Out of life's lemons, disabled Chicago cop makes applesauce
Thursday, March 17, 2011
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 his bedroom.
"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 reviews.
"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 pistol.
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 situation.
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 medical needs.
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 company.
"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 duty.
"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 wisdom."
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 her dad."
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 cuddle him.
As she got older, Maggie played card games on her dad's lap, and then used his computer for homework or entertainment.
"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 together.
"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 activities.
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 parents.
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. Wrong."
"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 comes.
"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 teenager shrug.
"He's just my dad."
Jerry Davich is a Chicago-area dad and freelance writer.