Amanda O’Brien Obituary
| Amanda and her daughter, Devon |
It has been a month since Amanda died and I feel physically sick with grief. The week that I knew she was going to die, I got an EKG. My chest hurt so bad. The doctor said my heart was fine for something that felt broken. Have you ever hurt so much that your heart literally aches? I can’t stop the tears. So please don’t ask me how I am doing unless you want to see me cry like a baby. I am not strong, I am a complete mess. I show up for work because I crave the mental distraction to forget about life for awhile. I am going into the sorrow, it is deep and when I am done, I will be done. But not before. If I have learned anything, grief should not be rushed. As hard as it is, it must be felt. You must expose your heart and bring all that hurt in and let it shred you to bits, and then let it out.
I lost my mother and my sister within six months and I can’t believe it. I keep looking at the family photo in our powder room and mentally putting an “X” on the faces of the deceased. There are only four people left alive in that photo. More people need to write about death. But instead, everyone acts like a well behaved lamb and writes the obligatory obituary and plans the funeral service and buries the dead and orders “the stone.” Jesus. I sound so bitter. I guess I am angry about Amanda. She was so special, she had so much to give and she was taken too young.
I don’t want to write this. I’m quite sure that no one actually wants to write an obituary. This is the second one that I have written in six months, but it feels very different this time. I was so angry when my mom died. I am so grief stricken about Amanda. Writing this feels like a door to my sister’s bright life that I have to close. It feels final and I am not ready. I feel that the second I click the Publish button and this releases into the World Wide Web, it makes Amanda’s death real. I know I have to do this. I have waited too long but I just couldn’t bring myself to write. Delaying her obituary was part of a fantasy that I conjured up in my mind. It was like if I didn’t publish it I could just keep pretending that she didn’t die. I mean, that’s what obituaries do, right? They tell the world that someone has died. They are so awful.
There is more to write. I have to tell you about the day she died. But for now this is the right thing.
This isn’t going to be your traditional obituary. How could I write anything so boring and predictable about Amanda? She was just the opposite of that. She was vibrant and charismatic and emotional and sweet and good and talented and bold and beautiful. And she was vulnerable, it was her strength and her weakness. Most people think that being vulnerable is a bad thing. But Amanda’s vulnerability was her willingness to take on the emotional risk of trusting, believing and loving the people that she let into her world. And she did it unconditionally. More so, she was open to living life to the fullest. She grabbed that brass ring. Good for you my sweet sister. And P.S. you have our mother to thank for your joie de vivre.
Although I said that this wasn’t going to be a traditionally written obituary, and it won’t be (well…maybe a little), I did feel the need to gather as much information about my sister as I could before I worked up the courage to write this. Even though we were sisters and literally grew up together, when Amanda went to the University of Miami at 18, we didn’t live together much after that. My strongest memories of her, or perhaps I should say, my most intimate memories of her concluded the day she left for college. There were one or two short summers when our paths crossed and we were both home in Connecticut. By then, we were living separate lives and preoccupied with summer jobs and partying with our friends after work.
After all of us graduated college, our mother encouraged her chicks to leave the nest. She treated us like baby birds with benefits. She created a beautiful birdcage home that was filled with amazing things, she created wondrous experiences, she taught us well, made us work hard, and when we were ready, she coaxed us out. However, regardless of where we were in life, that birdcage was always there for us. The knowing is an important gift. The ritual of letting go to let your children soar, but also offering a safe haven to return to – is a gift. I think that knowing that there is a place to fall back on, emboldens young men and women. It allows them the safety net of taking risks. It made us go for it. My sister watched the movie, The Milagro Bean Field War and had a strong premonition that she needed to move to Santa Fe, sight unseen. By that I mean that she had never been there before. She arrived, fell in love with the spirit of the community and promptly made it her home for the next 30 years.
Before there was Santa Fe, there was her boyfriend/fiancee, Eric. Eric needed to go to California and Amanda went with him. When Amanda and Eric moved to Westwood, California in 1987 she detached from our family. It wasn’t just the fact that she was literally thousands of miles on the opposite coast of the United States – and just about the farthest away from our family – we all felt that she had left the proverbial nest to make it on her own. From California, she moved to New Hampshire, then briefly back to Connecticut (safety net) and then to Santa Fe permanently.
After she settled in Santa Fe, I’d visit once a year or so and she would come home to Connecticut. The sisterhood was always there, but the intimacy that comes from day-to-day living was gone. As I was gathering up her life’s timeline, I realized that I had forgotten, or perhaps never knew, some of the important milestones of her life. I must confess that I completely forgot that she even lived in California until I made a phone call to Eric. It was bothersome to me that I knew so little about such a large 30-year span of her life. I knew Amanda, the person intimately, but I didn’t know the details about her life. I longed to get as much information about her as I could before she died.
Phone calls were made to Amanda’s closest friends. I called most of them on a Sunday, five or six days before she passed away. That Sunday was the last time I expected to be with her before she died, and I was desperate to feel as close to my sister as possible. She knew many people, but her deep friendships were reserved for just a handful of people. So I called every one of them to let them know about our girl. I wanted to feel closer to Amanda and the best way I could think of was to talk to the people that knew her the best. I wanted to hear them talk about Amanda.
Julie, Eric, Clay, Peter, Joy, and Michelle…thank you for sharing. Selfishly, I wanted your stories, I wanted your memories. I wanted you to know that she wasn’t doing well and that her time was coming to an end. She was such an amazing woman and left an indelible imprint on the lives of so many and I didn’t want anyone to find out that she had died without forewarning them. If they felt the same way about my sister as I did, losing someone as special as Amanda requires preparation. Many hours were spent on the phone with her friends, we exchanged memories of her. I quizzed them about how and when they first met Amanda, how long they knew each other and what their favorite memories of her are. I devoured it all, it made me feel closer to Amanda, as if I was standing right there. Even after the phone calls were done, it wasn’t enough.
Her boxes were next. I blogged about Amanda’s demise from a rare brain disease, you can read about it HERE. In that post, I recalled the time when I went to Santa Fe to pack up her life. Everything was given away, donated, or trashed, except for a suitcase of clothes and seven boxes. In those seven boxes held Amanda’s most prized possessions. As she lay dying, I went through them.
Stay with me here. I keep thinking about a letter that Steve Jobs allegedly wrote on his death bed where is wrote about the only thing that anyone can have with them when they are dying. Have you guessed what it is? It’s your memories. And while it is true that my sister loved her clothes, she parted with them quite easily when it came time to pack up her life in Santa Fe. At the time, it surprised me how casually she let everything go, but now I clearly understand that her material things meant so little to her. It told me a lot about how sentimental she was.
What did she keep in those boxes? I came across all the letters she had received, some dating back decades and some she had written but never sent, there were ticket stubs to the Nutcracker Ballet in NYC, her daughter’s first fortune from a fortune cookie, invitations to all her daughter’s birthday parties, a scrap album, and hundreds of nostalgic tidbits of her life. Little pieces of ordinary things that added up to an extraordinary life. She kept thousands of photos of her life from the time she was born to the time that she was still healthy. She documented her life, for herself and for her daughter. She kept her memories. Which is ironic. She lost her memory in the end, but somehow I hope that her memories were in her heart and not her mind.
I went through every photo, it took hours and it was time well spent. I got to relive my sister’s life through her photos. I saw her as an infant, a toddler, a child, a young woman, a woman, a wife and a mom. I was with her in photos when she was in California, New Hampshire, Connecticut and when she and Eric traveled across country and settled in Santa Fe. I saw the cars she drove, the dogs and cats she had, the clothes she wore, the meals she made, and the incredible homes she created. I saw her become a mother from the very first photos of her newborn daughter in the hospital. I witnessed all the days that made up the years of her life.
There were thousands of photos that I strung together in my mind until I had a complete story of her life. But out of all the photos, I keep going back to a series of photos that she had about her cross country trek from Westport, Connecticut to Santa Fe, New Mexico. She and Eric had a tiny Suzuki Samurai Jeep, that they drove and we can’t forget about Amos, their adorable puppy, he came along too. In this series of photos, in Amanda’s innate need (thank God) to document her life, I got the privilege of being with them during one of their overnights at a camp ground.
Amanda didn’t do anything simply. She took after our mother in that regard. My mother never did anything half assed (excuse my French), every project was tackled with the degree of complexity required to get the job done right. Whilst she created an air of casualness about setting up a small campsite you felt like you were “glamping.” Within the space of an hour, she had effortlessly created an Instagram worthy campsite replete with a two-person tent, a beautifully set picnic table, with a charcuterie board made from local provisions, a bottle of wine, wine glasses and linen napkins. While the appetizers were snacked on, she would occasionally get up to check on dinner. Dinner was in a heavy, cast iron skillet that rested on top of an open fire. Knowing Amanda, she would have waited until the skillet was hot before adding oil, then onions and garlic to cook until translucent. To that, she would have added sliced chicken, followed by fresh vegetables. When the time was right (one skillet meals require an exact sequence so everything cooks for the perfect amount of time) she would expertly plate a chicken quesadilla dinner for two.
I was never there at that campsite. I didn’t have to be to be able to describe in exacting detail what I could see from a 30 year-old photograph. Amanda made every place a home and made you feel like you were part of the family.
It sounds like I am in awe of her life and what she did. She was my older sister, and she was captivating and I idolized her. An obituary will never be able to express Amanda accurately. It is like going to the Grand Canyon for the first time. The vastness is incomprehensible, it makes you feel so small. You have to be there to appreciate it. And so it is true with Amanda, you had to know her to appreciate her. She could turn the world on with her smile.
As I have been sifting through her things, what I cherish the most are the pieces of paper with her hand writing. It is hard to put into words how important it is to have things that people wrote with their hand. I run my fingertips over the paper, I touch what she once touched. I implore you to write a letter to your spouse, your children, your sibling. Leave something tangible for them, let them get lost in your hand writing, let them touch something that you have.
Amanda O’Brien Obituary
With a heavy heart, I regret to share the news that my beautiful sister, Amanda O’Brien, lost her battle with brain disease and passed away on September 24th, 2021 at 11:08pm. I know the exact time because I was with her and I watched her take her last breath. It was heart breaking and haunting and the hardest thing that I have ever witnessed. I am grateful for two things; that she slipped away peacefully and that I, her sister, Sarah and her daughter, Devon, were right next to her when she passed.
If you knew my sister Amanda, whether it was for 5 minutes of 5 years, perhaps you already know that you were one of the lucky ones. Amanda was one of those rare people who didn’t have a bad bone in her body and it was something that you could sense right away within moments of meeting her. She often greeted strangers with the term “Love.” Like “Hello love, can you tell me where to find the closest gas station?” She had a huge smile and gave big hugs and had an amazing ability to make people feel special. She was incredibly nurturing by nature. People were drawn to her like a moth to a flame. She didn’t burn brightly and quickly, she burned brightly her entire life.
Amanda was born in Manhattan, NY to the late Edward Michael O’Brien, Jr. and the late Marlene (Milnes-Fenton) O’Brien. After relocating to the island of Jamaica, WI, she attended Priory School in Kingston. Her family moved back to America where they settled in Westport, Connecticut. Amanda graduated from Staples High School and attended the University of Miami in Coral Gables, FL where she graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Science, in Educational Psychology.
After university, she returned home to Westport and worked for Martha Stewart Living (MSL) for several years. She held the position of Executive Assistant and played an instrumental role in planning, organizing and managing MSL client’s weddings. Amanda was also a gifted baker and baked and decorated many of the wedding cakes that are showcased in MSL publications. Amanda is both pictured and credited in the Martha Stewart Wedding book for her significant contributions.
In 1988 she and her (former) fiancee packed up their belongs and traveled cross country to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Leveraging her experience in the food/entertainment industry, She quickly got a job running the kitchen at a restaurant called Celebrations on Canyon Road, and her thirty-year love affair with Santa Fe began.
From 1991 to 1993 she was the General Manager for another Santa Fe bakery called Cloud Cliff (still in operation) while simultaneously launching her own business, Amanda’s Food for Thought. Amanda designed and developed a cookie that she named Chavos, that was picked up by many local businesses and enjoyed years of success.
In 1993, Amanda was given a unique opportunity. She turned her love of nurturing people into a career and became part of the Management Team and Executive Chef at Sol y Sombra, a former property of the famous artist, Georgia O’Keefe (then owned by Charles and Beth Miller). Sol y Sombra was used for many purposes including being a venue for events, concerts, and retreats for politicians to hold meetings. Amanda designed and managed the entire menu for day-to-day meetings, the Miller family and daily staff at Sol y Sombra and for events of all sizes. Coincidentally, Sol y Sombra is currently listed for sale, the listing has many great photos which will give you an idea of the special environment that Amanda worked in until 1998.
While working at Sol y Sombra, Amanda met her husband and together they had one child, Devon. From the moment Amanda found out she was pregnant, her life changed for the better. She called me completely elated to announce her baby news, it was one of the happiest moments in her life. Once her baby girl was born, Amanda’s maternal instincts were in full throttle. At the core of every decision she made, no matter how small, was made with Devon’s best interest. Amanda loved being a mom above everything else. She did her best to create a very special life for Devon.
After she left Sol y Sombra, Amanda held a variety of positions. She primarily worked as a Ranch Manager on several large private ranches in the Santa Fe region, and as an Event Coordinator and Executive Chef at Adobo Catering. In between those jobs, she was a freelance chef, and ran her own catering and event planning business.
Home is where your heart is
Despite living in a variety of different places, Amanda considered Santa Fe her home. Not only did she immediately embrace and adopt the unique culture, she lived there longer than anywhere else. Santa Fe’s rich and beautiful Native American history permeated her soul and helped shape so many aspects of her life. She bought traditional Southwestern furnishings and masterfully decorated every home she lived in. She quickly learned how to prepare authentic Santa Fe meals, and made changes to her wardrobe to better reflect her love of the spirited New Mexican lifestyle. Amanda could reliably be seen in a long sleeved button-down shirt that she would tie at the waist, an ankle length skirt and a pair of cowboy boots. And the accessories! We can’t forget about the belts, the multitude of silver bracelets and bangles and earrings and rings. She always jingled when she walked, you could hear her coming a mile away.
It would take thousands of words to even begin to encapsulate the essence of Amanda, but I asked her friends to reflect on their experience with Amanda.
“Anyone who ever met Amanda, remembers Amanda. She had a grace, charm and style that stuck with you. Amanda could envision something and then execute it and make it happen. Whether it was catering a huge 5-day wedding, furnishing her new ranch house, planning a trip, or even just a short hike, Amanda would just envision it and it would happen perfectly and in style. Her intuition ran deep and she was always one step ahead, helping a guest feel comfortable at a party of helping the new cook in the back to accomplish an unfamiliar task. Her competence was always followed by a big warm smile that said ‘Told you that you could do it.’ Her heart was as big and colorful as the New Mexico skies. We miss her very much.” – Clay
“Amanda has always reminded me of the moon, luminous, beautiful, mysterious, illuminating, magnetic, bewitching. Sometimes visible and sometimes not but when we weren’t together, I knew she was just over the horizon and someday we would reunite and pick up as if we had never parted.” – Julie
Amanda leaves behind her beloved friends and family; her brother Ed, her sister, Sarah, her daughter Devon, a grandson, and several nieces, nephews and cousins. At Amanda’s request, her ashes will be scattered in a valley called Cañon Blanco in a small, private ceremony with family and friends. Those who knew her know that she would want to be a literal part of her beloved Santa Fe, New Mexico. A birdcage with a small wind chime will be installed near where her ashes are scattered. Legend has it that when you hear wind chimes, a spirit is communicating with you. When the wind blows that chime, I want to believe that Amanda has returned to the birdcage and the song will be Amanda’s spirit. She will be deeply missed.