Two years after her death, Westport author Amy Oestreicher’s book – “Creativity and Gratitude: Exercises and Inspiration for a Year of Art, Hope, and Healing” – is helping keep her legacy alive, her parents say.
The 33-year-old died of a sepsis infection in 2021, following years of health issues stemming from a blood clot she suffered two weeks before her senior prom in 2005. The incident left her comatose for two months, derailing her plans to pursue a career in musical theater.
Upon waking up from the coma, Amy could not eat or drink for almost three years. In her lifetime, she underwent about 30 surgeries, spent months in the hospital and worked through emotional trauma from sexual abuse she had endured as a teenager.
While many would be discouraged by the continuous hardships, Amy’s parents said she always found a way to live.
Westport residents Mark and Marilyn Oestreicher recently recounted their daughter’s many accomplishments. In her short yet impactful life, they told CT Examiner, Amy secured leading roles in New York City musicals, wrote and performed a one-woman show, gave numerous TED Talks, showcased her paintings and authored novels.
In her final book, “Creativity and Gratitude,” Amy offered readers 52 weeks of creative exercises to practice the four skills she said are key to resilience: Creativity, hope, storytelling and gratitude.
“She worked hard on that book. It keeps her legacy alive,” Marilyn said. “I mean, that’s really what it is for me. That’s what you want when someone passes. You want them to be remembered.”
The purpose of the book, Amy wrote, was to share the steps that helped her through her experiences. But to her parents, the book is especially important as it was published just a day before her death.
Without an author to promote the book and amid a global pandemic, initial sales of “Creativity and Gratitude” were low. A few months after its release, however, the book started to gain traction and, as of June, Apollo Publishers has shipped approximately 3,500 copies.
“It was going very slow,” Marilyn said. “And then all of a sudden, they wrote to me and said, ‘Hey, it’s picking up.’”
“It’s amazing in such a crowded field of self-help books,” Mark said. “It’s very nice.”
Writing was not out of the ordinary for Amy, according to her parents. She had been journaling since childhood, and eventually used the material to write a nearly 600-page memoir titled “My Beautiful Detour” and a musical autobiography, “Gutless & Grateful: A Second Helping.”
In a 2016 TED Talk she gave in Syracuse, New York, Amy described the lessons she learned from each hardship. After her stomach ruptured, she said she felt gratitude while learning to sit upright or brush her teeth again. When she realized that no surgery was a guaranteed success, she found courage in creation and writing her one-woman show.
“You have to understand that I discouraged her,” Marilyn said of “Gutless & Grateful.” “I said, ‘Amy, don’t do a show until you’re physically 100 percent.’”
Still, Amy pushed on. She chose songs to match her storyline, took vocal lessons to retrain her voice and eventually performed in theaters across Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts.
Watching their daughter jump from a hospital bed to the stage, Mark and Marilyn said, was miraculous.
“Even though she had the ostomy bag and the fistula, she looked gorgeous,” Marliyn said. “I was helping her prep for the show, helping her dress. And I said, ‘Amy, it feels like you’re 15 again, and you’re just getting ready for a performance.’ And she was so happy.”
While Amy’s passion for singing and theater was clear from childhood, Mark and Marilyn did not anticipate her later-discovered love for painting.
Looking to establish independence after years of hospitalization, Amy eventually moved to California. But shortly after her 14th surgery, her parents said, her wound reopened and she was airlifted back to Connecticut from Los Angeles.
“She was so angry this time in the hospital because her wound opened. ‘Here I am back again. I can’t eat again,’” Marilyn said. “She was so angry and upset.”
Marilyn recalled visiting the hospital gift shop and finding a set of paints and a canvas. She gave them to Amy and told her to express herself, and she quickly channeled her frustration through art.
“She said that she could express in her art what she couldn’t express verbally,” Mark said.
Sprinkled throughout the pages of “Creativity and Gratitude” are photos of Amy’s paintings.
Mark and Marilyn said their daughter’s resiliency, which she expressed through painting, writing, singing and acting, was obvious even in her final moments, when she was hospitalized for her seventh sepsis infection in April 2021. Her brother, a pediatric doctor, warned his parents that Amy would be very uncomfortable in the subsequent days.
“I went, ‘Oh, no, no, that’s not happening,’” Marilyn said. “And that’s when I went up to her and said, ‘Let go. Go to grandma and grandpa and be free.” And she did.”
“Five minutes later,” Mark added.
In October, Marilyn and Mark organized a three-hour memorial service for Amy at the Sacred Heart University Community Theatre in Fairfield, in which former vocal coaches, friends and family shared stories, laughed and cried together. Attendees all left with a copy of “Creativity and Gratitude.”