Stephanie Nielson led an incredibly blessed life. With a husband she adored and four happy, healthy kids, Stephanie’s days were filled with adventures in domestic bliss. She loved to run, hike and spend time in her beloved Utah mountains. Her faith was incredibly important to her, and she’d always known she wanted to care for a large family.
But if that were the whole story, we wouldn’t have much of a story. In August 2008, Stephanie and her husband, Christian, were flying with a close friend in a small plane when it crashed in a fiery wreck. While their friend was tragically killed, Stephanie and Christian managed to survive — albeit with severe burns that covered 80 percent of Stephanie’s body and more than 50 percent of Christian’s. Badly broken, bruised and devastated, the couple were taken to a hospital where Stephanie remained in a medically-induced coma for months. When she finally woke, she was in a nightmare.
But Heaven Is Here isn’t a tragedy. I can honestly say this is one of the most inspiring, tear-inducing, heartwrenching books I’ve read — the sort of story I pass around to friends and family, saying, “You have to read this.” Acknowledging the story as “incredible” in the subtitle really isn’t overstating the case. When all hope seems lost, the Nielsons’ faith and family support gets them through.
Once told she might have to have her limbs amputated, that she would never walk, that she would never live the independent life she’d loved again, Stephanie defies all logic. After many painful surgeries and endless weeks in the burn unit, her skin begins to heal. She starts to walk again, first to the nurse’s station and then to the end of the hall. And then beyond. She begins to eat and drink, to even try to type. Though she doesn’t look the way she used to — and her face is very changed — she is here. Among the living. Given a second chance and an opportunity to see her children grow up.
She doesn’t take it lightly.
I went into Heaven Is Here with limited expectations. Nielson is a blogger-turned-author, see, and I tend to look at those with a skeptical eye. But I’ve followed Stephanie’s journey for years at the Nie Nie Dialogues, an honest look at her life and family, and I find her to simply be an incredible mother and person. I didn’t know if the book would merely be a rehashing of blog posts, but that was not at all the case. I’m very familiar with her story, of course, but it was as if I were reading it all for the first time.
Though we do not share the same faith and I consider myself more spiritual than religious, the power of Stephanie’s beliefs in her healing process was hard to deny. Though religion permeated the book, I didn’t find it heavy-handed or preachy. This is Stephanie and Christian’s story, after all, and she couldn’t tell it without explaining how crucial her faith was in her recovery. Totally get it, and it didn’t bother me.
It’s hard to read the Nielson love story without tearing up a bit, too. Divided into three parts, Heaven Is Here first offers us a glimpse at Stephanie’s early life, her family background and her courtship with Christian, who bounded into her father’s business with an open smile and an interest in taking his daughter out on a date. Even after a whirlwind romance and marriage, life wasn’t perfect — and Stephanie’s honesty is to be commended. She doesn’t cover a plain white canvas with sparkly rainbows, puppies and butterflies. Even as a young and healthy mother, she faced challenges. But nothing compared to those to come.
The book’s second part details the plane crash and the Nielsons’ early months in the hospital, right up until Stephanie is well enough to go home. And here’s the spoiler-that’s-not-really-a-spoiler: Stephanie and Christian do get better. They heal. It’s incredibly hard and emotional and tough and awful, but somehow they manage to survive and even thrive in the face of tragedy. And just this past spring, Stephanie and Christian welcomed a fifth child, Charlotte. That she carried. Herself. In her own bruised-but-never-completely-broken body.
The most gut-wrenching portions of the book came when Stephanie’s four kids — two daughters, two young sons — finally come to visit their mother in the hospital. With a completely different appearance, Stephanie worries endlessly that she will “scare” them and doesn’t want them to ever see her . . . or even to see herself. I was on pins and needles waiting for their reaction, too, knowing how much a negative one could impact Stephanie’s recovery. For a woman who only ever wanted to take care of her children, not being able to do so hurts her to the core. And seeing the kids’ wide eyes and tears was hard to read.
But things improve. Things always improve. And reading about the love Stephanie and Christian share, their dedication to one another and their family, the way they hope and dream and struggle together . . . well, it was inspiring. It really was great. And I could probably write a few more paragraphs about why I love the Nielsons, but I wouldn’t want your eyes to glaze over. So I’ll skip to the end.
Fans of memoirs, tales of tragedy-turned-triumph or those who enjoy inspirational stories with just a dash of faith thrown in can look no further than Heaven Is Here. Stephanie’s raw and honest account of life as she knows it had me in tears time and again, but I ultimately finished the book with an uplifted heart and a desire to never take my own life for granted. The simple things — like walking, talking, seeing — aren’t always simple. We should all count our blessings, and make every day count.
4.5 out of 5!