In Spring 2018, I was wrapping up an interview with the Canadian born musician and activist, Bruce Cockburn. His manager kindly arranged a phone call for a piece I was doing for the Canadian magazine, Ranch and Reserve. The spread—with live concert photos—would celebrate the release of Cockburn’s album, Bone to Bone.
The thirty-odd minute call felt like a highpoint in my career as a print journalist. Cockburn had been a personal hero of mine since the early days of MTV when the video for his song, “If I Had A Rocket Launcher” was on steady rotation.
I enjoyed talking with Cockburn, a confessing Christian, because he was open about his faith and his own foibles. There was another reason I wanted to speak with the musician.
Cockburn’s “Festival of Friends” never garnered much radio play when it was released in the early seventies, yet it provided a much-needed touch of balm to my heart, after my wife and I experienced a devastating loss.
“Festival” is a somber, yet hopeful composition, which reminds believers of what awaits us in the coming life.
With the interview drawing to a close, I cleared my throat and apologized in advance for what I feared would be a clumsy attempt at narrating why this song was a spiritual North Star in the dark night of my grief and loss.
After the birth of our second child in 2005, my wife, Carolina, decided to go back to school. After completing her core classes in community college, she decided to pursue a career in mathematics. Her grades were so good my wife won a full ride scholarship to a four-year university in northern Texas. The unexpected academic bursary came like manna from heaven.
There was one major hiccup. The US economy in 2008 limped along in a grinding recession.
The North Texas scholarship would cover education costs and allow us to be closer to family. It was an easy decision to put our house on the market—even at a potential loss—and head north.
As part of the scholarship, my wife participated in a special research project that summer. I convinced her to go on without us, since we could see each other on the weekends until a buyer snapped up our house.
The real estate market was brutal. Home values were underwater, and it wasn’t clear when the economy would rebound. Our house, while located in a highly prized foothold of suburbia, barely drew any interest. On the weekends, I’d pack up the kids and we’d make the three-hour plus journey up to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
The separation was tough on the family. My wife and I were perplexed by the lack of interest in the house. Later that summer, my wife came home for a short break.
After a stressful separation, we fell into each other’s arms, and life with the kids returned to normal. The house remained on the market, but we never got an offer. We tried not to think about the Fall Semester which began in a few weeks.
Shortly after her return home, I heard the telltale sounds of her retching in the bathroom one morning. After two children, we both knew what that sound meant.
My wife and I both experienced unhappy childhoods. The long shadows of losing our fathers at early ages, and the subsequent poor decisions our remaining parents made, extended well into adulthood.
God, in bringing us together, gave us the healing and closure we’d always sought. Carolina and I met and then married in Buenos Aires, where our first child was born. Our second child, a daughter, was born after relocation to Texas.
Even with a third pregnancy coming in the midst of a stagnant real estate market and the possibility of her walking away from the scholarship program—neither one of us saw it as a setback. The first ultrasound revealed two heartbeats. We were ecstatic at bringing two more babies into the family.
We decided, as a family, that my wife would wrap up any loose ends with her programme, drop the scholarship, and we’d hunker down in Southeast Texas until the housing market improved.
Anxious to reestablish the family in our house, I unpacked the boxes stored in the garage in anticipation of a move, and instead of staging the house for a buyer, I planned to turn one of the bedrooms into a nursery for the twins.
I was in the midst of painting the nursery one evening when my wife came in, ashen faced. Her left hand cradled her belly. She told me that she had spotted blood. We called and the doctor scheduled an ultrasound.
At first light on Monday morning, we rushed to the doctor’s office. We spent the previous two nights in prayer, and both believed God could provide us a miracle.
Unlike previous ultrasounds, the technician had the volume turned off. In retrospect, I understand why. The grainy image on the screen showed two still hearts. Our children, our babies, were dead.
We never found out their gender, but given the twin’s gestation, the doctor said we would have to have an abortion. There was no chance of them passing naturally.
In Corinthians, St Paul asks, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (KJV)
After praying for a miracle, and then for comfort, I questioned, not the goodness of God, but why was Death allowed to gloat at the blessing that was snatched away.
Those five troubled days, in the waning Summer of 2008, left me bewildered and angered at God’s silence. The only words I could ever write about that week were strung together in blundering and unembellished verse.
All this talk of Jesus
And I feel like hell.
There are no holy words
No divine thoughts
In my head or chest
Two of our babies
A promised quiver
Never to be born.
I try to pray,
But it feels useless
I pace the halls of this house
In the terrible small hours
Like some mad Ophelia
Before she leapt into oblivion.
The only prayer
I could muster
Earlier that night
On a living child anyway
A feeble supplication
At the bedstead
Of a sick child
With wet coughs and feverish eyes.
Everyone else is asleep
I want to sneak outside
To smoke cigarettes and drink wine
And stare at the starlight
And feel nothing
My wife thought I had quit
—both the smoking and drinking—
And I had until the ultrasound
When I saw their dead hearts
At least outside
It would be nice to listen
To the wind in the trees
As she sleeps
I want to be alone in the dark
Gazing through the cigarette smoke
At the moon and the star-embroidered sky
But I’m mad with grief
Because we have an appointment tomorrow for an abortion
I want to get drunk because of it
And I can’t stop thinking
How things are
Really screwed up in America
If these two babies were alive
We could get an abortion on demand
No questions asked
The twins will never be born
So there’s no urgency
To end their lives
The nurse can only schedule
The procedure later in the week
Despite my pleading
That my wife is desperate
And that I’m a mess
Because my wife will have to
Carry the twins for two days
I tried to hold my wife
Earlier that night,
But my hands touched
And I knew then
Would never be the same again
For better or for worse, it would change
I’m talking to Jesus again
In a way I shouldn’t
I want to drink and smoke
In the lawn chair
With the moonlight
And dry autumn leaves
Scuttling across the rooftop
I try to pray
Foul mouthed and confused
For my wife,
And my children,
Both living and dead
For so many things
That suddenly feel old and broken
I just hope it’s not a hallucination
When I hear these gentle words:
‘Friend, let me take your burden today.’
To say my questions went unanswered would be a lie.
That Friday morning, after the ultrasound and the abortion, I awoke drained and defeated. I told God I couldn’t get out of bed. I felt incapable of comforting my wife.
When I was four, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. I saw the disease cripple—and then kill him—in a matter of months. At ten I lost one of my best friends to cancer.
Shortly before we lost the twins, I buried my mother and then my sister.
I had spent a decade estranged from my mother, but having a family allowed us both to have a reset of sorts where I could leave the past behind. Our newly established relationship only lasted a brief time before her death.
Soon after her passing, my special needs sister died of cancer. In many ways, she still had the mind—and heart—of a child. But she had met and fallen in love with young man similar to her at a church camp. It was she who requested that I walk her down the aisle on her wedding day because our father could not.
When the doctor ordered her to be put into an induced coma because of the cancer that was eating her away, I stood at her bedside and asked Christ to take her hand this time. She was scared of the dark, I told him. Don’t leave her alone, I begged him.
When I raised my head in prayer, he let me know in a way that only I could understand, that he was at her bedstead awaiting her final journey.
Yet the weight of those deaths hung heavy on me. I could not shoulder the burden anymore.
Lying in bed that Friday morning, the same quiet voice that let me know my sister would not go alone into the darkness, urged me with a compassion that was startling, saying only: “Friend, let me carry your load today.”
The autumn after we lost the babies, I camped out in the room of our sick child. I wanted to be nearby because of the child’s feverish state.
My wife and I barely talked about the twins since the abortion. But the presence of their passing was with us. I felt ashamed because in the overwhelming shellshock of loss and abortion, I did not ask for their remains. It pierced me knowing that they were disposed of like medical waste.
I struggled with how God would resurrect these unborn children. And if He would not, would I ever see them again?
That night in the sick child’s room, I was reading by lamplight when my wife came in. She sat on the edge of the bed and gently took my hand. She placed it in her lap and squeezed it tight. Carolina smiled and we began to talk about the twins.
I confessed that my faith was battered, and I wasn’t sure if all our grief and sorrow could be wiped clean from our spiritual memory banks. Then I told her that I had asked God to allow me one indulgence in heaven. I wanted to meet the twins.
Spring followed and we decided to pursue another pregnancy. In early 2010, we welcomed a new child into our home. He was not conceived to replace the babies we lost. God used him to bring light into our darkness.
I wrote for a European media group at the time, and my editor generously told me I could return to work only when I was ready after we lost the twins. After a month at home with my wife and children, I asked for new assignments and hit the road again.
But the road was lonely, and sometimes I fell into binge drinking. In Reykjavík, the grief followed me like an old wolf in winter, ragged, famished, and teeth bared waiting for me to stumble. I did.
On a Sioux Indian reservation, I stood at the casino-hotel window overlooking rolling prairies, sobbing uncontrollably as a fireball sunset arced across the western skyline.
In Geneva, approaching the first anniversary of the miscarriage, I passed sleepless nights walking the city. Sometimes I obsessed over the medicine cabinet in the company-owned apartment that housed me on temporary assignment for a new job.
The cabinet was chockful of sundry toiletries and items that other sojourners left behind. The forlorn flotsam of jet setters and those waylaid on company business, like me.
I was a hot mess, and alcohol only made the ghosts more potent, and yet Christ was there.
At 30,000 feet on a flight from Minneapolis to Houston, I sat next to a group of sisters flying south to meet their extended family. One of them took an interest in me and struck up a conversation. At one point she simply said, “God gave us family to comfort us.” Her words felt like the breath of God.
When I was a much younger man, I sometimes dreamt of my father. In the last dream I ever had of him, I saw him in the clearing in a partially harvested wheat field.
There were others with him in the dream—and I sensed they were family. When I tried to approach my father, he looked at me, saddened by my presence, and bolted away. In the dream, I ran after him, trying to catch up, but I never did.
A few years after we lost the twins, I dreamt of the same field. But this time there was a tall building in the clearing. The long windows reflected the passing clouds.
I walked inside where a woman was kneeling, spoon feeding two children on either side of her. Her hair was so dark it shimmered in the light. She sensed my presence. She nodded without looking at me a step away, and I saw the children in highchairs. I looked into both their eyes, and they, into mine. No words were spoken. The wheat outside the house swirled in the wind, but in their gaze, I knew who they were.
I told Cockburn about the twins and how his song was a gentle reminder that I would see them some day. After a pause, he spoke, and gently said: “Thank you for letting me know. I really appreciate it”.
I am not a theologian, and there is nothing in my life that would set me apart as an example of what a man of faith should be. If anything, I am hanging onto faith in God by my fingernails despite my stiff-necked ways.
There are days I feel like a straggler, limping along with all the other walking wounded on the road.
Most of the time I feel like I’m belly crawling to the kingdom.
But in the mind-boggling span of time and eternity, I can say with all certainty that Jesus Christ, who died on a cross in ancient Jerusalem, who was resurrected from the dead on the third day, met me on the road of a crushing grief.
Does the old ache creep upon me at times? Without a doubt it does. But even in grief, there is healing, and perhaps, just as importantly, peace. Though wounded in darkness, we were bandaged in light. The light of God.
Or as Cockburn says in his song,
Like an imitation of a good thing past
These days of darkness surely will not last
Jesus was here and he’s coming again
To lead us to his festival of friends.
The featured image is courtesy of Tom Darin Liskey and used with his gracious permission for Cultivating.
Tom Darin Liskey was born in Missouri but spent nearly a decade working as a journalist in Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi. His poetry, fiction and non-fiction has appeared in The Red Truck Review, Deep South, Driftwood Press, Biostories, Spelk, Heartwood among others. His narrative and documentary photography has been published in The Museum of Americana, Change 7, The Blue Mountain Review, Cowboy Jamboree, Literary Life and Midwestern Gothic, among others. He lives in Texas with his family.
“I take a more documentary approach to photography, using the camera to explore faith in images, and hopefully, the human story, through unplanned street portraits of people I meet in my both my travels, and everyday life. As both a writer and photographer, I believe my calling is to be present. I pray that God choreographs the rest.”