Mullen's applesauce is available at dozens of area
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Full list of retail locations
Jim Mullen struggled to raise his voice while
calling Maggie, his 14-year-old daughter.
"Can you come here please?" he said from his wheelchair,
both eyes darting into the distance.
An ever-present ventilator tube in his neck curbed his
yell. Mullen strained to locate Maggie, but she soon strolled into
"Yeah, dad?" Maggie replied, seeming slightly annoyed, as
any teenager might.
Mullen asked his daughter to retrieve a jar of his Mullen
Foods applesauce from the kitchen, his new pride and joy. The
former Chicago police officer began mass-producing and selling his
mother's family-recipe applesauce three years ago, to rave
"When life gave me lemons, I made applesauce," he noted
with a chuckle.
Life gave him lemons on Oct. 16, 1996, when Mullen
answered a police dispatcher's call of "a man with a gun" at a
Rogers Park apartment. The then 31-year-old Mullen raced to the
scene and was met on a second-floor gangway by a .357-caliber
The shot went through his right cheek, severing his spinal
cord and paralyzing him from the neck down. He doesn't remember the
incident. Maggie was just 6 months old.
After months in a hospital bed under an induced coma,
after multiple setbacks and surgeries and hovering near death for
weeks, Mullen's trademark humor transcended his dire
Using an alphabet-board device to communicate to his
doctors and wife, Athena, he laboriously blinked for each letter to
form his first sentence: "C … H … E … A … P -
S … E … A … T … S."
His doctors asked, "Cheap seats?"
Mullen noticed that his room was near the front door of
the Intensive Care Unit, with a lot of noisy foot traffic and
activity. He compared it to the "cheap seats" at a sporting event
in the nosebleed section.
This exchange served as a comic harbinger to his family,
friends and doctors. Mullen was back, albeit with limitations.
Maggie hasn't known her dad any other way.
"His wheelchair has always been kind of invisible to me,"
says Maggie, who began helping at age 8 with her father's constant
But Mullen's complex medical condition is impossible not
to see. He underwent innumerable surgeries, multiple seizures and a
handful of heart attacks.
Mullen can move only his head, and he controls his
wheelchair with his mouth. His nurses must do everything for him,
from bathing and dressing him to adjusting his wheelchair and
myriad medical equipment.
He lives in the Edgebrook section of Chicago, nestled
between forest preserves on a quiet cul-de-sac in a home modified
for his unique needs. An LED computer screen, the size of a
big-screen TV, occupies most of his time these days.
With it, he uses high-tech, voice-recognition software to
connect with the world via the Internet. He can check in less than
a minute how many grocery stores are now stocking his applesauce
(200 stores in six counties, including Happy Foods, Whole Foods
Market and Treasure Island).
"In cyberspace, we're all equal," he says.
His applesauce, fashioned after his mother's all-natural
recipe, is produced and distributed by a Niles-based
"My mom got tired of peeling so many apples," jokes
Mullen, who sprinkles most conversations with humor. "I told her to
take a break and enjoy the final product."
A portion of the product's proceeds goes to the Chicago
Police Memorial Foundation, which provides support to the families
of officers killed or catastrophically injured in the line of
"The city and that organization have been very good to me
since the shooting," says Mullen, who decided in September to renew
the vow he took 20 years ago to "serve and protect."
On Sept. 12, he announced his candidacy for city alderman
of the 41st Ward on the far Northwest Side. The civic-minded former
cop and CBS-TV News disabilities reporter has always wanted to
venture into politics. Now is the time, he believes.
"It would've been very easy for me to give up after my
injury, and I would like to bring that tenacity to make a
difference in everyone's life."
He's made a major difference in his family's life, despite
his obvious limitations, his wife says.
"I think Maggie has adjusted just fine," says Athena, a
Chicago Police detective who works on sexual abuse crimes. "Jim is
always there for her. He makes himself available, and he guides her
the best he can with his words, giving her his knowledge and
When Maggie was a young girl, she once asked her mother
why her daddy was "like that."
"She wanted her daddy's arms and legs to work, and she
wanted her dad to be able to run and chase her and pick her up over
his head like the other dads," Athena says.
"I told her I wished that, too. I told her how my heart
hurts so badly. I told her how dad struggled every moment of every
day for us and that we are lucky to have daddy with us at all. She
never ever questioned it again. She found other ways to play with
Before Mullen had a "sip and puff" device to operate his
wheelchair, his nurses would push him to chase Maggie around their
home. After she ran out of steam, she would collapse on his lap and
As she got older, Maggie played card games on her dad's
lap, and then used his computer for homework or
"During thunderstorms," Athena recalls, "Maggie would
always run into daddy's room. Daddy's room was safe and she would
snuggle under his blankets with him."
Athena would read Maggie bedtime stories, but daddy's girl
would sneak into her father's room for their special time
"No, I can't play catch, mow the lawn, or ride bikes with
Maggie, but I've always tried to be a part of her life in some
way," Mullen says.
Mullen had nurses or friends drive him to Maggie's
softball games or her other extracurricular school
Once, when Maggie asked her dad to no longer attend her
basketball games, Mullen assumed it was because of his disability,
and her possible embarrassment. He soon learned, as most fathers
do, it was because she wanted freedom and independence-from her
Now, with Maggie at 14, "parenting isn't the easiest,"
Mullen readily admits. "We have our disagreements, and I do get
frustrated. Every day isn't a bowl of, um, apples."
Their father-daughter time doesn't happen as often as it
used to. And Mullen finds himself worrying about her new friends,
future college, upcoming driving and finding "Mr.
"All I do is worry, it seems," he says quietly after
Maggie leaves the room.
When the family attended a recent wedding, Mullen worried
he wouldn't be able to walk Maggie down the aisle when the time
"Why not?" Athena asked him. "You'll just be on wheels.
You will be fine."
Deep down, Mullen knows this is true. He is still the
"go-to parent" when it comes to help with school tests, shopping
online or coughing up a few bucks for a weekend movie. "We're still
a family, like other families, but a little different considering
my situation," he says with the slightest of shrugs.
Maggie agrees with a more demonstrative, quintessential
"He's just my dad."
Jerry Davich is a Chicago-area dad and freelance
Jerry Davich is a freelance writer and father of two living in the Chicago area.
See more of Jerry's stories here.
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