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.

“Let The Caged Beast Run Free: A Parable” by Austen Berj Brooks

As Austen persevered through total sobriety last year, he kept a journal of his development, his hopes, his dreams, his perceived self-growth. He had been through much in his short life, and as sobriety settled in, he was cautious, hopeful, honest and grateful for what he had, for his uniqueness, for his beautiful mind and “a bright future if I stay sober and keep growing.” He urged himself on even as he fought continuous cravings and depression.  This excerpt is taken from his entry on June 8, 2014, three months sober:

     “Controlled passion. Manage the fire. Let it spray when it’s appropriate.  I’ve been down for too long. I’ve risen to the surface now I’m going to reach for the sky.  Existence is going to be everything I thought it could be.  No regrets, learn from your mistakes.  Let the caged beast run free.  Every day, every situation is another chance to grow and shine.  Let your emotions out Austen.  Let them run wild.  Stop criticizing yourself.  Don’t dwell on what you had and lost, think about everything you’ve gained and everything you stand to gain if you stay on this positive road.  Life is a long journey.  The sun will rise and fall for years to come.  I don’t have to have it all figured out today or tomorrow or this year.  I can take my time.  I’m alive, things are happening, I’m sober, there is hope, I am strong and I know I can be an amazing person.  Just be patient and trust the universe. Just know yourself.

     White hot blade slides through my chest, cauterizing as it cuts, the design is at first unfamiliar but with patience a pattern emerges.  The sign of the beast.  The wounds heal instantly.  This one will not go down easy the Gods chuckle. A spear through the heart should put him down but there’s ice in his core and the spear shatters as fast as it was thrown.  The thunder and rain shake the ground as lightening strikes and puddles turn to rivers.  Demons chase him up and down the blood drenched streets.  So many wounded, so many dead, but he keeps running.  As he hits his stride, a full on sprint, everything shifts.  The clouds part, the rain stops, flowers bloom and trees turn every perceivable color.  Reds, yellows, oranges, purples, pinks, yellows.  The variety is jarring, but he’s smiling.  Laughter erupts accompanied by a soft, warm glow that emanates from the center of his being. His wounds are gone as if they never existed at all.  His run turns into a walk.  The skies smile upon this soldier who fought for his freedom.  The first test is complete, congratulations.  This boy is a man.  One day he will fly.”

Austen Berj Brooks, “Journey Through Sobriety,” June 8, 2014.


Photo of Austen that he posted on Facebook on September 15, 2014, taken by a friend in downtown Chicago.

“Being The Parent Of An Opiate Addict,” poems by Lee Warner Brooks

In the words of Lee Warner Brooks. Just published! This is a moving collection of poems from Austen Berj Brooks‘ dad, written in the days following Austen’s death. Pure raw love and emotion, beautifully written, evocative, in the center of a sad, searing reality. A tribute to both Lee Warner Brooks and to Austen Berj Brooks.

Being the Parent of an Opiate Addict: A Real-Time Poetic Response is a unique and timely contribution to the discussion of a growing crisis, as more and more…

“From The Thirteenth Floor Balcony”

In 2012, when Austen was a junior at Indiana University, I let him use an old Nikon D50 camera with a 28-200 mm lens. He took some photos in Bloomington, which I saw. After he died, I found the camera in his room in Evanston and discovered some photos I had not seen, ones he had taken in late May 2012 from our 13th floor condo balcony and others he had taken on a walk to the lake. Many of the scenes are ones I have photographed myself. I paired some of Austen’s shots from the balcony with excerpts from his “Journey Through Sobriety,” written on June 6, 2014, in which he describes the view from the balcony and his state of mind:

“How beautiful the world is… Moon in the sky, sun setting over the clouds, open water to my left, big metropolis in the distance. Here I am.  The green expanse of the trees spreads off into the distance as far as the eye can see, a lone church chapel sticks up in the distance.  Planes speed off to destinations far away, a train meanders through the urban expanse into the heart of the city and right back out of it.  Here I am.  Thirteenth floor balcony.

                                                                           * * * * * *
To find out that you are a wonderfully complex and ancient being expressing itself through the configuration of a human being. That’s what’s waiting for me.  It can be a lonely journey.  Most people shun the truth, they run from it.  They die on the way to the other side.  I am brave enough to make it.  Stay calm, stay focused, stay in the moment, breathe.  You don’t know what other people are thinking, their judgments are inconsequential.  I am what I am.  It’s not up to them.  It’s up to me and the universe.  * * *  I just want to go full bore into it.  Keep writing until my words become magic and take off.”  Austen Berj Brooks, June 6, 2014 (emphasis added).

The photos below were taken by Austen in May 2012 from our 13th floor balcony.  The first 3 photos provide a panoramic view of Lake Michigan and downtown Chicago. The last photo is a ‘selfie’ by Austen standing on the balcony looking into the window:




Photos taken by Austen Berj Brooks on May 27, 2012, from the thirteenth floor condo balcony.  © 2015 Suzanne Sahakian. 


“Mind Field” Rap Published Posthumously|InsideOut Literary Art’s new online literary journal.

MIND FIELD – Austen Berj Brooks

undr scr review aims to give young writers a voice internationally. In lieu of this ongoing mission, we are honored to have the opportunity to publish the work of Austen Berj Brooks,

By Austen Berj Brooks, November 2012

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’m usin’ it for radical creatin’;

My words of warning are a lesson;
All the answers lie within reflective introspection.

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.

I wanna make something that lasts 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.

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?

“In Rhymes”

From the beginning of time
to a million years in the future I find
my soul and my mind come together in rhymes
intertwined by these lines I so smoothly unwind
to the ears of the person with taste that’s like mine

Austen Berj Brooks, August 20, 2011


“At Lake Ontario,” photo taken by Austen, posted on Facebook on June 14, 2013.

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.

“Staying In The Moment, But You Have To Dream Big”

As I read through Austen’s writings, I find nuggets of insight, hope and inspiration, a young man with a luminous mind and cosmic vision, teachings for everyday life.  From Austen’s Journey Through Sobriety last summer:

“This is the prime of my life.  I want to enjoy it.  I finally have momentum in a positive direction. I’ve been speaking about needing this for so long.  If I could just get a little momentum, if I could just get a few basic necessities set into place…. So, here I am, about four and a half months sober, with a lot of positivity flowing through my life.  I am not perfect, far from it, I make mistakes everyday, I get moody, I say the wrong thing, but each day I learn and get a little older and a little bit wiser.  I just want to be able to be in the moment, I’m always so preoccupied with getting to a point where I can start to live.  Like if I just had this or that then I would be able to start living. This kind of thinking causes me to miss out on the present that is right in front of me. I have to lift myself up and be the person I am capable of being. I can’t let the darkness and negativity in.  I have to carry myself like the man that I know I am. … I have to stay centered and grounded in my self. 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 try to reach for the stars, you won’t be able to land on one of the planets.”  (Emphasis added.)

Austen Berj Brooks, July 13, 2014

This photo titled, “Reflecting,” was taken by Austen and posted on Instagram on June 15, 2014.