The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

June 15, 2014

The graduation

By Lisa Shrewsberry
Lifestyles Editor

— Time, it is said, waits for no man. But at the determination of a father, a group of hospice employees and a university president, time paused for Timothy Mullins, long enough to see his son, Christopher, graduate in May.

People are conditioned to wait for the weekend — they count down days toward it in anticipation of a break from workweek routines and their attendant responsibilities. To Timothy, his life depended on getting to Saturday, May 17th,  the day Chris was scheduled to graduate with honors from Concord University with a Bachelor of Business Administration degree.

Chris had been there for his dad’s graduation from nursing school at Bluefield State in 1992, while Timothy was still serving in the Army Reserve. Timothy would retire from the military after 23 years of service and as a sergeant major; he would continue on to care for patients as a civilian at “every hospital Beckley had — including the old Beckley Hospital,” recalled Chris.

Pancreatic cancer would end his life, but it couldn’t touch Timothy’s simple legacy of serving patients and encouraging the family members around him, especially his son. Handed a terminal diagnosis in January 2014 and with a maximum expected six months of life remaining, Timothy, 55, purposed to do that one final thing — to see his son cross the stage in cap and gown.

“His vital signs had started fading. It was all he was hanging on for,” Chris said. ”He kept asking me, ‘How many more weekends?’ He was trying his best to get there.”

Timothy’s disease had progressed to the point that his family sought the support of hospice at home. Later admitted to Bowers Hospice House, Timothy found that first his home care hospice nurses, then the social workers and inpatient nurses, were coordinating a plan for his needs.

To an experienced nurse with more knowledge of his own condition than the average patient, time was of the essence; his waning body entered a battle with his will, fixed on making it to Saturday, May 17.

Growing up, Chris was accustomed to such fatherly support.

“Dad was always good to me. He encouraged me in whatever I wanted to do. If I’d have told him I wanted to be a professional comedian, he would’ve been encouraging.”

If 2014 were a theme park ride, it would be all gravity-defying rollercoasters for Chris. Reality, sadness, elation and back to reality. His dad receiving a terminal diagnosis, the birth of his daughter, Lyla Elizabeth, in March, the final semester of college — it was a lot to take in.

“I just had to take everything day by day.”

Timothy did get to hold his new granddaughter, but whenever he did, “… he would just cry,” Chris recalled. Maybe, thought Chris, he was thinking about the things he would miss. “He did get to spend time with her, though.”

“I have been told by people that he was a good nurse,” said Timothy’s mother, Alene. She acted as caretaker for both her son and for her husband, Timothy’s father and Chris’ grandfather, Elmer “David” Mullins. David suffers from a debilitating and progressive neurological condition known as Pick’s Disease. He, too, was admitted to Bowers Hospice House at the same time as Timothy, making the situation easier, if easier were possible for a woman losing both her son and her husband. David is now being cared for at home by his wife and hospice.

Hospice was attentive to Alene and her need for a break, as the social workers and nurses collaborated on how to get Timothy comfortably to the Concord University graduation. Many times a patient who, by all physical accounts, should have passed on remains for no other reason than the “uns” — unfinished business or a dream unrealized — especially one with the potential for fulfillment, for attaining closure.

The original plan was for an ambulance service to transport Timothy to the commencement in Athens. A 45-minute drive south in West Virginia, to an ordinary person on an ordinary day, is a few radio songs and scenic hills away. To a patient actively dying, it would be physically tantamount to walking there.

Hospice had arranged with Concord University representatives to plan an area of accommodation in the audience for Timothy. They were ready and waiting.

At the beginning of the week, Timothy declined rapidly in spite of his determination.  His nurse decided he wouldn’t survive even the relatively short trip from Beckley to Athens. According to Bowers Hospice House Director Rhonda Culicerto, the nursing team contacted Concord University to let them know Timothy couldn’t make it.

“They asked if there was a way someone at some point could come and present Chris’ diploma so his dad could see.” President Kendra Boggess’ office seemed eager to help.  

To everyone’s surprise the next day, Wednesday May 14, President Boggess came to Bowers Hospice House herself to present Chris his diploma with the family in attendance. Dr. Boggess, in full graduation regalia, formed a procession down the hall of Bowers Hospice House along with Chris, dressed too in cap and gown. She addressed the family with her prepared speech as she would for two audiences and 357 graduates three days later. Dad Timothy was front and center.

Dr. Boggess recalled performing her first graduation ceremony for one.

“When we realize what an effort non-traditional students make in completing their degree programs, Chris Mullins’ story becomes even more noteworthy.  In addition to being a husband and a father, Chris pursued his undergraduate degree in business administration with an emphasis in management, earning Honors and Cum Laude status while dealing with the illnesses of his father and grandfather.

“It was such an honor to be asked to come to the Bowers Hospice House to present Chris his diploma so that his father’s wish to see Chris graduate could come true. It meant a great deal to me to be asked to be part of such an important family gathering, and I hope that in some small way, by my participation Concord University has been able to make a family’s difficult time less stressful and more of a celebration of Chris’ success.”

People rallying for families facing the life-limiting illness of a loved one ties in with the hospice philosophy. “Part of Hospice’s mission is to help people live life fully until they die — to fulfill those things we can that are important to them near the end of their journey,” Culicerto commented.

At Bowers, many take their final breath, yet celebrations of life are not unusual.

“We’ve had weddings, anniversary celebrations, birthday celebrations — we know those things are important for families.”

Culicerto, a nurse by profession, esteemed Timothy in the brief time she knew him for his life’s dedication to patients, a characteristic so ingrained he expressed it to the end. “He had a strong work ethic and cared about his patients. Even during his stay at Bowers, he still talked about nursing. You could tell his patients had been a priority to him,” said Culicerto.

Mother Alene cannot keep a dry eye when she speaks of Bowers Hospice House or her son. “I don’t know what I would’ve done had it not been for hospice,” she said. She, as well as Chris, also expresses gratitude for Dr. Boggess’ decision to travel to Beckley to honor a single graduate and to serve his family and their pressing need.

“The president coming all the way over here, … she was a blessing,” said Alene.

“I was shocked and touched at Dr. Boggess coming to Bowers House. It was very nice for her to take the time to do that — especially since she had just become the University president,” Chris expressed.

Presently employed with the Beckley VA Medical Center, Chris hopes to progress within the VA or other government employer. Honoring his father with his employment preference, Chris stated, “I like helping our veterans.”

A man graduates many times before he dies. From schools and universities, from haphazardness into purpose, from mistakes and failures into competency, from selfishness into altruism, from accomplished goals and dreams into new aspirations.

To those who believe, there is also a graduation from life’s stage into what lies beyond this existence. Chris Mullins graduated in May 2014, but so did his father. Timothy passed away May 21, one week after he accomplished his final goal for his son. His legacy, arguably all a man has to leave in the end, was revealed in the words Chris penned for his father’s obituary, with a heart full of admiration:

“Every man leaves a legacy of some kind. Some, like (late U.S. Sen.) Robert C. Byrd, leave their names on buildings and streets. My father’s legacy is different. His legacy is in his family as well as in the many people who are still alive today thanks to the medical care that he helped provide them.”

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