Finding Grace in the Depths of Disappointment
About the Guest
Rhonda was a beloved wife, a great mom and a successful pediatrician. Her husband was a Godly man, a respected surgeon and the love of her life. Together, it looked like happily ever after, until the day her husband came home with stunning news: "I have terminal cancer". Join us for Rhonda's powerful journey through the valley of the shadow of death, and beyond.
Listen to Rhonda’s powerful journey through the valley of the shadow of death, and beyond.
Finding Grace in the Depths of Disappointment
Bob: When Rhonda Williams’ husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer, that diagnosis was obviously devastating. Rhonda says, “Their faith was tested, but it was never shaken.”
Rhonda: You cannot go through anything like this if you don’t believe that what you’re going through is God’s sovereign will. The only way that you can move that foot in front of the other is to know there is light at the end of the tunnel. We both truly believed that—that we are not home; and that if God was calling him home, He was calling him home. We were okay with that.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, December 12th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. Rob and Rhonda Bugh join us today to talk about how you respond to life when the bottom drops out. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You know—part of the story we’re going to hear today—I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of a funeral or a memorial service where the line was ten hours long for folks to go through and to pay their respects for the deceased.
Dennis: You’re going to hear a remarkable story today about a pair of choice servants of Jesus Christ. Rob and Rhonda Bugh join us on FamilyLife Today. Rhonda, Rob, welcome back to the broadcast.
Rob: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Rhonda: Thank you, Dennis.
Dennis: Together, they have hammered out a brand-new marriage; and I say, “Together, they’ve hammered it out,” because both of them were married for a number of years before their spouses died. Rob was married to Carol until 2006. They’d been married for 27 years. They had four children. Rhonda was married to Tom who, by the way, was Rob’s best friend; right?
Rob: Absolutely. Yes.
Dennis: Closest buddy on the planet.
Rob: And my accountability partner, and we prayed for our marriages, and our kids, and the cause of Christ, and on, and on, together, for years.
Dennis: Rhonda, you and Tom had three children; and your husband died after 25 years of marriage in 2005. We’re going to start with you back to that remarkable line of people—ten hours, Rhonda.
Rhonda: That’s right. Tom had the amazing ability to relate to many different levels of people. He was president of the medical staff at Central DuPage Hospital—that at the time—had about 800 doctors. He was a general surgeon. He was active in our church. He was a motorcycle driver. He had a semi truck driving license. He just was able to meet a lot of different people in his life, and they all came.
Bob: Well, take me back—
Dennis: No, no. Before we go back to how they met, I know some of our listeners are going to want to know this. So, we need to get this right out of the way.
Bob: Okay, alright.
Dennis: Was it a Harley?
Rhonda: It was a Harley.
Rhonda: Oh, absolutely.
Dennis: Okay. [Laughter]
Bob: The important information is now recorded. So, take me back, now, to the 25 years before that memorial service. How did you and Tom meet?
Rhonda: Tom and I met at the University of Iowa, and we went to medical school together at the University of Iowa.
Bob: What was it about him that caught your eye?
Rhonda: Well, initially, we met—he was a rugby player, and we met and lived in the same dorm. He was a very good looking, athletic man; and I guess, to be honest, that’s what attracted me. [Laughter]
Bob: He was a hunk. Let’s just get it out here. He’s a hunk; right?
Dennis: I’m just glad—I’m glad it was rugby and that you didn’t meet over a cadaver.
Rhonda: That’s—well, and then, that’s the second part of it. We broke up. Due to a motorcycle accident that I was involved in, he came to visit me in the hospital; and our relationship blossomed again. We, then, started dating over a cadaver in anatomy class in medical school. [Laughter]
Dennis: So, how did he propose? How does a medical school student, a guy who is going to become a surgeon, propose to a future pediatrician?
Rhonda: That is one of the most beautiful things. He—we had gone to church together. We came home after church on a Sunday, and we would have devotions together. We were sitting on the couch, and we were reading Proverbs 31. Not sure exactly—at that time, I wasn’t sure why we were reading about Proverbs 31; but as he closed the Bible, it had my married name—I guess he was pretty confident—[Laughter]
Bob: That you were going to say, “Yes”?
Rhonda: —engraved on the Bible, and he asked—
Bob: He’d already—
Rhonda: He’d already engraved my name on the Bible and asked if I would marry him. That was our first devotion out of my Bible that I still use.
Dennis: That’s pretty cool. So, you started your marriage, then. I mean what a—med school—that’s pretty tough—all the way through residency—all those years.
Bob: A surgeon married to a pediatrician with competing hours, but you did find time to have children; right?
Rhonda: We did—not the most opportune time. I had my first child in my third year of residency, and that was very difficult. I was on call, and he was on call every third night. So, we would be together every third night.
Rhonda: It was a hard time.
Bob: Take us to the first indication—and this was two-plus decades later—the first indication that there was something physical that Tom had.
Rhonda: Yes. Tom and I were due to turn 50 and celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. We had made plans to take our family, over Christmas break, to Hawaii to celebrate those milestones; but before that, in the fall, Tom, who was involved in a medical strategic networking, had been asked to come to Cuba to train medical students how to preach the Gospel and to really pray with their patients.
He had just come back from Cuba and was slightly hoarse. It was approximately six weeks before we were to leave for Hawaii, and he was having some hoarseness and some trouble swallowing.
Bob: You didn’t think anything about it at the time; did you?
Rhonda: We did not because he used an inhaler for asthma at times, and they felt it was vocal cord inflammation from the inhaler.
Dennis: So, how long before there were symptoms that drove you to further exploration?
Rhonda: While we were in Hawaii, he stopped eating things that were difficult to swallow. When we got back on New Year’s Eve, he went into the hospital to do an emergency appendicitis on a patient. While he was there, taking off his scrubs, he noticed a lump in his throat. From that moment on, it was a whirlwind. He had a CAT scan done, saw a surgeon, and four and half months later died.
Bob: The diagnosis—that came from that CAT scan and that initial surgery—take us to when you got that news—when he got that news.
Rhonda: The night he came home from doing the surgery—he came home; and he said, “Rhonda, look.” He showed me the lump in his throat. We were afraid, but the radiologist had felt it was just an enlarged thyroid that maybe had cancer in it. They elected to operate a few days later, and the surgeon immediately found it wasn’t just a simple thyroid cancer.
Bob: So, how did you hear that news?
Rhonda: The surgeon called me into the waiting room, and they told me.
Bob: Two doctors who get the news you got—you kind of know—you’ve been around the block a few times. You know, you hope for the best, you pray for the best; but you know what the odds are. How did you walk those next four months of life?
Rhonda: Day by day—minute by minute. It’s really—when you go through something like that, you can’t look ahead. It’s too frightening, and each day is a blessing. If you read about this kind of cancer my husband had, there were only about six cases ever described—
Rhonda: —and nobody, anywhere in the country, knew how to take care of it. Nothing worked on this type of cancer, and it’s still totally untreatable. So, reading the literature, hearing the doctors—his oncologist said, “It’s not a good prognosis; but I can promise you this—I’m going to walk with you all along the way, and I’m going to throw the kitchen sink at you.” And they did—maximal amounts of radiation, every chemotherapy drug that we could try.
So, if you look at all of that, you know the odds are not favorable; but we continued to really pray. We would use—our church home was a tremendous support to us and just—
Dennis: Rhonda, you started your relationship in Proverbs 31—
Dennis: —with a Bible. It was not merely symbolic. You and Tom shared a vibrant faith. How did your faith sustain you two through that?
Rhonda: Sorry. [Crying] I wasn’t expecting that. Well, my husband was a very godly man, and he never faltered. He was in the Word every day. Rob came over frequently—and as friends and our pastor, he constantly looked to Rob, as well.
You cannot go through anything like this if you don’t believe that what you’re going through is God’s sovereign will. The only way that you can move that foot in front of the other is to know there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and there’s a way out, and that we aren’t—and we both truly believed that we are not home and that if God was calling him home, He was calling him home. We were okay with that.
Bob: There came a point, in your fight together, where you looked and you said, “We fought the good fight. Now, it’s time to say, ‘Goodbye.’” How long was the goodbye period?
Rhonda: There were two times that I remember clearly saying, “Goodbye.” The first time was before he was going into his final surgery. The throat specialist at Loyola was going to do what was called a commando procedure, as a last ditch effort. The cancer was basically filling up Tom’s neck, and he would suffocate to death. So, they decided to try a surgery to remove everything in his neck. Before he went into surgery, I, at that time, told him I didn’t think I could go on without him. I didn’t know how to do life without him, and he assured me I would be fine. He gave me permission to marry again.
But the hardest time of saying goodbye was when the surgeon, the ear, nose, and throat specialist—they all came and said, “We’ve never seen a cancer like this. It spread quickly,” and there was nothing more they could do. Tom wanted to keep fighting; and I had to say it was time to come home, and there was nothing more we could do. That’s when, I think, we said our goodbye.
Dennis: Rob, you must have done the service, if he was your best friend.
Rob: Yes, I did. That’s right.
Dennis: What do you remember from that memorial service?
Rob: Well, Tom was highly-respected and deeply loved. He was a man’s man, and he was a discipler. He had a real passion for taking people on the fringes and rooting them in the Gospel. Whether they were bikers, or carpenters, unemployed, or leading physicians, Tom wanted to be there for them. So, Tom and Rhonda, incidentally, had a stream of people that would live with them for periods of time—that Tom would kind of take in to help—doctors that were in trouble—people like that.
So, there were several of us that shared. There were different people from different aspects of Tom’s life; and then, my responsibility was to point people to the Jesus that Tom so deeply loved and to talk about the hope that was the obvious driver of Tom’s life. That was an incredible privilege for me, and that was a great moment.
Bob: You had no idea, as you preached your friend’s funeral, that the path you had been walking with him and with his widow would be a path you would find yourself on with your wife, a year and a half later?
Rob: Yes, actually, Tom died in May of 2005. Then, in August of 2005, my wife was diagnosed with a different kind of cancer, a rare cancer that took the Mayo Clinic a couple of weeks to figure out. It ended up being an internal melanoma that originated in her colon area. That put us on a journey where we battled back and forth for about 11 months. Both Tom and Carol’s cancers were similar in that they were very rare, and extremely aggressive, and very disfiguring. Carol ended up with baseball-sized tumors inside and outside her body; but Carol lived for 11 months and, then, died in August of 2006.
Bob: Rhonda, do you remember—you were grieving still the loss of your husband when you got the news that Rob’s wife had a tumor. Do you remember what you thought?
Rhonda: My thoughts were the community’s thoughts: “What is going on?” It was very frightening. During that time, our church really rallied, as a community, and prayed a lot over what was happening.
Dennis: Well, he’s your senior pastor.
Rhonda: He’s our senior pastor, and he was my pastor.
Dennis: He cared for so many of you; and now, it was turning around that you needed to care for him.
Dennis: Was there a time when you and Carol said goodbye?
Rob: Carol spent the last couple months, Dennis, with a chemo mind—what we call a chemo mind—the effects of the radiation and the strong, strong drugs just took a toll on her; and in addition, the cancer spread to her brain. So, the last month or so, especially, when we would have had some conversations, we were not able to; but we had been saying goodbye, in a bunch of little ways, all along.
But one of the things I appreciated about the medical staff at MD Anderson Hospital, in Houston, where we were, is they never took away our hope. They never said, “One more month, and it is over.” So, there was always this sense of which, “Maybe we could find something else,” or, “Maybe she would qualify for a particular protocol.”
Others around us could see that that wasn’t going to work—especially, medical people—but we just kept fighting; and pretty soon, it was gone. We did not have a time to formally say goodbye; but then, after Carol died, I discovered that she had written my four kids and me these wonderful letters. I include a copy of her letter to me in my book. Those were just masterpieces of a wife and a mother’s commitment to her family and her commitment to Christ.
Dennis: Would you mind sharing your favorite part of that letter with our listeners?
Rob: One is when Carol said, “Rob, you absolutely have no regrets. You’ve been an amazing husband.” That was kind of her first point. Another major point—and little did we know what God had in store for us—was when Carol gave me permission to remarry. Every couple is different.
Tom and Rhonda talked about that. Carol and I never talked about remarriage, but I got this letter a couple of days after she died. I found it; and she said, “Rob, I want to share you with somebody else. You have too much to offer. I believe in you. I don’t want you to do this by yourself. I want to encourage you to remarry.” That was an amazing thing for me to read. It really was stunning.
Rob: Because of how foresighted she was—how she was—how selfless she was being, how—[Crying]—for so many of us, as Christ-followers, life is about us. Life is about me—this kind of me-ism that is embedded in American evangelicalism. One of the amazing things about Carol—amazing thing about Tom—is life wasn’t about them. That letter was just an incredible picture of that.
Dennis: The subtitle of your book, Finding Grace in the Depths of Disappointment—if you haven’t been living in grace, experiencing grace, knowing the God of all grace—you’re more than likely not going to find it when you run into the type of valley that you two went through. I just appreciate both of you being willing to allow us to journey with you in that and share some of the lessons because I’ve quoted Ecclesiastes, Chapter 7, verse 1, many times here on the broadcast. It just talks about how it is good to go to the house of mourning—to the place where it’s the end of a matter—to the place where there’s death because the living takes it to heart.
There’s a message for us today. Where are you in your relationship with God? Are you experiencing the God of all grace? Do you know Him, and are you walking with Him?—because you don’t get ready to meet Him when you come to death’s door. You need to be spending a lifetime doing that. If you miss Him, you’ve missed life.
Bob: Yes. The point is that God’s sustaining grace is not something that we just reach out and tap into in the midst of the storm. It’s something that you cultivate throughout a lifetime so that it’s there—it’s always there—but the question is, “Have we been learning how to walk in grace, and how to walk by faith, even on the sunny days?”
I think your book does a great job of spelling out some of the very practical things that both of you went through as you lost your spouses and, then, how God brought beauty from ashes. We’re going to hear more about that this week. The title of the book is When the Bottom Drops Out. We have it in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order a copy when you go online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Once again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com. —the title of the book is When the Bottom Drops Out—or you call, toll-free, to request the book. Call 1-800-FL-TODAY, 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY”. Ask about the book, When the Bottom Drops Out, when you get in touch with us.
Now, can I share with you an email we got recently from one of our listeners who said:
I just wrote to tell you what a blessing your program is to me. When I discovered your program years ago, it was like an answer to prayer. You have consistently kept your focus on the family and been careful not to place your political views before family issues—and I want to thank you for that.
I’m making a commitment to be a blessing to your ministry this year. Now, our finances have been extremely difficult over the past decade; but God has blessed me in many, many other ways through my family, and I intend to give to your ministry this year. God bless you and your staff.
I have to tell you it’s great to get emails like that—first of all, to know that God is working through the ministry of FamilyLife Today and then, secondly, to hear from folks who are stepping up to stand with us, here at FamilyLife because this has been a great year for us, in terms of ministry; but for many months now, we’ve seen a drop off in response from radio listeners. That has forced us to have to pull back—in some cases, slow down—and in other cases, stop some of the things that we were doing, here at FamilyLife Today.
The good news is we’ve had some friends who’ve stepped forward and have said, “We would like to match the donations you receive, during the month of December, on a dollar-for-dollar basis, up to a total”—of what is now—“$3.6 million.” We’ve seen our matching fund grow in recent days. The total amount being matched this year is $3.6 million. So, when you make a donation—whether it’s $50, $100, whatever you’re able to do—that donation is going to be matched, dollar-for-dollar, through this matching-gift fund.
Can we ask you today to consider making a donation to support FamilyLife Today, here at yearend? You can donate online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the button that says, “I CARE”, to make an online donation; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY, 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY”. And we do appreciate whatever you are able to do in helping us out, here at the end of 2012.
We hope you can be back with us again tomorrow. Rob and Rhonda Bugh will be here, and we’ll find out how God took their relationship from ashes to beauty in some surprising ways. I hope you can be here for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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