Twenty miles used to be simple for Shadrack Nkansah, so it was more than a little strange that everything broke down at mile 20.
Nkansah arrived in the United States in the late ’80s from his native Ghana and crafted an ideal American life.
By 2000, he had a loving wife, Amy, and two healthy boys, Elijah and Isaiah, then 6 and 4. His career was thriving as a chemical engineer for Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble. The family had a nice home in a great neighborhood.
Even in his mid-30s, Shadrack never lost his athleticism. Tall and handsome, he still looked like the obvious first pick in a pickup basketball game. He was a highly rated amateur boxer in Ghana but focused on marathon running in the United States. His appetite for running seemed to have no end.
“He would get up and run 20 miles in the morning, go to work all day, then come home and run another 20 like nothing,” said his widow, Amy Mason. “And when I say 20, that’s no joke — literally 20 miles.”
But at the 2001 Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati, Shadrack’s body began to falter around the 20th mile. He was so despondent by the end that he almost crawled across the finish line. Paramedics rushed immediately and stabilized him, but it didn’t make any sense.
It was a hot day, so Amy thought he wasn’t hydrated properly. On the way home, Shadrack pointed out these giant lumps all the way down his inner thighs. Weeks later, the lumps had extended further down his legs, and Amy insisted they needed to see a doctor.
The doctor saw him that day and immediately ordered a biopsy but didn’t mince words. He was positive it was cancer. The biopsy results weeks later confirmed their worst fears.
Not only did Shadrack — a man who neither smoked nor drank and rarely even ate sugar — have cancer, but anaplastic large cell lymphoma, a particularly aggressive form of cancer.
“Just like that,” Amy said, snapping her fingers, “within 30 days. I would never have dreamed this. Not in a million years.”
And worse yet, it had spread to his bones — he had stage 4 cancer.
‘We’ll be OK’
Shadrack and Amy met at Anderson (Ind.) University. He was seven years older, and they came from wildly different backgrounds, though a friendship was natural. He was an ocean away from home, so she invited him to her family holidays in Ansonia, Ohio.
Eventually they became an item, steadily finishing their education and creating a life together. They married in 1992. Two years later, Elijah was born. Now an offensive linemen for the University of Toledo, Elijah was always a giant. He weighed 20 pounds at his one-month checkup. Amy could barely lift him by nine months.
Isaiah followed in 1996, and he just as big. Now a linebacker at Grand Valley State, he paired with his brother to quickly dwarf their mother in family photos.
When Shadrack fell ill in 2001, the boys were already so big but still so little. They understood their father was sick, but neither grasped the gravity of the situation.
“It was so surreal,” Isaiah said. “There was so much going on, I didn’t really comprehend what was happening.”
Life at the hospital became normal. Shadrack underwent treatment in hopes he could have the bone marrow transplant he desperately needed, and three months later he showed up cancer-free. Doctors scheduled Shadrack for a bone marrow procedure, yet the cancer returned in less than a month — and with a vengeance.
Shadrack’s medical team tried its best. He just wasn’t improving.
“It was like everything they did just angered it,” Amy said.
Down to their last option, they opted to try experimental medicine. Shadrack and Amy signed a flurry of liability paperwork agreeing to the possible risks of the potent medicine, which were made clear to them: The medicine would either kill the cancer ... or him.
As told, he slipped into a coma and was there for about three weeks. On May 16, 2002, — their 10th wedding anniversary — he awoke, to the surprise of everyone. He was delusional and thrashed in his bed before realizing where he was.
He calmed down enough to communicate, yet still had a tube down his throat, so they gave him a board on which to write. Shadrack quickly inked “Happy Anniversary.”
Amy burst into tears and asked him how he knew what day it was.
“How could I not know?” he wrote. “That’s the happiest day of my life.”
Shadrack also made clear it would be their last anniversary together. He wrote on the white board that he couldn’t do it any longer. The fight was finished, and he knew it.
Through tears, Amy reassured him, “We’ll be OK.”
He fell back into a coma that night and never came out of it.
Four days later, he was gone at 37.
A new normal
Naturally, Amy’s first worry was for her boys. Her grieving had to wait. There were two funerals to plan — one in the United States and one in Ghana, where Shadrack is buried — and a dramatic change was upon them.
For Elijah, the situation didn’t become real until the family had to sell their house and move closer to Amy’s family.
Medical bills had stretched their bank accounts, and there were times Amy was overwhelmed. She had always been independent, and now she needed help from her extended family but vowed to make it work no matter how difficult.
With both boys’ birthdays and Christmas falling within nine days, she jokingly began to refer to December as bankruptcy month.
But the boys never wanted for anything, and she made sure they never knew just how difficult it was to keep it that way.
“Some of the things she did — honestly, I don’t know how she did it,” Elijah said. “With how young I was, I wasn’t thinking about how much she had to sacrifice. It was just, ‘Oh, we got this new thing — thanks, Mom.’ Now I realize how much she actually did give up.”
That works both ways. Elijah and Isaiah are fiercely protective of their mother and their 9-year-old brother, Roman, the product of a later marriage.
The older two are gone from the house, yet remain as close as ever. They’re college students capable of going anywhere for breaks but spend all of them at home because they yearn for family time. Amy and her boys talk every day on the phone and still share in every joy and hardship.
Now Amy misses the constant challenge of boys in the house and even the incessant noise. She had a decorative spoon from Ghana that the boys chipped because they used it as a bat for indoor baseball. They broke the glass on a dresser with a soccer ball. She has come home from work to more hurricane-level messes than she can count.
But for Amy, everything takes a back seat to her boys.
“She deserves praise and credit beyond what anybody could ever begin to give to her,” said Steve Christian, a longtime police officer in Anderson and a close family friend. “Between Amy and the two older boys, I don’t think I’ve seen a mother that was any closer. Her world has and continues to revolve around her children.”
Elijah and Isaiah have thrived in football and school. They also have a mother who is incapable of being prouder of them.
Amy embarrasses both of them with her social media gushing, but the world has to know about the exploits of No. 76 in Rockets’ blue and No. 42 at Grand Valley.
And deep down, they understand it’s love. It always has been.
“We’ll never be able to repay her,” Elijah said. “You can’t repay someone who gives you life and gives you everything, and then some that you didn’t even ask for, just out of the kindness of their heart.”
Amy said she never would wish the hardship of their lives on another family — yet they all feel stronger for having made it. They have normal, happy lives and a bond that no problem, no matter how steep, can touch.
“We’ve gone through so much as a family,” Isaiah said, “There’s really nothing we can’t handle together.”
Fourteen years ago, Amy promised Shadrack on his deathbed that the family would be OK.
She was at least partially wrong.
For Mason and her boys on Mother’s Day No. 13 without their patriarch, life is so much better than that.
University of Toledo offensive tackle Elijah Nkansah, left, poses with his mother, Amy Mason, and brother, Isaiah, who is a linebacker at Grand Valley State University.
Shadrack Nkansah poses for a photo with his wife, Amy, and sons, Isaiah, left, and Elijah.