Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Book Review: Heaven Is Here

I first heard about Stephanie Nielsson this spring, when a dear friend at work came running into my classroom as I was leaving for lunch waving an insert from Sunday's newspaper. (Maybe it was the day after Mother's Day? That would make sense, but I don't remember.) "Kir, you have to read this," she said. "You're gonna cry." Hmm. Them's fighting words! I'm a girl who doesn't cry for much. Choked up, I get; actual tears, rarely. Maybe three or four times a year, tops. She opened the insert to the right page and wiped a few stray tears from her own eyes. "I can't stop crying," she admitted, and I hugged her in sympathy, but this lady is a crier and I am not. I was sure I'd be immune.
Still, just to be safe, I stayed in my classroom for lunch and read the article about Stephanie Nielsson's forthcoming book, which details the story of her flaming brush with death and her remarkable recovery of health and spirit.
Let's just say it's a good thing I stayed in my room.

That evening when I got home, I put her book on my Amazon wish list. A few weeks later, I opened it for Mother's Day. How did Clint know? He's so smart! :)
I waited for the right moment to read it though. After thinking about what happened in my classroom when I read the article, I was pretty sure I'd spend most of my time reading the 300+ pages of the book in a similarly wet state--not a place I like much at all. Gives me a headache.
Finally, I felt like I was in a sufficiently fortified emotional state to take the plunge (I was at the in-laws) (always a good place for a messy sob-fest).

Here's the premise, for those who don't know her story:
Stephanie grew up dreaming about the day she would get married, like many girls do. She spent some time in college, but really, all she could think about was finding the right man and settling down in the perfect house to raise a family. Her parents were a wonderful example: a devout Mormon couple who had raised nine children, who were happily married and invested in each of their children and supportive of their endeavors. When Stephanie met Christian one summer while she was in college, she knew immediately that he was the one. It took him a little while to figure it out too, but they married soon and began to raise their family.
Christian's job took them to New Jersey, and it was difficult for Stephanie to leave the support of her family in Utah, but they encouraged her to start a blog as a way to keep in touch. She did, blogging about her faith and her family (they had two children by now, girls), as well as her ideas about how to create a happy and beautiful home and lifestyle. Soon, Stephanie's blog had thousands of followers.
When Christian got a job offer in Arizona, they eagerly took it. It wasn't Utah, but it was close to his family and certainly closer to hers. The book continues through the birth of two more children, centering on the deep devotion Stephanie and Christian shared and the delight they took in being parents of their happy, healthy children.
Knowing that since he was a child Christian had dreamed of flying (he once ate birdseed hoping it would help him grow wings), she bought him flight lessons. Christian was elated, and he soon got his pilot's license. One Saturday afternoon, he and Stephanie flew out to visit his parents' ranch. His friend Doug flew with them, a veteran pilot, as extra support. The flight out was perfect, and they spent a few happy hours at the ranch. On the flight home, they crashed.

Stephanie was burned on 80% of her body, and when she awoke in the hospital, three months had passed. She couldn't move, couldn't speak, couldn't understand what had happened. The rest of the book is the story of her survival, a survival that could not have happened without the strength of her faith and of her family. As she suffers through multiple surgeries, skin grafts, dressing changes--all part of the slow, painful process of recovery--she also suffers through mental and emotional torture. She was once a very beautiful woman; now she cannot bear to lift a mirror to see her face. Finally, she agrees to see Christian again, certain he will be repulsed by her. And it takes her a long, long time to agree to see her children, fearful they will have forgotten her--or, worse--run screaming away from her when they see her. Through all of this, it is her family that sustains her, her faith that supports her.
By the end of the book, she returns home and recreates her life, learning how to cope with further surgeries, limited movement, constant pain, and the stares of strangers. And, of course, the fact that the face and body in the mirror are nothing like the Stephanie she once was.

I didn't cry, although I was fully prepared to. It may have been the place, but I think it was because after reading the article, I knew what to expect, and instead of finding her story sad this time around, I found it inspiring. Through her ordeal, Stephanie learned a valuable lesson that she has, with great pain, shared with her readers: beauty is of the soul, not the body; God is all-powerful all-knowing, and He has a plan for everything, even when the world is very dark; a loving family is a strong support in times of trouble. Reading this book has reminded me to slow down and create peaceful, simple moments with my family. It has reminded me of the great power of prayer. It has reminded me that I need to work on cultivating my inner beauty instead of the outer, for that will fade. And it has reminded me how very, very blessed I am to have life and health and to be surrounded by my unbelievable family.

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