Kim Shankman. Photo by Nick Erickson

A Positive Thing

They are a normal Midwestern family. She has a demanding job as Dean of Benedictine College. He is retired and able to take care of the house and walk their dog. One March afternoon, however, their life changed forever.
Luca Fiore

I sound crazy when I say this, so please don’t think I’m crazy, but I think that God has been preparing us for this moment in our lives for years. For example, Fr. Carrón’s year of teaching us about the positivity of reality in all circumstances was a way for us to be prepared for this.” Kim Shankman and her husband Don live in Atchison, Kansas. They are a normal Midwestern family. She has a demanding job as Dean of Benedictine College and Professor of Political Science. He is retired, and is able to take care of the house and walk their dog, Bosley. One March afternoon, however, their life changed forever. The date is easy to remember as, the evening before, Pope Francis was elected. In a few days their second son, Johnny, would celebrate his 18th birthday.

That afternoon, Johnny and his friends were driving around in a park in town, Johnny in the bed of the pickup truck. The truck hit something and flipped over, and Johnny was thrown from the truck. “We got a call from the police that he had been badly injured,” recounts Kim. As they rushed to the hospital, “we were very upset, sad, and afraid.” During the drive, she remembered the Advent Retreat of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation a few months prior, when a friend had spoken about his sister, who was suffering from cancer, and said, “I know that she does not belong to me.” Listening to him, Kim had thought, “I could never feel that way. I would be so worried and concerned.” But in the car on the way to the hospital, “when I remembered him saying that, I said to Don, ‘You know, Johnny, does not belong to us.’ That changed everything. Of course we were still worried and upset, but it made us recall that there is Someone who loves him more than we do, Someone who was here, and was with him, and with us.” In the hospital waiting room, while Johnny was in surgery, this realization freed her to phone the friend who was driving the pickup truck, “to tell him that we weren’t angry, that we knew it wasn’t his fault, and that he shouldn’t worry about that.” In the meantime, 20 to 30 friends came to the hospital to be with them during the surgery. They prayed a rosary together, and waited. “But at one point, I just thought, ‘This is like heaven.’” In the following days, the friends of the Atchison community were there for the Shankmans. “We were being helped in a way that we couldn’t explain and couldn’t have asked for.”

Today, Johnny has just returned home from a rehabilitation center. Don spends the week following his care while Kim is at work. Johnny’s days are taken up with various types of therapy. Physical therapy may prepare him one day to walk again, while occupational therapy should help him to do normal activities like brushing his teeth, shaving, and dressing himself. He also has speech therapy; he cannot talk now, but he can be helped to find different ways to communicate and be responsive. He likes politics and football, so in their free time they watch the news and games of their beloved Packers.

“He’s not defined by what he can do, he just is, he is him, and he’s the one we love.”

LOVING HIM AS HE IS. After the accident, Johnny was in and out of the operating room numerous times. He was unconscious. One day, in a meeting with the team of healthcare providers, it was gently suggested that they should think about letting nature take its course and removing the machines that kept him alive. “No, he’s alive and this is where he should be,” responded Kim. “We love him, right now, laying in his bed. And if the rest of his life he is laying in his bed, we can love him like that for the rest of his life.” One doctor, caught off-balance, replied, “Well, would he want to live this way?” Kim replied with equal simplicity, “Of course not, no one would want to live this way, but it’s not our choice at this point. This is the life he has. What we can do in this situation is love him and be with him as he is.” Later, a social worker who was present at the meeting told the two parents, “I was really moved by that. I have never heard anyone articulate it like that before.”

Looking back on these recent months, Kim does not see so much the difficulties or pain, which have been enormous, unspeakable, but instead she is amazed at the journey they have been undertaking. “For me, personally, and for my husband, too, this whole experience has been such a clear indication of our actual poverty. The thing that we want most in the world we can’t do. We can’t make our son better, we can’t fix him. We have to be complete beggars. We have to beg for Christ and God’s mercy to help him. It is just such a powerful experience of freedom to know that that is all we have, that it’s all we can do. All we can do is love our son as he is right now. And everything comes not from us, but from Someone who loves him more.” It is a different way of looking at Johnny, a different way of looking at what happens to him. One of the doctors, disappointed, said, “He can’t talk; he’s just not getting better.” But for Kim, “looking at all the things he can’t do would overwhelm you if your heart had not been opened.” Instead, she has found that what changes her way of looking at Johnny is asking herself, “How can I see, in every circumstance, the positivity of reality?” “We don’t have to worry whether doing what he needs is the right thing or wrong thing; we just do it because we can see his needs that are there.” They know that “nothing will happen to him that’s not in the hands of Someone who loves him even more than we do. “We’re working hard to make it possible for him to be as comfortable as he can, to get as much out of life as he can. He’s not defined by what he can do, he just is, he is him, and he’s the one we love.”

Kim started posting updates about Johnny’s days on Facebook, publishing videos of her son. It all started when she used the social network to ask their friends to pray. They wrote back, asking how he was doing. “One day, I wrote, ‘Well, I don’t really have anything that’s worthy of an update today,’ and I got several comments and private messages in which people said, ‘Everything is worthy; we want to know how he is doing.’ So I thought, ‘Well, if people want to know, then I will start writing every day just what happened in his day.’ Now, if I’m late one day they’ll send me a message: ‘Where’s the update? Is John okay?’”

“We are not ‘optimistic,’ but positive in the sense that Christ is present in this time.”

THE GREATEST HELP. This friendship is not only expressed online, but manifests itself in all sorts of little details as well. At times, she says, “I need someone to walk my dog, or I need someone to clean up my house. When things are going well in your life, it’s easy to think of your friends as companions in doing the things that you’re interested in. But in this situation, I’ve had to learn to ask people for help all the time. My friends have made it easy because they want to be part of things.”

The education of the Movement, prayer and friendship: for Kim, these are the things that have most helped them. “Don and I have each other and that’s the most important way that we get through the difficult moments–just to talk to each other and to try and remain positive in the face of the circumstances. Not positive in the sense of ‘optimistic,’ saying, ‘Oh, everything will be all right,’ but positive in the sense that Christ is present in this time and we know that and we have to remember it.”

Kim’s final word is “gratitude.” “It’s hard for me to articulate how much gratitude I feel, just gratitude to God because of the goodness that He’s shown us, and gratitude for having met the Movement because I know it has made it so much more possible for us to live through this. I have found this time to be so significant in my life, so powerful and positive. People may think I’m crazy, but that’s been my experience.”