May 21, 1940 - September 26, 2008
His Humor Persevered
By Eileen Devlin, Shank's wife
Shank’s initial symptoms were aphasia – difficulty in speaking and the added component of difficulty understanding spoken language. While you could always seeing him struggling to find the correct words, the ones he would finally speak were close to what he really wanted to say, but not quite on the mark. This made for some funny misspeaks and Shank always joined in the laughter. He loved to laugh. The following are some funny moments his family chooses to remember instead of the difficult times as he became sicker:
Shank was explaining the large mountain near us when we lived up in the greater North Conway, NH area and kept calling it Mouse Washington rather than Mount Washington. He did not even hear his mistakes!
“How far do you run?” his son asked. Shank answers: “I do sex every day” meaning SIX, as in miles. We were all cracking up.
I called him over to the window to see “the beautiful harvest moon” – it’s huge-ness. He gets up out of the chair, looks at it and starts telling me how it is the satellite thing that goes over and gives us tv signals.
As people age, I am told that we become more of what we already are (i.e., If he was always a grumpy man, he will be more of a grumpy man; if she was always a sweet woman, she may be sweeter yet). I found that the degeneration aged Shank but he was still the very gregarious, easy going, people person he always was. He was talking with someone at the nursing home one day when I visited him (“talking” being in its loosest meaning), as he turned to let the man know I was his wife (always the respectful man). Although I’m only in my early fifties, and told I look younger, the man said to me, “you’re 69, right?”. Shank is nodding complete agreement, while two of the nurses are watching. I said “sixty-nine? …yes, and don’t i look damn good for 69!”. I am certain Shank didn’t understand AT ALL, but when I burst out laughing along with the nurses, so did he. He just always made people around him comfortable.
The move to the nursing home was very difficult and only a last possible resort once it was clear he couldn’t be at home any longer. Shank’s brother and I had convinced him that he worked at the nursing home in order to make that transition smoother and help him understand why he needed to be there. One day while we were both visiting during our lunch hour Shank said “they don’t pay me”. I looked at him and said “yes, but they feed you” and his brother chimes in “so they are losing money”! As we laughed so did Shank. Even if he didn’t get it, or could have taken it personally, his getting along nature persevered. It was a light moment during a very difficult time.
The most hilarious story I can recall is when we were out walking the dogs on a path near our home. Shank loved his dogs, particularly his dog Molly who was his running partner for years. On this particular day Molly was slightly ahead of us, watching out for her man and she came across a toad on the path. She used her nose to push him off to the side, perhaps so we wouldn’t walk on him. I said to Shank “did you see that”? Molly nosed him right off the path!” Shank’s reply: “Molly knows him?” I nearly fell over laughing.
I choose to remember the funny things, and the true loving nature of my husband rather than the way the disease robbed him of his life.
The following is an essay written by Shank’s stepdaughter Andrea prior to his death:
The first thing my mom told me about my future stepfather was that he was a runner. She knew that this one fact could forever alter the way I, in my teenage contempt, viewed him, and she was right. One of our first encounters was a 5-mile run through the trails near my house. I pushed hard up and down the hills, trying to test his endurance to see if he would respond. He did just that, and as we neared the end of the run the trail opened up to a paved road, about 300 yards from the parking lot. “Let’s go, pick it up!” he told me, starting his sprint. I responded and kicked it up a notch, running neck in neck with him before passing in the final 50 yards. By then it was a done deal- he had my stamp of approval.
Three years later Shank and my mother were still dating and our relationship had grown to include long runs together on weekends and discussions about training, nutrition, injuries and racing. It was fall and I was away at college when Shank informed me that the ½ marathon I had agreed to run was, in fact, a full marathon and he had signed me up because he knew I could do it, even if I didn’t think I was ready. He was right about the latter. I was terrified of the 26.2 mile distance.
We ran together for the first 18 miles. We dissected what we were eating and drinking, how our legs were feeling, how our minds were dealing with the race. This was Shank’s 10th marathon and his experience showed. We were complete contrasts to each other; he was calm, soaking up the moment and I was terrified of “the wall.” At mile 18 Shank started to cramp, but I was feeling good. He told me to go on ahead and just take it easy, wait for the wall to come and then fight through it and finish. I didn’t want to leave him behind, but as he stopped to stretch and walk I knew that if I stopped that might be the end of me. The next 8+ miles were magical:I barely felt my legs, the miles kept clicking by and before I knew it I was at the finish line of my first marathon. It’s probably true that eventually I would have run a marathon on my own, but his faith in my ability and his presence through the first 18 miles made it that much more special.
Fast-forward 3 years. Shank is diagnoses with Alzheimer’s, a possible outcome of the numerous concussions he suffered as a college football player. For a while after the diagnosis he continued to run, but as time passed he stopped going. Possibly he is afraid of getting lost, or maybe he thinks he has already gone running. He occasionally works out on a treadmill, but still fills out training logs as if he is still running 30-40 miles per week. It’s heartbreaking to see this degeneration of a person, and for me a running mentor. But I have learned that where there is sadness, there can be joy.
Although Shank no longer competes in races he is still an important part of my running success. I feel that in a way, I run for him, too. When I have a good race, I call to let him know and I seek his approval of my training methods and race strategies. He has been present at my past two marathons, and though he has trouble communicating his feelings I can look in his eyes and I know that he still gets it. His body may disagree but his mind knows I am a runner. I don’t know what the immediate future holds for Shank, but I do know that I will continue to run and count my blessings for having had the chance to run those 18 miles together. Each time I toe the line he’s in my thoughts.