People near and far were inspired by Amy Ettinger essay


The letters began arriving months ago at our house and in our inboxes. By my count there are more than 500 of them, and that’s just from strangers.

People were writing to my wife, Amy Ettinger, who died last month at age 49. You might know Amy from her words in these pages about the end of her life.

Not everyone has moments of clarity when they find out they are dying. My wife did.

Her aggressive cancer had winnowed her body, and her strength was so limited that she dictated the essay to me in a sunlit glass-lined reading room at the University of California at Santa Cruz rather than typing it out herself.

As we overlooked a redwood forest, Amy had no way of predicting that the lines she composed on the spot would be calls to action for readers from all over the United States, as well as Canada, Poland, France and Greece.

She was flooded with responses to her essay, which essentially asked: What would your life look like if you cared much less about what other people think of you?

Could life be “a series of moments,” and not the endless pursuit of stability over bliss, or working for some long-delayed dream of post-retirement fulfillment?

Amy had a history of embracing creative risk and adventure, and wrote how putting friends and family first allowed her to face her terminal cancer diagnosis with a deep gratitude for the life she loved.

“Lasting love is about finding someone who will show up for you,” Amy wrote.

And also: “I’ve always tried to say ‘yes’ to the voice that tells me I should go out and do something now, even when that decision seems wildly impractical.”

Her essay touched people near and very far, and for reasons that surprised us, strangers wanted to connect with her before she died. They wanted to share their own stories and gratitude with her.

It offered her a comfort she did not know she needed.

Here are some of the ones that moved her the most.

“I live in a small town in Idaho that is full of hate, and after reading your story, I need to sell and move!” one message read.

Another reader wrote that he felt trapped on a corporate career ladder and was feeling anxious, which was stressing his mental health and close relationships.

“I have 10 chapters of a weird and wonderful novel and haven’t done anything with that in months even though it would probably only take a few solid weeks to finish writing it,” he wrote. “I will carry a tiny piece of your intrepid creative spirit with me as I rearrange my priorities in honor of remembering what’s truly important in life (which … isn’t corporate America).”

For one Los Angeles-based reader, Amy’s column was the tipping point that made him go ahead and book an endlessly postponed trip and reunion with loved ones.

“You helped me to realize I have said NO to too many life-affirming memories, even as our family has experienced a lot of loss over the years,” the reader said. “I am going to let my wife, daughter and son know that I will take that trip to Kastoria, Greece, home of their paternal ancestors, most of whom were taken to the camps during World War II. We will spend wonderful family time in a beautiful place and thank our family who came before us for their sacrifices. And I will think of you and say a prayer and send my eternal gratitude.”

Other readers spoke of lives crammed with tedious complications, from high-maintenance people to useless possessions.

One such reader thanked Amy for “really driving home [the] message to stop faffing around with crap that doesn’t matter and make the most of whatever time I have left. During the past few years of loss, dislocation, and general global craziness, I’ve forgotten this and come pretty close to giving up—on writing, yes, but more than that, on living. Sure, I drag through the motions for the sake of the people I love, but in a way that thumbs a nose at the monumental gift that life truly is. Your story and, again, your utmost humanity in sharing it have flipped a switch in me, and for that, I sincerely and ardently thank you.”

Some readers said the essay helped them realize that moments of joy and repose can lead to resilience in the midst of suffering. If Amy was dealing with Stage 4 cancer and could find so much light in her life, what was their excuse, anyway?

“Oh, how I cried and cried,” one reader said about reading Amy’s essay. “I then printed it out and placed it in my Bible. It’ll stay there so when I’m ready to give up on life again, I’ll read it and keep going.”

But the message that touched Amy beyond the others came from someone she knew, journalist Dania Akkad, who remembered an intervention Amy made on her behalf while working as a reporter for a California newspaper in the early 2000s. Akkad was an intern at the paper.

“We had a writing coach visit that summer,” Akkad recalled. “Long story short, you overheard me in the bathroom saying he’d made a pass at me when I had a meeting to discuss my reporting career (well at least that’s what I thought it was!) You came out of the bathroom stall and you said if I didn’t report this to management, you would.”

“It all felt so embarrassing and awkward and, well, my fault!” Akkad wrote. “Anyway, I did go to management largely because you put the pressure on. However many years later, I am so glad to have done that – and so grateful you interceded in that moment. It’s a fork-in-the-road event that has informed how I respond to this kind of crap. A real teaching moment. So thank you so very much. And thank you too for writing so lucidly about your experience now.”

Not all the notes were that lovely. Inevitably, a few were unwelcome, including missives from ultrareligious people wanting my proudly Jewish wife to get saved to spare herself from hellfire. And she smiled at the messages promoting quack remedies.

The many grateful responses prove that even now, in this era of online trolls and fake feedback generated by bots, engaged and thoughtful people really can make a difference by reaching out, human to human.

She carried this with her in her final weeks as she’d sit with me watching a great blue heron circling the sky over Santa Cruz Harbor. Or pulling up her favorite chair and watching the skateboarders, dog walkers and street basketball players on the other side of her picture window.

In this way, she embodied the spirit of her words. “I have never had a bucket list,” she wrote. “Instead, I said ‘yes’ to life.”



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