Oct. 21, 2013 at 9:51 AM ET
The daughter of a renowned youth evangelist, Hannah Luce miraculously survived the unthinkable in May of 2012, when a small plane that was carrying her and four others crashed in a Kansas field. In "Fields of Grace," Luce tells the remarkable story of her harrowing ordeal, her survival and her journey to move forward in faith. Here's an excerpt.
Not My Father’s God
Un-winged and naked, sorrow surrenders its crown to a throne called grace.
—ABERJHANI, THE RIVER OF WINGED DREAMS
“I have to go back,” I told Papa. “If there’s any chance of me getting better, I have to go to Kansas to the crash site and you have to let me go.” Six months had passed since I lost my friends. My skin was on the mend but my heart was still in pieces and I was overmedicating to cope with my grief and my guilt. My parents tried to understand, but I could tell they were becoming frustrated. Mom began saying she was caring for “drunk Hannah.” I couldn’t blame her. Half the time, I couldn’t understand my own slurred words.
Papa and my mother wanted to come with me to Kansas, but I refused to let them join me. This is something I need to do by myself, I said. Somewhere from deep within me I knew that, until I went back to the last place I was with my friends, I couldn’t begin to make peace with myself and I’d never be able to move forward. I’d always be the way I was now, an aimless and troubled soul, angry and guilt-ridden, and looking for a purpose, a reason to live.
The way I looked at it was I had four good reasons to want to die. Not a day ended when I hadn’t asked myself why I lived when those boys, who were truer and more unswerving in their faith, didn’t survive. I was torn apart about not being able to attend their funerals. That I’d never had a chance to say a proper good-bye, and I owed them that, at least. But, even more, I needed to pull myself together to be able to share their stories of heroism and courage and to take up their pursuit of working for a better world. They’d always wanted for me to find my way back to God, and I had to see if it was possible. In the four months I’d been home from the hospital, I’d begun to think about my faith more, and I’d slowly come to the realization that even though I’d been mad at God, even forsaken God, I didn’t want a life without having faith. That didn’t mean I didn’t have doubts, or that I wasn’t still struggling with my beliefs, because I was. But I wanted to try.
I left for Kansas the week before Thanksgiving. Along the way, I stopped at a flower shop for a candle to bring with me to the cornfield. I was headed to the crash site to say good-bye to my friends, and that felt sacred to me, but I was also terrified because I didn’t know where I stood with them. I needed to find out.
My first stop was in Neodesha, a small town about ten miles south of the crash site. I’d made arrangements to meet with Fire Chief Duane Banzet at the firehouse there. Duane was one of the first responders at the crash, and he’d taken good care of me in the ambulance. He’d even taken the time to drive to Kansas City to see me in the hospital. He was kind and easy to talk to, and I had a million questions for him about things I either couldn’t remember or wanted to clarify from that day.
I got there around lunchtime. Duane greeted me with a smile and a bear hug. “You’re a sight for sore eyes, Hannah,” he said, inviting me into his office. We talked a long time, hours, in fact, until late in the afternoon. How did he first hear about the crash? I asked. How long had it taken him to get there from the firehouse? What was the first thing he saw when he got there? Did he remember how I looked? What did remember about Austin? Did he know Austin was going to die? Did he think I’d make it? Did he recall how long it took for the medical transport helicopter to come? Had he talked with the two women who found us? Duane answered every question with patience and compassion. He even drew a diagram of the plane on the ground and where each of the bodies of my friends had been found. He was matter of fact yet empathetic, and I could tell that he’d been deeply moved by what he witnessed that day.
As we were talking, I looked around his paneled office. It was cozy and inviting and quiet except for the occasional staticky call that came over the scanner. Happy family pictures were scattered on the desk and credenza. I assumed the pictures were of his wife and his children. One was of a girl who looked to be about my age. “My daughter,” he said, reading my thoughts. I got the impression from the photographs that Duane had a satisfying life, but I couldn’t help noticing that his eyes looked sad. I imagined he’d seen some pretty awful things in his years of service, and he said that he had, more than his share.
Duane said he’d made it his practice never to get personally involved with the people he met on the job, but something was different with me. It had to do with something he saw in my eyes and Austin’s eyes on the day of the crash, he said. Even though he knew we were afraid and in pain, our eyes told a story of a certain kind of serenity. Duane called it “the peace of God.” I’d seen that same look in Austin’s eyes, but I hadn’t been able to identify it. My poor friend’s body had been ravaged by fire, he was in terrible pain, and I’m sure he knew he was about to die, but the look in his eyes was one of serenity and conviction. Had I witnessed the peace of God in him?
Duane told me a story from when he was fifteen years old. He was working for his grandfather and his uncle on their farm that summer, he said. They’d just finished lunch, and his uncle told him he had had a truckload of grain that needed to be unloaded for feed for the hogs. “When my uncle went to check on the cows, I climbed up on the truck bed. I never heard my uncle come back, but the next thing I knew, the truck bed was tilting and I was sliding into the bin with the grain. I was buried alive. My mouth was packed with grain and I couldn’t breathe. I knew I was going to die, but a sense of peace came over me and I wasn’t afraid. Next thing I know, my body’s floating upward, through the stars. I was headed to Heaven.”
But his uncle brought him back. He said he heard his uncle screaming for him. He’d dug him out of the grain pile alive. He said, years later, when he became a firefighter and tragedy became a regular part of his life, he often thought about the grain accident and asked himself why he’d been spared, yet he couldn’t save a child who’d drowned or a baby who’d died from SIDS. Often, he said, he’d asked God, “Why me, and not this little two-year-old or seven-year-old or ten-year-old?” After every loss, he said, he’d be depressed for long periods of time.
“I know you’re asking yourself the same thing, Hannah,” he said. “Why, God, did You save my life? Why did You give me another chance? Why me and not Austin or Luke or Stephen or Garrett? I know you feel unworthy of being the only one who survived. But what happened isn’t your fault.” “Why do you keep doing this job that causes you so much torment?” I asked.
Duane hesitated for a minute. “It’s what God wants me to do,” he said. “It’s not easy for us to understand why this stuff happens, but bad things happen to good people every day. God’s got a plan for you and you’ll have to ask Him what it is.” As if he knew of my struggle to hear God’s voice, he added: “Don’t expect the heavens to open up and hear Him start talking to you. It doesn’t happen that way. It’s a kind of peace that comes over you when you’re on the right path.”
“Did you ever question God?” I asked.
“Still do,” he said. “After every kid I lose I ask ‘Why?’ Never got a good answer yet. But what I do know is that the Lord wants me here to help the next person, to give someone else the second chance He gave me, not to question why He took the last one.”
“I want to keep living,” I said. “But I don’t know how.”
Duane smiled a rueful smile. “Hannah,” he said. “Your life has changed, no doubt about it, but it doesn’t have to be bad. You need to grieve the boys, to talk to them, to say ‘good-bye.’ But at some point, you’ve got to let them go and find the courage to get on with your life. That’s how you keep their memory alive.”
“Will you come with me to the crash site, Duane?” I asked.
We arrive just as the sun is dipping below the horizon. Duane understands that, although I am glad for his company, I need to take this last part of my journey alone. He points me in the direction I want to go and as he waits on the side of the gravel road, I head off through the cornfield. The only sound I hear is that of the dried cornstalks snapping under my feet. It’s too quiet and I fight off flashbacks of the plane roaring across the field and into the red oak, and all the carnage that followed.
I’m fighting the urge to turn back when I’m suddenly aware of what feels like a hand on my back. I turn, briefly, expecting to see Duane. He must have been worried about letting me walk through the field alone. But no one’s there. No one I can see. Something, it feels like a slight wind at my back, gently pushes me forward. I am not moving against my will, but, at the same time, I feel as if I’m not making the choice to go forward. I am going where I’m going. Period. I’m no frightened anymore and, strangely, my sadness has abated and I’m eager to see what’s coming. I’ve lost all concept of time and place. Then, in the blackness of night, on the ground in front of me I see the tiny, shimmering pieces of the metal left over from the plane. In a strange way, I feel as if I’m home. I lay my blanket out in front of the towering oak tree, its trunk still charred from the fire.
In the near distance, I heard the howl of a pack of coyotes and I begin to sing with them, but my song is one my sister Charity wrote for me after the crash.
And we’ll walk on holy ground,
Clothed in celestial sound
And when sorrow falls
I’m going to cry tears of joy.
I light my candle and instantly feel the presence of Garrett and Austin. Their spiritual presence is heavy, like a blanket covering me, and I can’t deny it. It’s almost as if they’re weighing me down and passing through me to prove to me, doubting Hannah, that they’re here. They’re really here. I feel joy. Complete and utter joy. “I hoped you’d be here. I knew you would be. You’ve always been there when I needed you and I’ve never needed you more than I do now.”
I talk to them for a long while, telling them everything that, before now, I could only write in my journal. About how much I love them and how I wonder what they would think of my life now, and how I can’t promise I can go on without them, not the way they’d like for me to go on. I ask for their forgiveness and I know their response. I don’t need to see their faces or hear their voices. I just know. I just believe.
We’re happy, Hannah. Really happy. We’re where we want
to be. We know we encouraged you, supported you, enriched your
life. But some things you need to discover on your own. You need
to be able to figure things out for yourself. You can mourn, and we
love that you do, but you can’t mourn forever. You have to dance.
I think about the lyrics of my sister’s song.
. . . I’m going to dance
Oh, I will dance.
I promise them I’ll try.
After a while, I fold my blanket, collect my candle, and begin the long walk back to the gravel road where Duane is waiting. The pieces of the plane that I’d collected jingle in my pocket and I smile. The boys are okay and I will be okay, too. I know that now.
For the first time in my life I accept that sometimes I have to believe what I cannot hear and what I cannot see. The light of the moon shines on my face and I’m overtaken by a sense of tranquility, a kind of tranquility I have never felt before. And then I realize that what I’m feeling is the warmth and the tranquility of faith.
Excerpted from FIELDS OF GRACE by Hannah Luce with Robin Gaby Fisher. Copyright © 2013 by The Hope Project. Excerpted by permission of Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc . All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.