Everything that Stephanie feels, Christian has felt before.
In the hospital, he stands next to her bed, and she stares up at him, her green eyes wide and wondering.
He's just ahead of her on the recovery path. He tells her what is to come.
He knows the bafflement of waking after weeks of sedation, and discovering a new season, a changed life.
He remembers what it feels like to take those first painful steps, joints and muscles aching from months of bed rest, that taut, newly grafted skin stretching for the first time.
He was as nervous as she was to talk to the couple's four children for the first time after the plane crash, afraid to realize the anguish the accident caused in their small lives. She was in a medically induced coma for almost four months, missing Nicholas' second birthday, Claire's seventh and Halloween. She woke wondering who Sarah Palin was and why she was on TV.
And Christian knows the guilt Stephanie feels for her absence from the children, for getting on that plane. He helped her through that first, short phone call to their kids last weekend: I-love-yous and many tears.
It gets easier, he tells her.
"That's where I find my greatest consolation," Christian says. "I know exactly what she's going through and how to overcome some of the obstacles that she's feeling. And that makes me feel like I can do something in what would seem to be a helpless situation."
Now, every night in the hospital, Christian and Stephanie talk about the days ahead.
For now, they skip over the things that make Stephanie anxious, like her changed appearance she's not ready to see. Her face is covered entirely with patchy new skin, eyebrows gone, her dark hair shorn but growing back. They even forgo stories about the kids, which bring up the guilt.
"I can't answer the question of why this had to happen," Christian says, "but I can answer the question of what our future looks like, and I know it's bright. Stephanie and I - having each other and enjoying life like we do, knowing that we lived through this - it's easy to believe that we're going to enjoy life again."
Stephanie wants only to talk about going home, and she's on her way.
Stephanie and Christian are going back to Utah, where she grew up and the couple fell in love.
As soon as there's a bed available, Stephanie will be flown to a rehabilitation hospital in Salt Lake City, where she will be closer to her parents and eight siblings. Her doctors at the Arizona Burn Center say Stephanie is ready to move on, and believe that having family near will help her healing.
Christian will move in with Stephanie's sister, Courtney Kendrick, who is caring for the couple's children at her home in nearby Provo, Utah.
"I'm kind of thinking the kids are going to spend just as much time in my bed as they do in their own," Christian says, "and that's fine with me."
Stephanie's oldest sister, Page Checketts, even bought the couple a house in Provo just blocks from Stephanie's sisters and parents, so that when Stephanie is ready to leave rehab, she will have help.
They see already that Stephanie hates to be alone.
In the hospital, Stephanie lies quiet most of the time, content just to have her mother and sisters in the room, talking. She likes to soak up the chatter. Christian, who is rehabilitating at his parents' Mesa home, visits every day. Page is installed almost permanently at Stephanie's side, though she had to stop sleeping in her room.
"She wakes up every five minutes to see if I'm still there," Page says.
The nights are the hardest. Stephanie's arms are strapped to splints that stretch her tight, red skin, so Page and Stephanie talk to distract her from the pain.
"One night she was having a real hard night, so I said, 'Let's talk about what we're going to plant in the garden,' " Page remembers. "She wants pumpkins and tomatoes."
When Christian was first waking, he found comfort at night with his mother, Mary Nielson.
"In the beginning when I was lonely and afraid," he says, she spent every night in the hospital with him. "I just felt like a little boy again, being taken care of by my mom. We kind of joke about it now when she tucks me in bed, in my old room, and kisses me good night.
"I don't understand how anybody would recover from something like this without extraordinary family," Christian says. "And not just good family, but extraordinary."
Laughter and thanks
This month, Stephanie's hospital room has been filled with her own extraordinary family. Her brother Matt came, teased her about not being able to eat, and she smiled and called him a jerk. Such spunk, her family was thrilled.
Another brother, Andrew, flew in for a visit and had Stephanie in giggles.
Courtney, who is caring for the kids, came just as her sister was waking. Stephanie said "thank you" as soon as she could talk.
"She said, 'I'm gonna find a way to pay you back,' " Courtney remembers. "I said, 'Stephanie, you would do it for me, wouldn't you? You just come to Utah and be my neighbor and we'll raise our kids together and help each other,' " Courtney says.
"Deal," Stephanie replied. And then Stephanie said something else: "I feel stupid."
"She feels bad for making a decision that affected (her children's) lives so dramatically," Courtney says of the plane crash that killed the couple's friend and flight instructor, Doug Kinneard. Christian, Stephanie and Kinneard had taken a day trip to New Mexico and crashed on the way home.
"And that's so typical Stephanie," Courtney says. "She said that every day of her life, was always feeling stupid about something.
"I said, 'Steph, you go ahead and feel stupid right now, but one day you're going to realize how you changed the world and you won't feel stupid anymore.' "
World of prayers
While Stephanie and Christian recovered, their story inspired others across the world.
Stephanie and Courtney wrote popular blogs, and Courtney kept them both updated with news about Stephanie and Christian, asking for prayers. Courtney shared their love story, told about the couple's Mormon faith and Stephanie's delight in everyday life as a mother.
Friends and strangers nationwide held fundraisers to help the couple, whose medical costs will stretch into the millions. Insurance will pay some. Almost $250,000 has been raised.
Courtney's mailbox is now filled with hundreds of letters from readers who vow to live a little more like Stephanie, to be content, to look for joy each day.
Stephanie is slowly absorbing all of this: grateful, but "embarrassed," Christian says. She wants to thank everyone for their prayers.
"She feels them," Christian says. "It reminds me that people are good, that this is a good world."
But it turns out the woman who shared her life and even love letters to her husband online is shy.
"She's not one for the limelight," Christian says. "She's just modest and is puzzled why people are so kind to her. Being the president of her fan club, I know why people are interested in helping her and making her happy. That's my joy in life, to try and make her happy.
"Everything about life with Stephanie is good," he says. "To live with a woman like her is a wonderful thing. I'll get stronger to help her through the next set of hurdles.
"I don't plan to be away from her from here on out."
you can read more on Courtney's blog.
2 days ago