“I believe in night. I believe in day. I believe there’s a light coming back around again. I believe Your right ’cause I believe there’s a way. And I believe I might have some catching up to do. The voices are growing strong. The rumbling of thunder a rolling drum. Let Your Kingdom Come.
I believe in God. I believe in God…I believe that I, I believe enough. So help me God. I believe in love and I believe in us. And I believe the Sky, is made for me to touch…”
Looking out at the snow and ice on the interstate, I tried to ignore the thoughts and emotions battling in my brain. I didn’t want to jinx what might happen by letting my gut feel one way or another. While the optimist within me said, “Don’t worry! We’ll find Craig aggravated that his dad, step-mom and wife came all the way out to Oklahoma to find him when he simply forgotten to call!”; my common sense rolled it’s eyes and said, “Give it a rest. He would’ve found a way to call by now.” Not wanting to give in to either Positive Patty or Negative Nancy, I continued to lean on the cold window and stare at the winter storm-covered pastures…and occasional car in the ditch. Lovely.
As I numbed my brain by pressing the side of my forehead on the window, I thought back to getting ready that morning. I got up 4am and put on a full face of makeup and super girly ski outfit, so that when we found Craig stranded on a random island on the lake [so happy to see me, of course], he would look at me with doe-like eyes and say, “Wow! My wife is so hot.” No joke. That was my really my thought process as I packed for the trip. As I got ready that morning, I felt so sure that I would see my husband in wonderful spirits that evening. However, after being on the road 2 and half hours, I started having a sickening feeling that my attempts to impress my husband may have been futile, and my confidence misplaced. But I blinked away the tears that might mess up my mascara and fake lashes…just in case. I remember Julie [my mother-in-law/Craig’s step mother] crawling over the truck console to the back seat to hug on me. She had always seemed like such a strong woman, in her faith and demeanor, so I was glad to have her next to me as a quiet comfort during that depressing drive. At some point along the way, I heard a phone ring which acted as a freeze-ray on my body. I sat frozen, holding my breath, listening intently in case it was Craig saying he was okay. But as Randy [my father-in-law/Craig’s “Daddo”] began to speak, I could tell it was someone important. Although, it wasn’t until I heard him say – “Oh that doesn’t sound good” – that I decided to pay attention. I felt [and heard] my heart give one massive beat that seemed to push all the blood in my veins through my entire body in a single throb. Everything around me went silent as my ears strained to hear the words of the random man on the phone. I greatly respect Craig’s father, and one of the many things I appreciated about him was how he handled that first day of the search. I’ve found that in situations such as the one we were experiencing, I tend to be very reserved – preferring to hold emotional outbursts for private moments in shower where no one could see the evidence of my tears. So when Randy hung up the phone and sat for a second or two, you can imagine how I held my breath and stared unblinkingly at the back of his head waiting to see how he was going to handle the news he just received. I knew that whatever his reaction looked like, I would most likely follow his lead. I began to sit up slowly when Randy finally said, “Well, they found a capsized boat that matches the description of Craig’s and Chase’s, but they don’t know if it’s their’s or not.” I can’t remember what half-heart encouraging statement I responded with, but as I settled back to my window I couldn’t have been more thankful Randy didn’t give in to the emotions I knew we were all fighting. I needed to be with someone like me. Someone who didn’t want to give up just yet. Someone who just wanted to get to Kaw Lake, and go from there.
I’ll never forget the drive to Ponca City, OK on December 28, 2015. A city I never even knew existed until 24 hours before that drive. A city that would change my life forever.
“I believe in peace, when it’s sweeping over me. I believe in fear, when I feel courageous. I believe this life is more than tangible. And I believe the sky is going on for ages. The voices are growing strong. The rolling of thunder, a rolling drum. Let Your Kingdom Come.
My husband, Craig, and his friend Chase were missing. They had gone duck hunting in a winter storm early in the morning the day before, which would’ve been December 27th. Looking back at my phone log, Craig called me around 4am to tell me they were heading out to the water for the hunt. [Side Note: I’m so thankful I got to speak to my husband before God was planned to take him home. We got to say goodbye and I love you. And for that, I am forever grateful.] At the time at which we spoke, I had no idea Craig was even in Ponca City, OK. The afternoon of the 26th, we had just gotten home from all our Christmas travels and he convinced me to let him go hunting. He was very vague about where exactly this hunting trip was going to be, but I’m pretty sure “only an hour or so” was mentioned. I suspect he knew me well enough to know that if he told me he was going four hours away to a lake he’d only been on once in his life, I most likely would have shut him down before he could even finish the sentence. Not because I knew anything about a storm coming [because I didn’t], but because I would’ve known if he drove four hours away, his “one day duck hunt” would undoubtedly turn into three nights that he would ask forgiveness for later. Oh yes, I loved my husband and his many clever schemes (ha).
It was now the afternoon of the 27th, and it seemed like we sat at the freezing cold Sheriff’s Department for a lifetime. The electricity was out due to the storm, and the little power the building received was coming from a generator. However, despite the temperature, God was taking care of our grieving hearts right away. At some point in the drive, Randy had received another phone call stating that Sam [Craig’s hunting dog – a handsome black lab] had been found by the capsized boat. While this made the situation more grim, it was still such a comfort to have Sam there at the station. I don’t think in Sam’s entire life that he had ever received as much love and attention as he got that day from our family, or as we would receive in the weeks following from random strangers. After obsessing over Sam, we also met several officers who were the kindest people we’ve ever met. They did EVERYTHING they absolutely could to help our family, and they have become dear friends that we still have a relationship with today.
But now I feel that I need to be completely honest with you [as we promised each other we would be]. Even then, with all these comforts from God, sitting in that cold and sterile police building was maddening. Waiting to hear news. Hearing news. Then finding out the news was false. Until the moment the officers came in and stated they had found someone. By this point, Craig’s mother [Joanne] and her husband [Larry] had arrived, as well as Chase’s family…and we were all terrified to know who the officers had found. Unfortunately, they needed someone to identify who the person was, and since they seemed to think it was Chase, his mother chose to look first. I don’t want to go into her private moment, so I will just skip to the dreadful point when the officer looked at me and said, “Ma’am, we’re so sorry, but we need to make a clear identification…would you mind giving a second opinion.” At this point I was still numb and for some reason, unable to show emotion. Which, looking back, is probably why the officers turned to me as the chaos irrupted without us. So I quietly agreed, stepped forward and sadly identified the face of Craig’s sweet friend, Chase.
Over the next few hours, Craig’s hometown best friends surprised us at the station, Craig’s sister [Katie] and her husband [Jason] arrived with my parents, and eventually we all found our way to the Comfort Inn. The following day, my closest friends and boss from work, along with one of my sweet students and her parents would make the long drive to Ponca City to do what they could to help. At the time, I had no idea how God had already been planning to take care of me 3 years prior by placing each of these individuals in my life. Even before I met Craig, God’s hand brought me to CrossChurch and Shiloh Christian School because He knew my church/school family would play a huge role in helping me get back on my feet during the difficult months to come.
On the first day of searching, the Game Warden [Spencer], despite being sick, took us out to his land (which is where they found Craig’s and Chase’s boat) and we walked for hours. I remember getting to an area of brush where several officers on boats were trying to reach a few of Craig’s belongings in the thickest parts of the trees along the water’s edge. As I watched them, I spotted what looked like Craig’s paddle. I wanted to get it, but it didn’t seem like I could get it without getting wet. Craig’s sweet sweet friends saw me making my first steps towards one sad attempt at recovering the paddle [which would without a doubt ended in me getting completely dowsed in lake water] and they stopped me mid-stride. I will never forget those sweet, sweet men talking it over. Deciding who was going to be the one. Well, after a few minutes of discussing, I guess they deemed one man the bravest, because while I was looking out at the water, one of them ran by me- Yes! Ran! – into the water to get Craig’s paddle. No shoes. No socks. Jeans rolled to his knees. And y’all, that water was bitterly cold! He probably got at least a mild case of frost bite while he ran through that water, while his friends fell over laughing on the bank. But he didn’t act like he cared. In fact, when he got back to land [shivering from head to toe] he said, “Here you go ma’am”, and handed me the paddle with a smile on his face. Although that smile probably faded a bit when he remembered he had to hike all the way back to the car with wet feet.
Once everyone started heading back, I waited and stood in that same place for a while. I kept thinking Craig had to be there, somewhere. And this is the point in the story where I again see God’s hand intentionally guiding my steps…because the place I stood that first day was the same place I stood on the day we found Craig. As I stood in the brush holding that paddle, I was less that 15ft away from where Craig laid peacefully under his cedar tree. But it wasn’t time to find him yet. God still needed to use his story to reach thousands of people. So after waiting a few more minutes, God nudged me back towards the family, and away from my husband’s resting place.
When I got back to the hotel that night, I immediately searched for somewhere I could be alone. After talking to a close friend in Craig’s and my small group (who was helping us get our second night of rooms paid for via our small group and his credit card), I finally found a private bathroom that I locked myself into. I stood in there for quite a while feeling guilty as I ignoring the constant phone calls I kept receiving. I’m not sure how long I was in there [thank goodness it was a nice bathroom], but after some time I finally stood up and began to stare at my reflection in the mirror. For a second time, I had put on a full face of make up and worn a matching ski outfit in case I saw Craig…because again, I was worried about I looked cute when I saw him. As silly as that was, it made me smile and laugh at myself a bit that even then, I still cared about looking pretty for him. [I still love that memory when I reflect back on that time. Even writing about it now makes me smile to myself.] However, once that brief moment of peace passed, I looked at my phone and knew it was time to send the text to my three closest friends – “Okay. I need you.” And without question, they came.
“I yelled in the wind. He came rolling back to sweep me off my feet.
I cried to the rain. He came pouring down to drown my disbelief…”
With my friends by my side, I found brief moments of such loving joy. During the time I spent with them over the next week, I saw God’s plan at work again. But this time, I realized that God’s plan went further back that just 2 years prior. No, He had been prepping my friends since the first time I met them. Each of my friends had been perfectly prepared for this crisis in my life because they knew just how to read my reactions. How to defend me when I felt belittled. And how to make me laugh when I wanted to cry. A few of my favorite moments include (1) sitting in the hotel room, recalling past memories and laughing so hard my sides hurt and no sound came out (you know what kind of laugh I’m talking about! Those are the best laughs); as well as, (2) when I was about to have a melt down in the shower, but right before I lost it, one of my friends opened the bathroom door and said, “Are you okay? I can sit in here and talk to you if you don’t want to be alone.” What sweet blessings friends are.
One day during the search, I remember walking out on a lookout point by myself. It was then that I realized the vastness of Kaw lake. I had already been fighting to believe that Craig was still alive, but after 3-4 days of searching and looking out on all that water, I felt like I could see what was left of my optimism being swept away with the current. Again, I found myself unsure as to how to handle the emotions I was feeling…but then God turned me around. I saw two of my friends standing together wrapped in furry blankets, and another friend standing with her husband who had been kind enough to act as our personal driver everywhere we went [see featured image at top of blog post. It was taken a few minutes after this moment I’m describing]. I saw my parents and Craig’s family. I then looked down at my phone and saw all the love being poured out to me from people all over the world via social media. I thought of the candle light prayer services going on at my church and school. And I thought of all the lives that were being changed through Craig’s story. You know, never once did I get angry at God for my circumstances…but there were times that I just didn’t want it to be real; and therefore, would ask Him if this didn’t have to be part of my life’s story. But it was there on that lookout point that I realized what I was experiencing was bigger than me. In all actuality, it wasn’t even about me at all. It was about God, and God using Craig’s testimony to impact lives of more people than I could have ever imagined. It was about providing a sense of strength and hope for people also going through tragic circumstances and needing to be reminded of God’s love for them. It was then that my perspective truly shifted. I felt such a warmness within me as God whispered to me that Craig and I had been a part of a plan He had been orchestrating a long, long time ago….and while this wasn’t what I wanted, I had to make the decision as to whether or not I cared more about having my husband, or following and trusting in God’s plan. I then looked away from my support team on the bank, and looked back out at the water. It no longer looked cold, dark, and impossibly huge. Instead, I remembered that God created the men who made this lake; and thus, He knew all its comings and goings. He knew every bird that flew over it, every fish that swam within it; and he knew that one day, I would be standing all alone on that lookout, with a neon green furry blanket around my shoulders and tears in my eyes. But before even one tear could fall, He already new the exact number to be ready to catch in a bottle. Today, I believe in that God who loved me dearly in that moment. He is purposeful, all-knowing, and He showers blessings on us if we choose to see them. I chose to see His blessings that day. And in doing so, He revealed to me that He was bigger than any man-made lake. Bigger than any circumstance. And finally, that my concern should only be two things: to know Him, and to make Him known. He’ll take care of the rest.
“I believe in God, I believe in God.
I believe that I, I do believe enough.
So help me God
I believe in love, I believe in us.
And I believe the sky was made for me to touch
I believe in God, I believe in God.
I believe the sky was made for me to touch.”
Lyrics: Relient K – “God”
I will end the story here for today, and plan to post part II on Valentine’s day. Part II will focus on love and overcoming loneliness. Thank you for allowing me to share my story with you, dear friends. It’s one of the first times I’ve really thought through the process of losing Craig as one collective story, and it has been such a blessing to get to share these first moments with you. The support I’ve received has been amazing, and it has fueled my fire in such a wonderful way. Thank you, as well, for all your sweet comments! I really do try to respond back to as many as possible!
What I want to leave you with is this: Remember this week that God is bigger than any difficult circumstance you may facing in your life…because quite frankly, He created your life. Therefore, He can [and He will] take care of what He created. #BeEncouraged by that truth today…and decide to live differently than the world expects, by praising God during trial and tribulation. Prayers are being sent your way dear friend.
With all my love,
Helen Elizabeth Wisner Strickland