One, obviously: some families seem born to grief.
In 1963, Sylvia Plath committed suicide by putting her head in a gas oven. Nicholas was just over one; his older sister Frieda was almost three. At the time of her death, Ted Hughes had been having an affair with a woman named Assia Weevil, with whom he would have a daughter, Alexandra; she would move in with the family and care for Frieda and Nicholas.
In 1969, Assia, supposedly long haunted by Sylvia, killed Alexandra and herself in a manner similar to Sylvia's death: after dragging a bed into the kitchen and sealing off the doors, she sedated the little girl, turned on the gas jets, and then got in bed with her.
Nicholas was seven. Awful lot of death to grow up with.
Second thought: is depression hereditary? Is that why he took his life? Was it predestined? Did the fact that both parents were literary giants have any impact?
On the last question, Dermot Cole's fine farewell in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner suggests that Nicholas Hughes was not someone who toiled in the darkness of his parent's shadows.
After earning a bachelor of science degree and a master of science degree at Oxford University in England, where Nick spent his childhood, Hughes became a prominent fisheries scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he earned a doctorate in 1991 and joined the faculty.
He made lasting friendships in Fairbanks with those who shared his inventive interests in such varied pursuits as stream ecology, pottery, woodworking, boating, bicycling, gardening and cooking the perfect pecan pie. Nick guided many people in the winter to spots along the Tanana to savor the art of burbot fishing through the ice.
He spent countless summer hours in his research of grayling and salmon in the Chena River, exhibiting all the patience and wonder that defines a great fisherman. One of his innovations was rigging underwater cameras to get a three-dimensional view of the fish feeding in the passing current.
Many of the best days of his life were in the company of his partner Christine Hunter, also a biologist. He resigned from the faculty more than two years ago, but continued his research.
The focus of Nick’s professional life, one of his friends said, dealt with what might appear to be a simple question, but was extraordinarily complex: “Why do fish prefer one position over another?”
The logic of his research was that the combination of water flow and the streambed guide the way natural selection influences the behavior of individual salmon, grayling, trout and other species. And the behavior of individual fish can help explain population dynamics and other questions about life beneath the surface.
He was a mathematically gifted biologist who also was able to express himself with the written and spoken word.
Nick gave the keynote address at the 2007 Ecohydraulics Symposium in Christchurch, New Zealand, and no one dozed off.
“He was simply awe inspiring, leaving a lasting impression on all we spoke to afterward,” a New Zealand scientist recalled.
In the Times obit, a family friend had this to say:
“Nick wasn’t just the baby son of Plath and Hughes and it would be wrong to think of him as some kind of inevitably tragic figure. He was a man who reached his mid-forties, an adventurous marine biologist with a distinguished academic career behind him and a host of friends and achievements in his own right. That is the man who is mourned by those who knew him.”
It does sound, on balance, like the life of someone who struggled against great odds to forge his own destiny, and to at least some extent succeeded.