. During the previous summer of 2010, Austen had been in a rehab program in Chicago and was getting help for his depression and addiction. But, the ‘problems’ he faced continued to preoccupy him. In a journal entry made during our trip to Paris, which I found after he died, he wrote:

“It’s like an obsession, I’m absolutely preoccupied with my problems, they control and consume me, I can’t free myself from their hold and just be alive and feel freedom.  I’ve tried a lot of things and I always end up in the same spot, even when I’m starting to feel good 10 minutes later I could be right back where I started, it’s hell, I live in hell, nobody could ever understand the frustration of just trying to take in the moment and life and not being able to separate myself from my problems.  A lot of it is the inevitability that I’m going to be fucked up on drugs, that one hurts…it’s corrosive to my soul.  See all I want is to forget all this, and I’m trying to do that, at least while I’m in france, but it is apart of me, it’s a tumor that cannot be removed, I want to do me, without the negativity….I have no choice but to ask for salvation, in this life or the next…”

ABPlaceSt.Michel2This is what makes a situation like Austen’s complicated – on the outside things looked fine most of the time. In public and in family situations he presented himself well, was very polite, upbeat and thoughtful.  I think he did enjoy himself in Paris, his natural curiosity finding refuge and perhaps distraction in a new place, a foreign adventure that gave him some sense of limitless possibilities and maybe hope – and maybe more than 10 minutes of feeling alive and free.


Austen in the Tuileries Garden, approached by an African ‘entrepreneur’ who engaged Austen in conversation, placed a woven bracelet on his wrist and then wanted money for it. We declined.

StainedGlassNotreDameWhile Lee was in his classes, Austen and I explored Paris, the Left Bank, the Right Bank, mostly on foot, walking along the Seine. We saw the  Eiffel Tower, we viewed the art collections at the Musée d’Orsay, where Austen wanted to see paintings by Vincent Van Gogh.  We saw modern art at the Centre Georges Pompidou, we sat quietly in a pew at Notre-Dame, marveling at the majesty of the stained glass and intricate architectural details, we strolled through Luxembourg Gardens and the Tuileries by the Louvre and we walked by the American Embassy where my Aunt and Austen’s godmother, Anna Der-Vartanian, worked at some point. We talked, we shared observations and thoughts, we took breaks at little cafés and people-watched.


Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over The Rhone at the Musée d’Orsay.

I have asked myself repeatedly why such a beautiful mind and soul should have been so tormented at such a young age.  There is not and will never be a satisfactory answer, but I know he had more than a few moments where he felt good about himself, happy to be alive, free, and able to enjoy life, his family and his friends.


At Lee G’s apartment in Paris. Austen admired his older brother for his passion, intellect and creativity. He would be so proud of what Lee is attempting to accomplish.


Lee G took this photo on our last night in Paris. Austen is wearing the hoodie he picked out at the Paris Uniqlo store. He wore it often and it remained one of his favorites.

“Drifting Through Space and Time,” a poem by Austen Berj Brooks

From early on, Austen used words quite effectively to report on events, negotiate with the tooth fairy, chronicle his thoughts, feelings and perceptions.  During his sophomore year at Indiana University, he took a creative writing class, in which he created and revised this poem, originally titled ‘Drifting,’ as part of a poem workshop.  He told me at the time that he was thinking of changing his major to writing or journalism, but in the end he stayed with psychology and continued to use writing as an effective metaphor for his keen sensibility. Here is the final version of ‘Drifting’:

Drifting Through Space and Time

Peaceful noise on this starlit night,
The computer hums a constant tune.
Weighted shoulders resting at last,
With sinking eyes my mind will wander.
It searches systems for rhythm and sense,
A compass; something, to point me forward,
Toward what I know or proof I gather,
I drift away out to sea.

Memory imposes its will, a crisp
Picture, an arrogant youth.
His innocence quiet yet clearly pervasive,
His followers cautiously ask him for more.
The center of attention, he grabs it so easily,
Effortlessly holding it until tired or bored.
The class clown turned class king,
He wears the crown gladly,
But deep down what is there hidden, unseen at his core?

Once flowed like a river, without second thoughts,
Impulsive, unquestioning, before it was lost.
Before the first crash, before damage was done,
Yet with many more later, familiarity would come.
The machine’s automatic response at this point,
The pleasant technique that it had coined,
An array of beauty for eyes and minds,
Push out regrets and truths about time.
At once it taunts and inspires the same,
As I the actor, know actions can change,
Just one slice is missing, a feast is to come.
The shadows are dancing a slow motion waltz,
But all is quiet and still in this house.
A dream’s just a dream until it is not,
A thought’s just a thought until it’s let out.

Austen Berj Brooks, April 28, 2011


Self-portrait of Austen posted by him on Facebook on
October 19, 2013.