A Terrible Loss
About the Guest
Bill Thompson loved his life. Married to his college sweetheart, Margie, since 1977, they had two children and a healthy, happy marriage. In June of 2007, however, Margie died after a 13 year battle with breast cancer. Evelyn Husband, on the other hand, lost her husband, Rick, the commander of the space shuttle Columbia, in 2003, leaving her a widow with two children. Bill and Evelyn join us to share more about their losses, and their second chance at love.
Bill and Evelyn Thompson join us to share more about their losses, and their second chance at love
Bob: February 1,2003, the space shuttle, Columbia, was preparing to reenter the earth’s atmosphere when something went horribly wrong.
[Excerpts from the last transmission of Columbia Houston]
Kling: FYI, I’ve just lost four separate temperature transducers on the left side of the vehicle, hydraulic return temperatures.
Hobaugh: Columbia Houston, we see your tire pressure messages and we did not copy your last.
Husband: And Houston, roger, bu—
Hobaugh: Columbia, Houston, UHF, comm check.
Cain: Do you have any tracking?
Jones: No, sir.
Bob: On the ground, Evelyn Husband and her children were waiting to be reunited with a husband and a father who never came home.
Evelyn: At that moment, I just didn’t know if I could take another step. So, I wasn’t thinking five years—
I wasn’t even necessarily considering five minutes—but my hugest concern was my kids and just how to walk them through. We went back into crew quarters. We all three lay on Rick’s bed that he had slept in just a few days before. His stuff was still in the gym bag on the floor next to us.
I noticed that my children—Matthew was very quiet. Matthew was seven years old. But Laura really started thinking. She asked me—still in crew quarters—we’re not even back to Houston: “Who’s going to walk me down the aisle?”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, August 13th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. Evelyn Thompson joins us today, along with her husband, Bill. We’ll reflect on that tragic day in February of 2003. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Wednesday edition.
You know, in the times that we have talked about blended families and remarriages, I don’t know if we’ve ever spent much time talking about the fact that most blended marriages begin with some kind of loss as a part of the experience of either the husband, or the wife, or both. I mean, whatever are the circumstances, there is often some kind of profound grieving and loss that’s a part of the background.
Dennis: No doubt about it. And let’s just get a comment from Ron Deal, who heads up FamilyLife’s Blended Family Initiative. Would you agree with that statement?
Ron: It’s true. Stop and think about this for a minute. When a young couple—getting married for the first time—gets married, it’s the beginning of the story. When a blended family couple gets married, it’s the middle of the story. There is always something else that preceded it for, at least, one or both of those partners.
So, the middle of the story carries with it the loss, or the sadness, or the sorrow, and the outcome—the impact—of the beginning of the story.
Bob: And if a relationship is beginning with loss as a part of the story, that has an impact on the new relationship that’s forming; doesn’t it?
Ron: It does on the adults and the children.
Dennis: I hadn’t really thought about it; but when Barbara and I dated, it was as you just said. It was all ahead of us. It was a true beginning; but indeed, for the couple who joins us today on the broadcast, Bill and Evelyn Thompson, it was a chapter a bit later in the book. Bill / Evelyn—welcome to our broadcast.
Bill: Thank you.
Evelyn: Thank you.
Dennis: You two have been married since January of 2008. You have, between you, four children—two on each side of the equation here. And you have a story of, not only how you lost your spouses, but also an interesting story that we are going to get Ron’s feedback on as we go forward.
I’m going to start with you, Bill. Let’s just talk about your first marriage, and about your wife, and how you lost her.
Bill: Well, I met my wife in 1975 at Texas A&M. We got married in ’77. We lived an incredible life, not knowing that it might be coming to a close—as you guys mentioned, early in the broadcast—about coming into a loss situation.
Bob: You mentioned the fact that your marriage was kind of the traditional healthy, happy marriage without much distress until—well, what year was the diagnosis?
Bill: The diagnosis came, I believe, in ‘90—I want to say ’92/’93 timeframe. We were kind of pulled off guard, big time.
Bob: Tell our listeners what happened.
Bill: Margie had gone in and had had like a cyst—had quickly grown. The doctors did a biopsy.
When they went in for the operation and did a mastectomy—I think, on one of the final cross-sections—that’s when they found the actual three different types of cancer that were there. One of them was inflammatory breast cancer, which, at the time, was considered to be the beast. It just had a rapid growth rate and wanted to jump from one organ or structure in the body to another.
We didn’t know if we had days, months, or weeks. That really threw us into kind of a tizzy; but at the same time, what it kind of hammered us into was learning how to live life one day at a time.
Dennis: How many years had you been married, at that point?
Bill: Twelve/fifteen—in that area.
Dennis: So, your children were younger?
Bill: I think Corey was a freshman in high school. Cassi was, I think, around the fifth grade of elementary—fifth or sixth grade of elementary school.
Dennis: She not only surprised the doctors——she surprised you with how many years she lived from that point.
Bill: Yes. We originally—we just started asking God for: “Could we see them graduate high school?”—for their mom to be there. Then, when that happened, we, of course, asked for: “Could we see them both graduate from college?” That was incredible; and finally, “Lord, would it be possible for them to—for her to be there for their marriages?” And Cassi was married May 5th of 2007, and Margie died on June 6th of 2007. So, she lived just roughly a month and a day after the marriage.
We were very blessed—but very difficult, I think, to look at that and realize: “This is going to come to an end.” About a year-and-a-half before she passed, she had a seizure that just said: “Wow!” We started kind of getting a heads-up warning on our displays that: “This is going to happen.”
Ron: Bill, do I remember correctly that Margie was a hospice nurse?
Bill: She was actually a hospice psychotherapist. She was a social worker and ended up becoming Director for VNA Hospice in Houston, which I think later was acquired by Methodist. It was her passion. It was her lifelong dream, I think, to—that’s how she connected with other people. She got to be with them in their most harsh times—hardest times of their lives, towards the end—trying to make a wrapping up of one’s life, if you will—putting your life in order.
Ron: And here she was going through that very experience and walking through it with you and her two children.
Bill: Yes, and she would explain to us each day what to expect—even to the point of, at the end, she told me kind of how it was going to work out—how family members—“Bill, you’re going to need to step back a little bit and give some folks some space to be able to push into that.” I found that, at times, difficult; but at the same time, I knew that was just part of the order.
Ron: And what a giving spirit in her—
Bill: Oh, yes.
Ron: —that she was thinking of you guys, even at that point. Did she do anything to prepare you or the kids?
Bill: She did. She talked to us, one on one. Sometimes, she would catch us all together. I think one of the interesting times was about two months before she passed—we were back in a bedroom. We were just shy of our 30th anniversary. She looks at me—like all fine women or wives would probably say to their husbands—I say that kind of humorously, in a way: “Bill, you’re young. You’ll probably want to get remarried. Wait a week or two after I’m gone.” [Laughter]
And I just kind of turned—couldn’t get out the door quite fast enough before something that we hold very personal / very close to the chest. She said, “Bill, I have someone special for you.” I look back at her; and she said, “Evelyn Husband.”
I said, “That is the most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” I said, “Evelyn is the wife of an American hero—an astronaut.” I said: “I am an industrial salesman. That just doesn’t fit.”
As I turned to walk away from our bedroom, she said, “Just think about it.” And not until later did I find that Evelyn’s name was in one of her prayer journals. She had a list of people that she prayed for constantly. Even though she was going through this herself, there were still people that needed her help through prayer and through counseling of things that were going on, or families, or situations that just needed her help—her encouraging words on.
Bob: Bill, you had a long goodbye with your wife—a long season of anticipating the end, and then walking up to it, and being coached up to it.
Evelyn, you had exactly the opposite experience with your husband.
And many of our listeners will remember because we shared in the experience with you when, all over the news one morning, we were hearing about the accident.
Evelyn: February 1, 2003, I was in Florida and was very excited to see my husband, Rick, who had commanded the space shuttle, Columbia, on a very successful mission—16 days in space. I was there with my two children—waiting at the runway for them to land.
Dennis: You know, I’m going to stop you, at that point. Go back and tell us how you met Rick—just to kind of set the stage a bit for your marriage and your relationship.
Evelyn: We both grew up in Amarillo, Texas. We went to high school together. He was a year ahead of me in school. I always thought he was cute; but it did not become a relationship, or a friendship, or even an acquaintance until we went off to college. We both attended and graduated from Texas Tech University.
So, one evening, I went to a basketball game and saw him sitting in front of me—the row in front of me—and said hello to him. He, thankfully, figured out what my name was, and called, and asked me out on a date. So, that was January 28, 1977—was our first date.
Dennis: How long did you date before he proposed?
Evelyn: We dated for five very long years. [Laughter] We dated all through college. We also felt that it was probably not the best idea to marry right as he began his career in the military. So, he served his first year through pilot training, and I worked in Dallas. We married after that.
Bob: And you did know—marrying a pilot—you were marrying somebody who had a little higher risk occupation than the average guy; right?
Evelyn: I did. But the very first date that we went on, the entire conversation—because my mother told me to do this—was to act like I was extremely interested in what he had to say, even if I wasn’t. [Laughter] So, I was very focused on everything he was telling me, and very interested in it; and it was interesting!
I mean, I’d never met anybody before that said they wanted to be an astronaut. He went through a very brief period of time—he wanted to be a Dallas Cowboy—but he got over that. [Laughter]
So, he really pursued—probably in everyone’s best interests—his career at NASA. But he shared with me that that was his lifelong dream. So, I knew that’s the direction that he was headed. Everything he was doing was very single-minded in achieving that.
Bob: As a pilot’s wife, or an astronaut’s wife, did you worry every time he stepped out the door to go buckle up his seatbelt?
Evelyn: In varying degrees. It depended on what he was going to be doing. There were several times that he had to fly overseas in a fighter. I found that a little overwhelming because that’s a very long journey. You go hours upon hours without knowing if they’ve landed safely. So, I found that a little bit tough.
He went on several missions that it was much longer than anticipated on how long before I would hear that he was okay. So, that was nerve-wrecking. But day to day, I didn’t worry about it.
He absolutely loved what he was doing, and there’s so much satisfaction to be married to someone who is extremely happy with their job. He had huge job satisfaction.
Bob: Now, take us to February of 2003. At this point, you are a mom of two little kids; right?
Evelyn: I am. Our two children—Laura was 12 years old, and Matthew was 7. We highly anticipated his landing. He had made devotional tapes for Laura and Matthew—that they watched throughout his mission in space because every day he would have a devotional with them before they went to bed—so, he decided to make these tapes for them. We were presented those tapes on launch day.
And Laura/ Matthew each watched their video tape every day—about five minutes-worth from their dad. He would tell them how much he loved them, and that he was really excited to be home soon. That morning, before Rick landed on the space shuttle, we watched those tapes. He said in those:
“We’ll be together in just a few hours, and I’m really excited to see you.” That day, obviously, turned out nightmarishly different than what we expected. I had absolutely no foreshadowing, or foreboding, or ominous feeling that something tragic was going to happen.
We could hear Rick’s voice, standing out on the runway, waiting for the shuttle to land and had absolutely no fear, until just a few moments before we knew something was wrong.
Bob: And when did you start to have that fear?
Evelyn: I remember about two minutes out, before the space shuttle was supposed to land, asking one of the astronauts that we were with—what direction the shuttle would be landing from and when we were supposed to hear the sonic boom. I remember the expression on his face was one of preoccupation because he was very worried and concerned. I knew that that was not a normal reaction.
Immediately, I became aware of a lot of NASA folks and my astronaut friend, all on their cell phones.
Everybody was on their phones, and there was clearly something wrong. As we watched the countdown on the clock, there at Kennedy Space Center—watched it count down to zero, it was very quiet. I remember Matthew grabbing my arm; and Laura looking at me and just saying, “Is Daddy okay?”
One of the most challenging moments of my whole life was to look in both of their eyes and say, “I don’t think so, but we’re going to have to wait until someone tells us what’s happening.” But it was devastating. I remember looking at the sky and just thinking—it was so surreal and so hard to wrap my mind around. I just thought: “Is this real? Is Rick’s life over with?” I just couldn’t fathom what was happening.
Initially, in that moment, I just didn’t know if I could take another step. I wasn’t thinking five years—I wasn’t even necessarily considering five minutes. But my hugest concern was my kids and just how to walk them through. We went back into crew quarters. We all three lay on Rick’s bed that he had slept in just a few days before.
His stuff was still in the gym bag on the floor next to us. I noticed that—I looked through the bag. His stinky gym shorts were in there. Nobody had laundered them, and I’ve often said that was one of the sweetest smells I’d ever had. It was one of the last memories of him, but it was just devastating.
My children—Matthew was very quiet. Matthew was seven years old. He’s just trying to take this all in. I noticed that he was really watching me, just to see what my reaction was to everything; but Laura really started thinking. She asked me—still in crew quarters—we’re not even back to Houston: “Who’s going to walk me down the aisle? Who’s going to help me with math? Are you going to have to get a job?”—which kind of makes me smile because I was a very active stay-at-home mom. But she was worried that I might have to leave that and go into the workforce.
Dennis: All of this within minutes?
Evelyn: It was. It was while we were still there—waiting for them to figure out what to do with us and how to get us home.
Bob: And for listeners who don’t remember what happened, tell us what happened that day.
Evelyn: So, the space shuttle—in its reentry, unbeknownst to all of us, had had damage to the wing that would make it impossible for it to land safely. It occurred during the launch, back January 16, 2003. A huge piece of foam broke off the external tank and smacked into the left wing of the space shuttle and made a huge hole.
At that time, NASA did not know to do a wonderful check around the whole vehicle to make sure that it was okay after launch because this had never happened. They were unaware of it. They would have had the capability even to do a spacewalk or examine it closely or repair it, but they never had that opportunity because they didn’t know it was a problem.
So, as the space shuttle crossed the United States and began its final path to landing, it began to break apart. Huge pieces of the shuttle began to break off. And the vehicle only made it to East Texas, which I thought was amazing to me. It could have happened—if it had had one more orbit, it could have happened in a completely different part of the world.
But it actually happened very close to home. The shuttle broke apart over a huge amount of area and all of the astronauts were killed.
Ron: Evelyn, you’ve told me that, after he died, it wasn’t just one funeral—you went to every funeral.
Evelyn: I did. I attended all the funerals of the crew, except for Ilan’s because his was in Israel. We sat through funeral after funeral. Because Rick had been in the military for years, and because he was the commander of the mission, I felt a mandate to follow through and show up and be involved and support all of the different activities.
Bob: Had you ever had—even in the back of your mind—the thought, “If something were to happen to Rick, what would I do?”
Evelyn: No, because I didn’t. It’s funny because, when they were at crew quarters—he flew on two missions—so that this was his second flight.
One of the protocol items that you do during crew quarters is—everyone—you sign and witness each other’s wills. So, Rick had a will. Everyone had a will that we all—that had to be cosigned and witnessed. That’s a very daunting thing. It just begs the question, “What are you getting ready to do?” That’s not a standard procedure for most activities—that everybody’s witnessing the will. Yet, we would joke about it and try not to take it too seriously. If you took it too seriously, they wouldn’t be able to do what they were doing. They were very much professionals about it.
Rick and I—we really never talked about if something happened. It was—we obviously knew, in the back of our minds, that it was possible but not probable.
Bob: And you had no idea—four or five years later—that Margie Thompson was matchmaking you with her husband before she went home to be with the Lord.
Evelyn: Absolutely not. When Bill first told me this—about Margie saying that—I thought he was making it up. I knew he wasn’t, but it just seemed like such a stretch because I—Rick and I never had a conversation like they did.
I was intrigued when I first met Bill—the difference in the sudden loss—and the long-term sickness and the conversations that they were able to have. I was a little envious of that—that they were able to talk through many, many different subjects that we never got to talk about. So, when Bill shared with me that Margie actually said that, I think it’s a huge testimony of her character and a huge testimony of her love for him—and not to be selfish, like I probably would have been in the same circumstance. [Laughter]
Dennis: You know, it’s interesting we’re laughing out of your loss—both of your losses—because what God did is really something special here. It’s too bad the clock is ticking.
Bob: We’re going to have the opportunity tomorrow and Friday to hear Rick and Evelyn’s story; but let me let our listeners know—if they are interested in resources to help people with all aspects of a blended family—
—we have resources, here at FamilyLife Today—that Ron Deal has put together.
There is the new expanded and updated edition of his book, The Smart Stepfamily, that has just recently come out. That book is available from us, here at FamilyLife Today. There is a book for couples who are looking at remarriage. It’s called The Remarriage Checkup. I guess it’s not just for couples who are looking at remarrying but for couples who have already remarried and want to build a stronger marriage relationship. And then, there are additional resources for stepmoms and stepdads.
Go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click the link at the top of the page that says, “GO DEEPER.” There is information about the blended family resources we have at FamilyLife Today. Again, the website: FamilyLifeToday.com. Click where it says, “GO DEEPER.” You’ll find the information about the resources that are available there.
And, of course, coming up on Friday, October 3rd, in Washington, DC—right before the I Still Do™ one-day event that we are hosting for couples there—Ron Deal and the FamilyLife Blended™ team are hosting an event called Blended and Blessed™.
This is an event for people who are already active in or are interested in developing ministries for blended marriages and blended families.
You can find out more about the Blended and Blessed event in Washington, DC, when you go to FamilyLifeToday.com as well. Click the link that says, “GO DEEPER.” The information about the one-day conference is available there. If you are interested, we’d love to have you join us for that event.
You know, the conversation we’ve had today and the resources we have available for blended families—the event that we are hosting in October in Washington, DC—all of these resources and all that we are doing to try to help blended families is really born out of our mission, which is: “To effectively develop godly marriages and families who change the world, one home at a time.” We want to see every home become a godly home. And we want your marriage—the marriage you are in right now—
—we want it to be strong, and healthy, and vibrant—and we want it to honor and glorify God. That’s why we do all that we do, here at FamilyLife Today.
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Now, tomorrow, we’re going to continue to hear more of Bill and Evelyn Thompson’s story about how God brought them together and how their blended family was born. I hope you can tune in 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 tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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