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EMBRACING the Unintended Life

Paralyzed at 36, Amy Quincy keeps seizing the day, every day

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By the time the sun came into view over Memorial Park, Amy Quincy was already there, waiting for it. She rises usually around 4:30 a.m., a time when many writers are just getting to bed, or just getting home, or maybe just finally finding their keys. Mist was floating across a river still swollen from Irma, and she was there, with the joggers and dog-walkers and some of the most adorable elderly people anywhere in the world. The sunrise means tomorrow has begun, and that’s never guaranteed for anyone, so why not use every available second?

Amy Quincy knows that better than most. She learned that lesson the hard way, not that you would know it by talking to her. She has a way of making you stop worrying about whatever stupid problem you’re having in these insanely ridiculous times of ours. She’s here, and she’s doing just fine, and that means victory any way you tabulate it.

She tells the story for herself in her first book, Misadventures of a Happy Heart: A Memoir of Life Beyond Disability, self-published to solid results last year, right around the 10-year anniversary of the day she almost died. Oct. 3, 2006 was a Tuesday, and Amy Quincy, living at the beach, two months away from her 37th birthday, had just started her own massage therapy business, when a cluster of malformed blood vessels that had lingered in her brain since birth finally failed, resulting in hemorrhagic stroke that flooded her skull with blood and changed her life forever.

She never saw it coming, and that’s how things are sometimes. “I went to Baptist Downtown,” she said, “but they wouldn’t do the surgery; they were trying to find a brain surgeon to do it, because they knew it would cause [even more] damage, and I guess they didn’t want the liability. I spent the whole day at the ER, getting worse.” She was eventually life-flighted to UF Health Jacksonville (Shands), where she finally had the surgery a day later. She spent a month in ICU in Gainesville, followed by four more months at Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital.

She now shares a Riverside apartment with her mother, a “persnickety kitty” named Bella and her dog Frankie, a seven-year-old Pekingese with the demeanor of a sassy English butler. She walks him every morning at Memorial Park, less than a block from their house, and then she goes home to write. “I like to write in the mornings,” she said. Her WordPress blog has been in full effect since 2011; she used to make entries every week, religiously. “And then it went to once a month over the past year. I stopped in May, when my mother fell,” hitting her head and adding an extra layer to an already-complicated life. “It was kind of a crazy summer, but I’m getting back to [writing].” The blog fills in details of her life that aren’t in the book, with the kind of sarcastic but straightforward optimism that animates her conversation.

“But as her fog lifts,” she wrote recently of her mother, “mine begins to return. Truth is that, aside from handling her finances, managing medications and removing the occasional dirty dish from the pantry, there isn’t all that much to do. … So, I’m writing again. For now. And maybe it’ll help.”

Writing is rarely easy for anyone. It’s a tedious, frustrating process even under the best conditions, and for Quincy, the conditions are more complicated than most other writers experience. “I type; that’s all I can do,” she said. “I used to write longhand.” She held up her left hand, flicking her thumb like a gunslinger. “I write with these two fingers,” she said, indicating the thumb and forefinger that she uses to lay down letters one by one, the way typesetters did in a bygone era, her thumb working the spacebar, while the index hits all the other keys.

The stroke left her with double vision and ataxia, resulting in her being virtually paralyzed on her right side and having limited movement on the left. “The wheelchair is really the least of it,” she said, laughing. “I timed it out once, and [my typing] was about nine words a minute.” Every word is thus infused with deliberation, which makes for tightly constructed prose that sustains the reader’s interest. It took about five years to write the book, but not much editing was needed.

“I wrote some of it in a writing workshop with Carol O’Dell,” she said. She met O’Dell while they were both taking classes with Senior English Instructor Mark Ari at the University of North Florida.

For a moment, she got distracted. There were a couple of kids in the park who couldn’t get enough of Frankie; he bore the burden of their attention in silent lucidity, save for the occasional curmudgeonly whine. “He’s just being protective,” she said. “He thinks he’s a tough guy.” The little dog kept trying in vain to disconnect his leash, so eventually she pulled Frankie up into her lap.

She then handed over a copy of the book, squinting at the sunbeams bouncing off the river and throwing a glare across the glossy cover. Misadventures of a Happy Heart runs some 223 pages, subdivided into 45 brisk chapters laying out the timeline of her stroke and her recovery, and the copious insights she’s gleaned along the way. It’s almost disconcerting how matter-of-factly she relates the details. One is struck by the harsh reality of such a kind person being dealt such a difficult hand. But life is not fair. Amy Quincy nevertheless loves life in that very specific way that one can only when they have almost lost theirs through no fault of their own. The woman takes nothing for granted; she seizes every day, which is why she’s up so early. She wasn’t born in a wheelchair, but she has been reborn in one, and her story will resonate with anyone, in any condition.

Writing has always held a certain appeal for Amy Forrest Quincy, who was born in December 1969, an only child, a Sagittarius in the Year of the Rooster. She earned a bachelors in English from Florida State in 1992. “I always wanted to be a writer, but to pay the bills, I did all kinds of things.” After years of laboring in the corporate world with State Farm and Merrill Lynch, three years before the stroke, she turned to a career in massage therapy. Now she’s a full-time writer. “It’s ironic,” she said, “because now I can live the dream, but this is what it took!” Her previous career left her with enough savings to offset her medical bills, and disability covers the rest. Things are still tight sometimes, but that’s OK, because it could always be worse. It has been worse, but that is in the past.

A 401(k) gave her the resources to self-publish her book via BookBaby.com, after trying for two years to put it out by more traditional means. It’s available for $15.95 directly from her website amyfquincy.wordpress.com (which is the best idea), or Amazon, or local stores like Chamblin’s and The BookMark. She has no idea how many books she’s sold, but she’s not the type to worry about such things. It’s won three awards so far, the first from the Amelia Island Book Festival. “I started getting amped about that, so I started entering a bunch of self-published book contests, and it won third place in the Florida Writers Association, and then it won third place in the Florida Authors and Publishers Association.”

Her only problem with the book is with a minor detail on the cover. “Anyone who’s actually in a wheelchair knows the difference between a hospital wheelchair and an everyday wheelchair.” The former is what you’ll see pregnant ladies being wheeled around in, blue and blocky with seats like a director’s chair. “The people that you’ll see in an everyday wheelchair are paraplegics, and they need the support up here,” she said, indicating her back. She’s on her second wheelchair now, a power-chair; her other ride is a manual one she was fitted for at Brooks. She was eventually able to get the right kind of wheelchair pictured on the cover, because she pretty much always gets her way.

Getting the power-chair was a bit of a hassle, but for someone with ataxia who prioritizes quality-of-life, it was a must. “I just want this so I can go places,” she said. “It’s like my bike. I go to the bank, I go to the movies, I get my hair done, I walk him. Some people don’t care if you ever leave your house.” She considers herself fortunate—of course she does—others in her situation don’t have savings to fall back on. “Everything is so expensive!”

To her left, buskers were entertaining near the statue. Some guy was teaching a bunch of kids how to play “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” Joggers slowed to watch them; babies pointed at the swirling ribbons of color, and old folks smiled to see the laughing children. It was late afternoon by then, and it wouldn’t be long before the sun began its daily retreat. Amy Quincy won’t be far behind it. Early to bed and early to rise hasn’t made her healthy or wealthy, but it has certainly made her wise.
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Get Amy Quincy’s book Misadventures of a Happy Heart: A Memoir of Life Beyond Disability at store.bookbaby.com/book/Misadventures-of-a-Happy-Heart. Read her blog at amyfquincy.wordpress.com

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