I’m in love again, and my wife even approves.
I have become entranced by the best smile since Mona Lisa, but there’s nothing mysterious about this one. This smile is as fresh as an unfolding flower and as warm as a puppy’s snuggle. Leonardo da Vinci would refer this young lady to Norman Rockwell.
Quinn Waitley is a 20-year-old Coronadan who believes the purpose of sunrise is to push back the dark. She is in classes at San Diego City College and looking forward to her chosen career, which you will see would be most fitting for her. When not studying or working out, she skateboards and surfs and tries to help others.
None of this makes her stand out, particularly, so I need another angle.
How about this? She is quadriplegic. In her words, “I’m in a wheelchair full time. I can’t walk without assistance.”
However, she adds a spunky codicil: “I’m a high-functioning quadriplegic.”
Quinn was born with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy, which is broadly explained as fetal brain damage during pregnancy that results in abnormal muscle, speech and possibly thinking development.
Quinn entered this world in the 28th week, about the size of a newborn puppy — 1 pound, 12 ounces. That was not without a reason: She was a quadruplet, one of four girls conceived au naturale, without in-vitro assistance. All survived, courtesy of modern obstetrics.
The newly arrived quartet joined three older sisters. That meant the household became one male and eight females. David, the father, quickly learned not to call for a vote.
In her grip on life, Quinn is a terrier on a tug-toy.
She is sitting in her power wheelchair on the family patio watching her sisters celebrate Saturday — running to the curb to meet a boyfriend, hopping into a friend’s car and leaving, laughing at a joke they don’t share.
She is happy for them. The smile says it. Then, she turns to her own life.
You seem happy, Quinn.
“Yep,” she says in a chippy little way that’s both saucy and cute. It is her signature response.
What are you happy about?
“It’s a beautiful day.”
If it were raining, I bet you’d still be smiling. But, some might think you have reason not to smile.
“What’s the reason?”
Well, what do you think?
“When people ask me, like, ‘Why are you in a wheelchair?’ I’m like, ‘What wheelchair?’ ”
When Quinn talks, she has difficulty coordinating the muscles needed for speech. Each word is a form of giving birth, but she makes it work, and given a little patience, her conversation is clear and her thoughts complete. Likewise, her hands require concentrated effort, but they usually perform the appointed task.
The word “disability” leaves me cold. “Dis” is a prefix that by definition is a negative. Quinn neither thinks nor acts “dis.”
She started out playing basketball, but several years ago traded it in for wheelchair rugby. Yeah, that same bloody-nose sport, except in her version, wheelchairs do the colliding.
Then, one summer she went to camp and fell in love with skateboarding. She now ’boards competitively with a hand-powered wheelchair that is smaller and more maneuverable than her powered one. In effect, the wheelchair becomes the skateboard.
On many sunlit days, tourists on Coronado’s Orange Avenue might turn heads to see her motoring down the street in her wheelchair, pulling along a smaller wheelchair like a cowboy leading a spare horse. She’ll be wearing a helmet and crash pads on her elbows and knees.
Quinn rolls 26 blocks across the island to the skate park, where she will switch wheelchairs and then cavort with her pals and see who can pull off the craziest stuff. They’re not only good friends, they’re handy to have around to set her wheelchair upright and plop her back in it so she can roll off and get wild again.
Skateboarding is a growing sport among wheelchair-bound athletes. None is more enthusiastic than Quinn.
“Once I got a chipped tooth, but I got up with a huge smile on my face. Some friends do not understand why I do it. Sometimes, neither do I.”
But, she does know. When she competes in skating events, she watches the little kids in wheelchairs, and that reminds her. “I do these skate events to help out little kids, little kids in wheelchairs. Once I see them having fun, there’s just pure joy. They’re a kid doing what they love on that day, in that moment. Nothing else matters. I’m just sitting there like it’s my own personal movie, and I’m watching, and (I know) I’m helping to put a smile on kids’ faces.”
She also surfs, lying on her stomach on the board and challenging swells that always win. But when her body is thrown into the roiling water and she fights to the surface with her attentive father nearby, she also wins.
Only a small part of life is lived at the skateboard park or in the surf, however, and Quinn is quite aware of the rest of it. She asks, “You want to know what gets me down?” Then she answers herself, “When people treat me different when I’m no different from them. They just assume that I can’t do stuff, and ... I’m the type of person that likes to prove them wrong.”
But you don’t have a chip on your shoulder.
“Well, I’ve been through a lot of stuff in my life … seven surgeries … but I almost never get down, and I never give up.
“My dad pushes me to do stuff. He was the main one who kept saying to never give up. My family always has always supported me, and especially when I have bad days, they’re there to help me.”
Though Quinn is sometimes a spectator in a highly active, mobile family, she also is the spiritual centerpiece.
What’s a bad day?
“Every now and then I have one. Sometimes, I don’t like dealing with being in a wheelchair. But no matter what, I still have a smile on my face.”
Are you close to your sisters?
“Yep, super close. We have fun. They drive me all over. They support me in my skate events. I give them many heart attacks.”
She’s had some great moments, mainly the result of others’ affection for her. In her senior year at Coronado High School, she was chosen homecoming queen. At the game, she asked that her dad carry her onto the field. Of that moment, an observer said, “There was not a dry eye in the stadium” at the sight of Quinn in a purple gown with a tiara on her head and her arms around her father’s neck.
As graduation neared, kids speculated on whether she could walk across the stage on her own. Her answer? Yep.
Later, shuffling and laboring across the stage on a walker, she reached out for the diploma while standing on her own two feet.
She’s had a couple of dates, and doesn’t slam the door on marriage at some point. Don’t tell her she can’t. If she were to respond to “Do you take this man ...?” she would say, “Yep.”
(OK, so you think I’ve become a cheerleader for my subject. Is it that obvious?)
Quinn gets up in the morning, dresses herself, fixes her breakfast and then boards a public bus for San Diego City College. She takes a small class load because of the transportation, but also because she has to work harder.
“School hasn’t come to me very easy through the years. You know how others might take an hour to do their homework? Well, it takes me twice as long. It just comes with my disability. But yeah, school’s fun. I’m probably going on to (San Diego) State.”
She pretty much goes where she wants on buses, but a goal is to qualify for a driver’s license using hand controls.
Her ambition is to become a professional motivational speaker. With that in mind, she looks for opportunities to give talks to groups of all kinds. Meantime, she is also looking for a part-time job, a search that has thus far been fruitless.
You seem eager to mix with people.
“Yep. Like my mom says, I’m a social butterfly.”
So, Quinn, in a teacup, give me your motivational message.
There is no hesitation. “Don’t let anything stop you, and God loves you no matter what, and if you put your mind to it, you can do it. The only thing that could ever stop you from doing something is you.”
My advice to all whiners who are strong of arm and stout of body: When Quinn Waitley appears, grow silent.
The human spirit has strong legs. It runs free and with joy.
Fred Dickey’s home page is www.freddickey.net
His email is [email protected]