words: Joanne Craig
images:courtesy Joanne Craig and Marcus Romes, Marx Ro Photography
It was the evening of December 27, 2015, when I received the call asking if I’d heard from my twenty-nine-year-old son Craig. I knew at that moment, Craig was in trouble. For the next seven days, I couldn’t process the headlines that I knew were broadcasting on TV sets throughout thousands of living rooms across the nation, “Search Continues for Missing Country Singer Craig Strickland.”
Craig was the lead singer for Backroad Anthem, a local country-rock band that was gaining widespread popularity. He was a TV personality on the Arkansas CW. But more than that, he was my son. The day after Christmas, I’d hugged him goodbye at my home in Greenwood, Arkansas. He and his good friend, Chase Morland, were planning a duck hunting trip on Kaw Lake near Ponca City, Oklahoma. Unbeknownst to me at the time, they were also heading into what would become known as Winter Storm Goliath, the worst of the year.
I told Craig I loved him as he walked out the door. I never imagined it would be the last time I heard him say, “I love you too, Momma.”
News spread quickly that our boys were missing in the bitter cold. People around the world, who’d heard their story on TV and social media, began praying for their safe return. On December 28, Chase was located, and the shock that he had not survived was horrifying. There remained no sign of Craig. And so, the search continued.
Seven days later, on January 4, 2016, the search ended. Craig was found and had not survived. In one devastating moment, time stopped, and I no longer recognized this world. My husband and I returned home from Ponca City that evening, and I walked into our house without my son. I stood in the kitchen for what felt like hours, staring at his empty chair. I knew I was breathing; sausage gravy lingered in the air. He was just here.
Over the next fourteen months, my fear of living without Craig kept the rest of the world at a safe distance. Isolating meant not acknowledging that life, for everyone else, was continuing without my son. I didn’t have to make small talk about the rain, the petunias the sun had scorched, the graduation ceremonies that lasted too long, the biggest fireworks, the back-to-school bargains, and the cute trick-or-treaters. The only thing on my mind was the fact that an ice storm had taken my son.
All of that changed in February 2017. In a few days, I would be speaking at the inaugural fundraiser for the Craig Strickland Foundation in Newkirk, Oklahoma. For the first time since the accident, I would be facing the two communities who’d embraced our tragedy and had tirelessly searched for our boys in the fierce elements of the storm. I thought of the biblical story of David standing before the giant Goliath with nothing more than a homemade slingshot and how I was nothing like him. David was brave. I was not. Was it possible to share memories of Craig without acknowledging that he was no longer here?
Lord, let my words make a difference for one, I prayed.
The night of the banquet, as the Sportsmen’s Wild Game Dinner commenced, I hoped the microphone wouldn’t pick up the noises in my stomach. Nerves were my excuse for not eating wild boar, the only good thing about my fear that night.
Breathe, I told myself, as I approached the stage, nauseated at the thought of referring to Craig in past tense. And then I began.
I told them about my first and last duck hunt, and how I kept yelling for Craig to turn over the plastic duck that hung in the water upside down. I remember Craig yelling back, “He’s supposed to be like that, mom—he’s diving!” Once the decoys were floating in place, Craig and I sat on the bank. “So, this is it?” I asked. “You just sit here?”
He did his best to explain why sitting in the cold by the side of the river and waiting for ducks was fun. But two hours and zero ducks later, I asked, “Could the ducks be lost?” And just like that, Craig, exasperated, I think, decided the hunt was over. As we packed the gear, I glanced up just in time to see the only duck of the day. When Craig tried to tell me that I didn’t know what a duck looked like, I pulled him toward me for a better view.
“I can’t believe it!” Craig said, shaking his head. “There’s one duck in the whole sky, and my mom spots it!”
I knew better than to laugh as I walked a little taller back to the truck, proud that I knew what a duck looked like, and relieved the upside-down duck had been rescued.
The air lightened when hunters all over the room laughed, identifying with Craig’s life, not just his tragedy. I took a breath.
I couldn’t resist telling them about Craig’s first guitar, a Christmas present I’d gotten him when he was a senior in high school. The acoustic guitar he’d wanted was shiny and blue, and I’d wrapped it in green and red plaid paper.
I could hardly wait for him to open it, but moments after he did, he asked if he could exchange the guitar for clothes from Abercrombie. I said no. Maybe he would have become a worship leader and formed a country-rock band without that blue guitar, but I like thinking I had something to do with it.
Heads nodded and moms laughed.
Then I set the scene of a turning point in Craig’s life, a decision that impacted thousands. “It was around ten the night Craig called from his dorm at Ouachita Baptist University,” I began.
When I’d picked up the phone that night, Craig had said, “Mom, what are you doing?” Floating somewhere between awake and asleep. “I’m in bed, but that’s okay, what’s going on?”
“I think I want to transfer to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.”
My heart had sunk at the thought of him leaving the protected bubble that moms think exists on a Christian campus.
“Craig! No! Why?”
“Everyone here is already a Christian. I need to go where people don’t know the Lord.” By the change in his tone, I realized he knew this was going to be a hard sell.
He’d paused for just a second. “Mom, when you go to a party at OBU, it’s BYOB, bring your own Bible!”
This sentence brought the biggest laugh of all that night, especially from the teenagers.
Once the laughter faded, I continued my talk. I told them how I’d remembered trying my best not to laugh on the phone. I was, after all, his mother, and I’d thought his idea was an awful one.
“You just want to go to a party school, Craig.”
“No, that’s not it. I want to go where I can be a witness.”
A hush settled on the audience as I described the impact of Craig’s decision, of the argument I had lost. If a pin had dropped in the room of 225, I would have heard it.
Craig wasn’t afraid to tell others about Jesus and he didn’t let awkward situations stop him. I told them about the football players he’d witnessed to in class, the students he’d led to the Lord at the gym, and about the lives he’d touched, young and old, when he’d shared the gospel through his love of baseball in the Dominican Republic.
As I spoke of Craig’s fearlessness to share his faith, I realized, my fear of living without him was keeping me from sharing mine.
As I’d prepared to speak to these communities, gathered to honor Craig and Chase, I’d asked God to use my words to help just one, and before the night ended, I realized the one He helped most was me. God used memories of Craig’s life to fill me with the courage to live again.
I could feel Craig with me on the stage as I spoke of his zeal for life and passion to share his faith. God in His infinite wisdom, continues to teach me beautiful lessons through Craig’s life. That night, I learned that when we choose God over our fears, our Goliaths never win.
What looks like death in this physical world, is the true victory of life. Sometimes, it’s the thing we fear most that God uses to show His strength. Through His mercy, His grace is always sufficient for our sorrows.