Ten years ago, I auditioned to play a role I’d performed twice before: Nancy in Oliver. I didn’t get cast (it had been a long shot, age-wise, but hey). The role went to my friend Amy – who was, to be fair, much more suited to it. Not only was Amy 30 years younger than I am, but she actually looked the part of the underfed, abused waif that Dickens’ Nancy probably was.
Why did Amy look so thin?
She hadn’t eaten anything for over three years. She was kept alive thanks to a daily IV solution, administered because she no longer had a stomach. Said stomach had literally exploded a few years prior, due to a major blood clot, right before Amy was supposed to graduate high school and go on to the prestigious college musical theatre program she’d been accepted to.
Instead of prom, Amy had spent months in a coma, at death’s door. She survived, after over 10 surgeries in the first week alone(!). And she went on to a long “detour” of a life changed by medical crisis.
Last week, though, death’s “door” finally opened to Amy. She passed awy, a few days shy of her 34th birthday and just days after her second book was published, with her loving family by her side. I think her body, after countless surgeries and challenges, had finally given up.
In the 16 years between Amy’s near-death and her actual passing last week, she left a legacy that will give gifts to the world forever. We all leave a legacy of some sort, really– the love we give, the work we do – it all adds to the world, and stays behind when our bodies go.
Amy Oestreicher, though, went far beyond the usual legacy – she left us with concrete examples of courage, resilience, humor, art and inspiration that will touch people forever. What she did – what she chose to do – with those 16 years is a gift and inspiration to us all. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving.
Bank to Oliver. I saw that show, and Amy absolutely rocked that part. Even though, during intermissions, she had to hook up to the IV to get nutrients. After many surgeries, she also was – finally – able to drink something. Well, sort of drink.
Fluids, finally, could go into her mouth, down her throat (must have felt amazing after years of no liquids allowed) and then into a bag connected through a hole in her esophagus. Amy showed me the bag after the show, and said that she tried to drink liquids that would color coordinate with her costumes. On Halloween, she linked to “drink” something red like cherry juice so she could pretend to be Dracula, drinking blood.
That was Amy. And it’s only the beginning of who she was.
Amy used her trauma to help others. She has left quite a legacy.
I’d met Amy when she was a teenager – we were both in a local production of Company. This was before the medical trauma that changed her life. She was a force. Talented, happy, with the perfect family/cheerleaders (beautiful loving Mom and Doctor dad, three doting older brothers.)
What a charmed life, I thought. Little did I know she was dealing with sexual abuse issues at the hands of her vocal coach. Careful what you assume.
Years later, I’d learn that keeping the secret of that abuse might have been part of the reason for Amy’s digestive issues.
In the years after her crisis, our paths crossed quite often as Amy started to rack up her post-trauma accomplishments. One of her strengths is that, when she needed it, she always reached out for support. And boy, with that support, did she make things happen. I never met someone so driven to give, to succeed, to live.
Some of her accomplishments were public – so we could show up to witness and applaud her wedding, her art shows, the one-woman cabaret shows she created, (Gutless and Grateful, what a great title, and then more), book launch events, speeches she presented to help other victims of sexual abuse to seek help.
Sometimes, I got to be more involved, as I partnered with Amy. I was Amy’s coach for her four TedX talks (the last one, virtual). I also coached her when she decided to record the audiobook of “My Beautiful Detour”, her first book. A few months before her death, I cast her in a virtual musical workshop about the life of Al Jolson.
I sat with her as we went through the hard work (as any writer knows) of cutting copy, shaping the structure, organizing her ideas – and the blocking and fine-tuning of the performances. She came through, every time, with flying colors.
Amy lived like she had so much to say, and perhaps not enough time. She always wrote too many words, made her points too many times. Writer’s occupational hazard. She sometimes balked at changing/cutting her words – but she always got there. She wrote lots, worked fast, and remembered every single note she was given when I coached or directed her. I was so proud to be a small part of her TedX success. I honed – but Amy had created.
Others coached and directed her in her theatre pieces, her art, her writing, her music.
Amy wrote plays, reviewed plays, became a PTSD specialist, went to see theatre (standing up, as she needed to be near rest rooms) wrote books, started a store for her art, learned puppetry, was going for her masters’ degree, got married and divorced, lived through a car accident, countless surgeries (she was finally able to eat, but her digestive system was never “normal”). This isn’t even a complete list. Talk about legacy. And energy.
Sure, Amy had an entourage of support and supporters – starting with her amazing family. But she still could have chosen differently. She could have opted for 16 years of feeling sorry for herself, of sitting around, of inaction.
Instead, she chose action. She chose to love her detour. I’m sure (I know because I was there sometimes) life was far from easy for her. But she chose to create, to work, to communicate, to connect. She chose to help others through her trauma.
Amy Oestreicher’s legacy will live on. You can still learn about her, hear her sing, watch her speak, enjoy her art. This will never be enough for her family and friends – for those who love her. I can only imagine the depth of despair that comes with losing your child, your sister. But for the rest of us – Amy’s legacy will have to be enough.
Let her inspire you. She always inspired me. Her legacy lives on – and is there for us to see, hear, and experience through the love, the work, the example, the art she left behind.
Her too-short life reminds us: what legacy will we leave behind? Stephen Covey, in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, suggests we think about what we want to be remembered for at our own future funerals.
Are we living our lives according to the legacy we hope to leave behind?
I hope you’ll get to know Amy through her website and work – her legacy. RIP, my friend.