Thursday, April 25, 2002     

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April 25, 2002

An impressive character
Track captain Eric Altbush came back to run despite personal tragedy

Track captain Eric Altbush shows a very meaningful tattoo on his left shoulder, in remembrance of his sister.

People like Eric Altbush seem to walk between the raindrops. With a grin that never seems to leave and a penchant for always making those around him laugh, he’s one of the most popular members of the Reading boys track team.

Those that know him well, especially his teammates, simply describe him as, " That’s just Altbush, " when relaying some of the stories about him yelling at practice through his megaphone, being goofy, and running around lightening the mood.

One such story was told of Altbush buying a lemon meringue pie at a school bake sale, and walking around school and practice with it, just taking in the reactions that people had to him. Everyone wondered aloud what he would do with it, most fearing the worst, that they would get hit with it, but he actually did nothing. He simply wanted to see how everyone would react, and he was just ‘Being Altbush.’

" He’s so fun to be around, " said fellow captain A.J. Kastanotis. " He’s such a character, he’s always making us laugh and making track fun. It would be hard without him. He’s also a very good leader. Yeah, he can be a clown at times, but he knows that there is a time and place for everything. Once it’s time to work hard and be at practice, then he gets down to it. "

Altbush’s never ending smile vanished temporarily in early December of this year, when his younger sister, Faith Emily Altbush passed away after battling a brain tumor for 18 months. She was just 7 years old. The loss hit the senior and his family very hard, but it was his resiliency and ability to come back and still compete that most impressed his teammates.

" He just handled it so well, " said captain Jake Weber. " He downplayed it almost, he just came back and it was sort of like nothing had happened. We all knew it and were respectful of it, but he came back after taking a break and he was going to run, and that was it. He was going to make the best of the season, and it was pretty cool to watch. "

For Altbush, coming back and being himself was something that he had to do. He wouldn’t have it any other way, but the 18 months he had to endure with his sister and his family were very hard.

" She was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and for the next 18 months she was trying to fight it, " explained Altbush. " We had to make tons of hospital trips, and when she was first diagnosed my parents had to take her to North Carolina for six weeks, so I was pretty much living on my own. It was just so hard with our sister and our daughter with this terrible disease and trying to live normally for over a year with this lingering. I would explain it if I could, but it was just very, very confusing. "

After a long battle, one that lasted longer than most in her condition and at her age, Faith passed away.

" It came suddenly but we had been waiting for 18 months, " Altbush said. " Finally when it did happen it was almost like, ‘O.K., now what?’ I actually think that I have been less confused since it happened. With this there is no one really to blame. It’s not like she got in a car accident or anything like that. When you ask questions like why, what did she do, what did we do, there are no answers. How do you react to something like this, it’s very confusing. "

Altbush described his sister as being lively and happy all of the time.

" She was just incredibly energetic, " he recalled. " She was just a lively and happy girl who loved everything and hated nothing. She was just the ideal child, full of life and so of course you ask yourself why would someone like that be taken away for no apparent reason. When there is no answer for that question, the only thing to do is to move on. I think that me and my parents, after the initial reaction, came out a lot stronger than we were before. You just look at what we’ve gone through, and suddenly things that people worry about all get put into perspective. Some things just seem so trivial after something like this. "

Eric has a constant reminder of his younger sister. Before she passed away, he got a tattoo on his left shoulder with the initials F.E.A.

" It was just something that I felt that I really should do, and something that I wanted to do, " he said. " It was kind of a ‘She’ll always be there’ thing. But my parents put up a Web site with their writings and reactions to everything, and that’s part of how they got through all of this. I had gotten the tattoo and what I had done was gotten a picture of my back fading to black on the bottom, with the tattoo on my shoulder, and my head is looking down. Someone said that Eric said it best without words how he felt about the whole thing. "

After everything that had happened, Altbush admitted that he questioned whether or not he should come back and still participate in track, even though he knew he was a captain.

" The first week after it happened everything just paused, " he said. " Nothing was coming or going, and I didn’t really communicate with a lot of people. Then after a week or two I didn’t know whether or not I wanted to continue with track for a number of reasons. One was that I am going to school to do graphic design and to create things, not run track. It just took up so much time and effort. Maybe I wanted to expend my energy doing something else or not doing anything, it’s kind of hard to explain. There were a lot of questions. "

After much debate in his own head, he did in fact decide to come back to the oval and his teammates.

" What I found was that being at track was good medicine, " he said. " Just being there and being the character that I am, with people thinking that they can’t wait to see what I pull out of the hat next, was very good to have. That’s why I eventually made my way back. It was more of just building off of what everyone had on this character, which was me being silly and crazy. Just being there and being me was very good medicine. Like with the pie, I was very casually walking around with it, and everyone was like, ‘uh oh.’ Just carrying it around all day and watching people fill in the blank was funny. Not that much was required from me. What I get from everyone else was really the medicine that I got from being at track. "

" It was apparent to us what was going to happen a couple of weeks before, " said Kastanotis. " He was ready for it, if you can say that. He knew how to handle it, and he took it in good stride. It was amazing to see, I don’t know what I would have done in that situation. He is just one of those kids that always wants to go out and win, even in some of the not so important meets. He doesn’t take days off, and he wants to do well for the team. "

Basically, in the end, he decided to just carry on with his life, and be the crazy, silly, never-know-what-he’s-going-to-do-next kid.

" My way of dealing with it I think was just to acknowledge that it happened, and not to question it, " he explained. " There is nothing that I can do afterwards to change anything or make any differences, and nothing that I can do to stop and fix what had happened. I don’t know why it happened, but it was a terrible thing, and I just decided to continue on, and it was my way of coping with it. I had to accept it and continue living.

" My way of coping with it was to be as silly and energetic as I could, although I should have been depressed and grieving. I would rather just be happy and take advantage of what I have, because it’s not something that you are always going to have, and I know that first hand. The things that are trivia become more trivial when you see how real real can get. "

After helping his team get a huge win against arch-rival Woburn in a rematch of last year’s mega race, all seems right again for Altbush and Reading track. The team should win another league title this year after taking one year off in the last 31, and they have one of their most colorful characters sprinting around the track.

" He’s the man with no endurance, " said Weber with a laugh of Altbush the sprinter. " He’s our best sprinter and he always wants it. He came right back to the team because he wanted it. He was always worried about how everything would affect him on the track, but he came back with a vengeance. We took him back with open arms and he came at us at a full sprint. "

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