Aimee Copeland’s moment of clarity

Aimee Copeland was walking a deserted stretch of Miami Beach hand-in-hand with the love of her life.

As 2010 was being born, they stopped for a moment to watch the waves come in then recede into the darkness. In and out. In and out. Just as the sun began to rise, the cabana boys emerged to pick up the trash.

It was as if the circle of life – God’s creation as she put it — was unfolding right in front of her.

Then came her moment of clarity: “Everything is happening exactly as it should and God is real.”

Up until then, she had been full of teenage angst and given to moments of depression. No one, she thought, understood her.

That war finally came to a halt that morning on the beach. But in two short years, Copeland, now 27, would be faced with a very painful and public fight. For her life.

Always the encourager, Aimee was headed to a friend’s house in Carrollton who needed a pick-me-up. Boyfriend troubles will do that to you.

It was May 1, 2012. Copeland suggested they get out of the house for some fresh air and fun. After some coaxing, they headed to a creek out back. There they mounted a homemade zip line over the Little Tallapoosa River. They hadn’t been there long when Aimee fell onto the rocks below, cutting her calf on a stone. That’s when the bacteria in the water began eating her flesh.

What happened next made the evening news for months afterward. Doctors had to amputate both of Copeland's hands, her left leg and her right foot.

Following her story, you couldn’t help but marvel at her spirit. Listening, it sounded like she’d just lost her wallet, not her limbs. And so I wondered about her midnights. What was she like then?

Last week, after thieves stole "Sylvia," her $100,000 customized van from her driveway in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward, I got a chance to ask.

Her story about that moment on the beach gave me goosebumps.

The first two years after her accident were the most difficult.

“I experienced many dark nights,” she said.

Like the one when her wheelchair wheels got caught in a runner and she slipped off the shower bench. For four minutes she laid there, screaming to the top of her lungs, feeling sorry for herself.

Finally she mustered the strength to finish showering on the floor.

On another night, she broke up with her boyfriend of four years.

“Losing him was harder than losing my limbs,” she said. “He was my connection to life before the accident. He embodied what I had left behind.”

She remembered that moment on the beach. Everything was happening as it should. God was in control.

“I haven’t had a single dark night of the soul in the past six months or so,” she said. “I’ve accepted the loss.”

And so when she learned her van had been taken, Copeland didn’t flinch. She just kept on stirring the chicken pot pie on the stove.

Sure she needed the van. Being able to drive, to get from point A to point B without a care, connected her to her former life. She needed it to get to the Shepherd Center, where she had just started an internship.

But instead of focusing on what she’d lost, Copeland remembered what she had. She still had a motorized wheelchair. She was still a social worker intern, a natural problem solver. Everything, she remembered, was happening exactly as it should.

She called her parents. She figured it would take two buses and a train to get to work. Uncomfortable with that, she mapped how far the Shepherd Center was away from her home. Five rugged miles of side walk.

Her wheelchair could reach speeds up to 5 miles per hour. She’d just have to make the journey in her chair and she did.

On Sept. 1, less than 24 hours after the theft, police found Sylvia, a gift from Steve Rayman Chevrolet, in an abandoned schoolyard in Atlanta.

Aimee Copeland cheered.

She said people ask her all the time how she’s been able to keep going, to remain so upbeat when she’s lost so much.

There is no one answer. Genetics. A family with boundless energy. Awesome friends. A background in humanistic psychology that emphasizes finding your own meaning in life despite circumstances.

Every one of them lead back to that New Year’s morning on the beach in 2010 and the faith that her parents passed on to her — a faith that makes you, well, whole.

“It just kind of filled that space that everybody is born with,” she said.