Walking through the valley: Cancer journey forces family, husband to lean on faith

A few weeks before Roy Pottschmidt retired, he and his wife, Bonnie, discussed taking a long vacation.

The only question was where. Europe? The Caribbean? The Rocky Mountains?

After looking at their vacation funds, they thought a nearer destination might be wiser.

“We joked about going to Edinburgh,” said Pottschmidt, 78. “They have a waterfalls there. We could see that.”

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But before the Franklin couple finalized their plans, Bonnie returned from a doctor’s visit in July 2014 with news that would make the point moot.

She had cancer. Doctors found it in her lungs. Treatment would begin immediately. The couple wouldn’t travel anywhere until she was cured.

“I remember that day well,” Pottschmidt said. “We both took it pretty good for a while. We said, ‘OK, we’ve got cancer. It’s like having a cold. We’ll get rid of it.

“We went to the doctor, and everything was looking good. And then all of a sudden, they found it in other places.”

The cancer that began in Bonnie’s lungs had spread throughout her body.

Still, the couple maintained hope.

“You know your time’s limited, so you are able to say goodbye, and to me that is a blessing, because you never say, ‘I wish I would have.’ You see the limited time, and you get to do that. That, to me, was the biggest blessing. We had closure.” —Rhonda DeWitt

Regular chemotherapy and radiation treatments followed. The bouts exacted a harsh physical toll on Bonnie, but the mother of two and grandmother of five, who was in her early 70s at the time of her diagnosis, never complained.

With Roy as her caregiver, Bonnie bravely endured the chemo and radiation and, to the best of her ability, carried on as if she weren’t sick.

“That was a little hard on her, but she took it very well,” Roy said. “If you walked in here and she were sitting here, you’d never know she had cancer, because if she hurt, she wouldn’t tell you that.”

On Nov. 15, 2015, Bonnie, 74, lost her battle to cancer, and Roy lost his wife of 55 years. But his story isn’t one of despair.

It’s one of hope for a devout Christian family that grieves Bonnie’s loss but awaits a sunny result.

Taking care of Bonnie

A former farmer and quality control inspector for CTC Casting Technologies in Franklin, Roy — born and raised in Bargersville — was in his mid-70s and recently retired when Bonnie was diagnosed.

But he was healthy and, in that moment, became her round-the-clock caregiver in their Franklin home.

He took her to and from appointments. As she became weaker, he cooked, cleaned and attended her every need — all the while expecting her to get better.

Bonnie, a popular teacher at Girls, Inc. of Johnson County, expected the same.

But as the weeks and months passed, her strength and stamina deteriorated. She began sleeping on the living room couch because it was closer to the bathroom. At first, she could walk there. Then she needed a walker. In time, she needed a wheelchair.

Eventually, she needed Roy to carry her. At that point, oncologists prepared the couple for the worst.

“Finally the doctor told us, ‘You’ve got two choices. We can’t stop this cancer. We can delay it by giving you more medicine, but that will cause you a lot of pain in other parts of your body, and maybe add two more months to your life. The other thing, we can cut off all that, treat you for pain now and get your body ready so that if you have pain, it will be at a milder (level),’” Roy said.

“Well, that’s what she said she wanted. She didn’t want to just lay here and scream and holler while she was dying, and I agreed with her that that’s what we needed to do.”

For Roy, agreeing to stop treatment was something more than just the hardest decision of his life. It was unimaginable, unspeakable, unreal.

“I hated to say that. It’s hard to say, ‘OK, pull the plug,’ but I believed the doctor,” Roy said. “I took care of her here at the home. It was easy for a while, but she kept getting weaker and weaker.”

So did Roy’s physical ability to meet Bonnie’s round-the-clock needs.

With help from the couple’s adult children, Rhonda DeWitt and Bill Pottschmidt, the family tried to arrange hospice care in the home. But before hospice could be set up, caregivers said Bonnie only had two or three days to live, so hospice wasn’t practical.

So the family took Bonnie to the Franklin United Methodist Community, where she spent the final night of her life.

“They took great care of her. It made me feel good,” Roy said. “I still hadn’t accepted the fact she was going (to die). I thought, ‘We’re going to get her better,’ and the kids felt the same way. Well, that evening we got her all settled down. At 7:10 the next morning, they called and said that she had passed away.

“And I thought, ‘I’m dreaming. This isn’t happening.’ But it did.”

Coping with loss

For months, Roy could not come to grips with losing his wife.He ate little, cut himself off from friends, and questioned why he lost Bonnie at a time when the couple were ready to enjoy retirement.

There would be no vacation. Not to Europe, not to the Caribbean, not to the Rockies, not to the waterfalls in Edinburgh.

“That’s where a lot of my grief came. I blamed everybody,” Roy said. “Bonnie was a wonderful lady, and right at the end when her and I should be reaping some rewards for what we’ve done in our lives, she’s gone. And I’d say, ‘I bet those doctors, they didn’t know what they were doing. They messed up. They could have saved her, but they didn’t.’

“Or I blamed myself. What did I do? Did I do anything wrong to cause this?”

In time, during peaceful moments, Roy leaned on his Christian faith — not so much for answers, but for comfort. Bonnie had been a smoker. Roy himself was a former smoker. Any number of factors could have made Bonnie sick.

Roy stopped looking for answers and, four months after her passing, started looking for reasons to carry on.

“Being a Christian, I should have realized God doesn’t give us reasons all the time,” Roy said. “I got to the point, being a Christian, I blamed God. I would pray to God, ‘Why did you do this? You’ve made me mad.’

“But in his way, he got back to me and said, ‘Don’t worry, Roy, it’s the end that counts.’ I said, ‘OK, God.’”

Eventually, Roy got his appetite back and, after reconnecting with friends, was able to laugh and enjoy life again. He vividly recalls a lunch conversation with a close friend that went a long way in lifting his sagging spirits.

“I said, ‘Well, Bonnie’s gone, but I have 100 percent faith that I’ll see her one of these days,’” Roy said. “And one of my best friends said, ‘Where are you going to see her at?’ And I said, ‘In Heaven.’ And he looked at me just as straight-faced and said, ‘if you go to Heaven and she sees you coming, what makes you think she ain’t going to hide somewhere?’

“To some people that might be an awful thing to say, but to me, I knew who it was coming from, and he was trying to say, ‘I understand, let’s smile.’ And that kind of stuff helps. I know people don’t know what to say to people, but that helped the grief. But it’s still there today.”

Blessing in disguise

Rhonda DeWitt, 54, lives in Franklin with her family. The eldest of the Pottschmidt’s children, she is not happy or grateful that her mom had cancer. But DeWitt does take solace in the amount of time she and family members spent with Bonnie in the final year of her life.

Rare was the day her mom wasn’t in the company of a husband, child, grandchild or other loved one.

“When you realize you don’t have quantity of time, it makes you concentrate on quality of time, and the things that I cherish are the little things,” DeWitt said.

“The simple things like laughter and sharing memories, sharing things when we were little and being able to share the things that were important to each other, because not everybody gets to say goodbye. Sometimes people walk out the door and they get in a car wreck and (loved ones) say, ‘I wish I would have.’ With cancer, it makes you think differently.

“You know your time’s limited, so you are able to say goodbye, and to me that is a blessing, because you never say, ‘I wish I would have.’ You see the limited time, and you get to do that. That, to me, was the biggest blessing. We had closure.”

DeWitt, like all of her immediate family, shares her father’s deep faith.

“I know this wasn’t all there was,” DeWitt said. “I know I’m going to see my mom again in Heaven, so having closure and focusing on the positive and making the most (of the remaining time) and then faith, I think those are the three things that get you through.”

Without question, all of the above gets Roy through. Especially faith.

“I have every assurance that she’s up there in Heaven,” he said. “I have every assurance that I will be there.

“There will never another lady like Bonnie.”

[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”The Pottschmidt file” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

Name: Roy Pottschmidt

Age: 78

Residence: Franklin

Occupation: Retired farmer and quality control operator for CTC Casting Technologies

Wife: Bonnie, died Nov. 10, 2015

Type of cancer: Lung

Other family: Two children, Rhonda DeWitt, 54, Franklin; Bill Pottschmidt, 52, Noblesville; five grandchildren