Saturday, April 27, 2013


"Amazing tradition. They throw a great party for you on the one day they know you can't come." 
- Michael in The Big Chill
Brendan Dean Mullen
(b. April 29, 1969 - d. April 9, 2013)

Brendan Dean Mullen passed away on April 9, 2013, hours after being taken off life support. He had spent several days in a coma following attempting suicide. His memorial service was held today in Arlington, Virginia.

Monday, April 29th, would have been his 44th birthday. He is survived by his two sons, mother, two brothers, other relatives, and a host of friends.


I knew Brendan only briefly, meeting him through a mutual friend at a Virginia bar in 2010. Our connection evolved into a sporadic friendship. Out of the blue, he would call up, and I'd subsequently find myself listening to music at Wolf Trap, or at the Sculpture Garden downtown, or sitting in my living room playing with paints or bits of wire, making odd objects, or dancing myself silly in some bar having had one or two too many beers. Because of Brendan, I saw the Spleen installation on H St. It was an afternoon with Brendan when I made Wilhelmina out of wire and glass.

Brendan grinning in beads
Spending time with Brendan was an adventure, and usually an unexpected one. He collected information on art processes, eccentric artist documentaries, worked on his own paintings and antenna boxes and metal sculptures, but he also loved nature, from snowstorms to waterfalls and his mother's beloved dog Guinness. He remains the only man that has ever shown me his worm farm. ("Is that some sort of euphemism?" a friend once asked me. No. He had a plastic file folder box full of soil and very happy worms squiggling about). Brendan was interested in everything, and would happily quiz you on what you knew,and zoom off on several different directions at once with it. Most of our conversations revolved around art. He viewed me as an artist well before I did, simply because at that bar when we met, I picked up the sidewalk chalk and drew.

2010, the year we met, wasn't a good one for me, and was difficult for Brendan as well. Custody issues left him distraught, ill at ease with the unavoidably adversarial nature of divorce. He was a gentle soul.

I never met his sons, but I know how much he adored them, taking them out for Five Guys burgers and hearing about their days in school and at swim practice. He missed them as he got to spend less and less time with them. And he knew how troubled they were by the changes in the family. He once wrote, with unusual and somber directness, about "realizing the hurt of the two black holes in my heart where I'm missing John and Daniel."

I do know that while we seldom chatted in depth about tough issues, we talked about my depression issues enough for him to offer to make me a light box. He wanted to help. He was that kind of person that, when you had problems, he wanted to help. I failed to recognize just how much he knew about the issue of depression, fooled by that toothy grin.

The last email exchange I had with him, after longer and longer gaps in our chats, was in 2011, and had as its subject "you ok?" I'd gotten a phone message from him, and followed up. He replied, "Thanks for the feedback about not sounding good. I guess hate getting msgs with subject 'You OK?' Hate is a strong word I don't like to use; and I do very appreciate the feedback. Guess I didn't need someone to tell me I was in a bit of a funk. But it is absolutely something I'd rather keep to myself."

From there, it appears that we spoke, and he was trundling off to yoga classes, and feeling better. I don't remember the conversation.

What I can't stand is that I never followed up again. I never reached out, even though I knew that he was having a difficult time, and I knew from my own wrestles with depression, that it doesn't just - poof! - disappear once you had a few good moments. Like cancer, it can come back, often stronger and nastier.  And Brendan's tendency to cover it up, to save others from any gloom and keep it to himself, worried me.

But I did nothing, and let the friendship drift further.

I spoke to him once more after that, shortly before I moved away from DC, when he called to tell me our mutual friend, with whom I'd had a huge falling out some time before, was pregnant. She's the mother of a lovely child now. Brendan, I suspect, would be pleased to know that, however tenuously, we seek to bury old bad feelings between us, as she was the person, remembering our friendship, that reached out to let me of know about his death. He didn't like fighting, and he was fond of both of us. He was always ready to celebrate the good in life and make peace. Or so it seemed to me during the time I knew him.

Since his death, almost every comment I have read about Brendan talks about his enthusiasm, his big grin, his sense of adventure, his warmth. I don't know what happened in the years that followed our last conversation, what changed that his enthusiasm for life failed to quell darker thoughts, nor if that change was abrupt or a gradual seeping away. I knew him as someone always looking for the good, expressing that enthusiasm.

Brendan once asked me in an email, again, trying to help me with my struggles, "When you belly breathe deeply do you visualize breathing in goldenhealing yellow bright and breathe out the bad blackness?  Sometimes I do." So as I sit and wonder what happened to extinguish his light, wishing I had listened more and said more when he was still here to speak and listen, I will also try to breathe out the blackness.

Brendan also noted: "I don't tell anyone what to do or feel or think, but if you watch Pink Panther Strikes Again I bet you would laugh." He was a man that loved to laugh - just look at that grin.    


  1. Very similar to my experiences with my old friend Tim, who committed suicide a few years back. I had withdrawn from his life in part because he was in a relationship, and I didn't want to infringe on that. He seemed happy, genuinely in love. And then, one day, he hung himself in his lovely attic apartment. The final line of the story, after his first attempt at suicide over a decade earlier (his then fiance found him, and called 911).

    I often wondered, in the months that followed, why I stopped talking to him. After all, he lived only a few blocks away from me. I wondered if I could have changed things. Even though we all know the answer, it's hard not to ask anyhow.

    1. I remember you talking about Tim... And yes, it's hard not to get caught in what-ifs.