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

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.

Eight Months Out

It has been over eight months since Austen died. I find myself finally regaining some of my endurance for physical exercise like hiking, biking, doing 70 minutes of hot yoga in 105 degree heat. I have steadily progressed through various phases of grief, trying to find my way through emotions and memories that turn up whenever they like, when I’m not particularly in the mood for them, when I’d rather just take a nap. But sleep doesn’t always come easy, only when I am completely exhausted and spent.

Still, I have worked hard to maintain a positive outlook, thinking of myself as a bodhisattva warrior, charging into sadness and suffering rather than running away from them. Now I strive more for loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity and wish that for others, and I try to avoid being exposed to commotion, discordance, mean-spiritedness, demeaning remarks, judgmental behavior.  Over the years, I have been described as “irrationally optimistic” and “refreshingly irreverent [this by a more senior lawyer at my law firm when I was an associate],” which qualities may be helping me now.

The thing about grief is that it is constantly changing, day-to-day, sometimes moment-to-moment, so that one moment you may be feeling completely overwhelmed by your thoughts and emotions, but then you snap out of it. And you don’t need to dwell on it, you move on. This is the thing that is hardest to try and explain to others who haven’t experienced catastrophic grief. They may still be caught up in the unreasonableness of anyone, including themselves, ever losing a child, so when you run into them and you are eight months out and flourishing at that moment, they are months behind you and show visible emotion at seeing you. You then find yourself in the position of trying to soothe and comfort. Or worse, trying to explain to sorrowful eyes where you are at and what you are doing.

Yes, early on I did think that my situation ‘sucked’ and in private I yelled things like, “I hate this,” “I don’t want to go through this,” “I don’t have the strength to deal with this.” But, when I’m out in public, I usually feel pretty good (otherwise I wouldn’t be out), and am unlikely to say gloomy remarks about my situation. And, really, it would be better if the well-meaning people I run into refrained from those remarks as well. It doesn’t help.

Grief is a very individual process. I have my moments to be sure, but they are private and are necessary to my well-being. I don’t need to explain myself to anyone. In fact, when I have tried to do so, I have found that I instantly regret saying anything because my ideas from yesterday have already run their course and I am on to something else. And, if I say I’m doing well (at that moment) be supportive and happy for me. It doesn’t mean I’m finished grieving, it just means I’m moving forward, still continuing to appreciate the daily miracles of life, keeping the spirit of Austen alive, trying to live up to my full potential during this lifetime.

I return often to these words from a poem by Emily Dickinson:

Hope is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –


“Hummingbird Perching,” Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ, October 2009. © 2015 Suzanne Sahakian.

A Sporting Tribute

Austen loved sports, he loved playing sports and he was a gifted athlete. Growing up he played on soccer, baseball and hockey teams in youth and city leagues and for Grosse Pointe High School.

Last night his friend Drew sent me the photos below with this note:

“I wanted to share a picture with you that we took last week.  This summer a group of us Grosse Pointe boys have been playing in the Neighborhood Club softball league.  We are sponsored by the Atwater Brewery in GPP so when Chris Thomas and I went to make our team jerseys we knew we had to add a nice little touch to them.  Each of our jerseys has an ‘AB’ patch on our chest. Austen has been with us all season (and we could really use him!).  We want you to know that he is always with us because he is one of us!”


Top Row (Left to Right):  Matt Reck, Dave Clem, Reid Fragel, Chris Shirar, Kelly O’Donnell Daudlin, Kevin MacConnachie, Alex Parker. Bottow Row: Alex Piku, Chris Thomas, Jimmy Bretz, Pat Pawlowski, Drew Condino.


AB for Austen Brooks. Thank you Team Atwater! Austen is definitely smiling about this. Very touching tribute. Keeping him close. Play ball!