“Our lives are not measured in years, but are measured in the lives of people we touch around us.” — Suzanne Collins.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” — 2 Timothy 4:7-8 as read by Jake Helton upon the passing of his Papaw, Mike Mullins.
Author’s Note: This is not a story about me, yet to tell it right, I must include bits of my life only to illustrate the positive impact one person can have upon others. The sole purpose of this narrative is to honor and uplift the memory of a beloved man.
As John, my husband, and I approached the funeral home, we could not help but notice that it was located directly beside Heiner’s, where our dear friend, Mike Mullins, had spent 27 years of his adult life working. I smiled at the thought of the family gatherings we attended with Mike’s family where Heiner’s buns, rolls, and/or bread were served. I remember him once telling me, with a note of certainty and sternness in his eyes, “Steph, you gotta support local businesses. It’s real men’s lives and families at stake.”
It was not the first time Mike spoke forcefully to me. Neither would it be the last, nor would I be the only one to be on the receiving end of his firmly rooted convictions. He said what he meant, he lived by what he said and by golly, anyone for whom he cared should also live by those same principles. Mike lived his life wholeheartedly - passionate beliefs, passionate appreciation for those “doing the right thing” and a passionate distaste for those doing the opposite. Most of all, Mike possessed a deeply abiding love for his family as well as others for whom he cared.
Given such strident persuasions, I more than once witnessed Mike’s face redden and contort with outrage whenever he witnessed, thought, or spoke of another person who had crossed his line of right and wrong. Fortunately, I was never, per se, at the receiving end, but I was always certain where Mike stood. Therefore, when his son, Todd, stated at his funeral, “Dad had a way of getting your attention” in order to let the listener know his belief, well, I certainly believed it! However, I always knew Mike loved my husband, our daughter Maddie - who called him, “Papaw Mike,” and me.
I came to know Mike, and his sweet wife Betty, through a gradual series of circumstances. First, I began working with his daughter, Kelli Helton, nearly 30 years ago at South Point Elementary when she was still Kelli Mullens. It was there that our friendship and trust of one another began to evolve. A few years later, when Kelli and I were teaching across the hall from one another at Burlington Elementary, Maddie went to preschool with her son, Jake. Soon enough, she became fast friends with Jake and began to feel Josh was the younger brother she never had. That same year, Maddie began to play soccer with both Jake and his cousin, Noah, Todd’s son. Therefore, every fall and spring was spent with the Helton/Mullens clan at the local YMCA soccer field. In fact, countless weekends throughout Maddie’s elementary and middle school years were spent with Kelli and her family.
Additionally, I drew even closer to Mike and Betty because of the fact I had the privilege of teaching both of Kelli’s sons during the 15 years I taught kindergarten. It was during the school year I taught Jake, that I was especially on the receiving end of Mike’s strength and love. Early in that school year, one of Jake’s classmates lost his life. While I worked hard at school to help the kids through their grief, I secretly spiraled into the worst depression I have ever experienced. My faith was shaken to its core, but I dared not outwardly reveal it.
Throughout that school year, during the kid’s soccer games, Mike would grab me with a force of strength, and wrap me up in his arms as if I was his own daughter. Then, he would tell me he loved me and was praying for me. It was as if he knew my tightly hidden secret. He would whisper in my ear, so no one else heard, “Steph, don’t let this get you down. You gotta keep strong for those kids. You gotta trust God.” Then, he’d pull away and look into my eyes with such ferocity; I felt as if he was trying to shoot strength into my very soul. Looking around the funeral home this past Sunday, I had to wonder the number of other people for whom Mike had also done this.
From the opening notes of Casting Crowns’ version of “Beulah Land,” to Mercy Me’s, “I Can Only Imagine,” and finally, to the organist’s rendition of “When We All Get to Heaven,” the funeral was a fitting tribute to Mike. In front of me was Kelli with one arm strongly wrapped around her mom as her Dad would have done. Her brother, Todd, spoke with the heart and conviction of his Dad. Jake, Mike’s oldest grandchild, read two passages from “Papaw’s Bible” that he had selected on the previous day in his own Bible only to find those same passages highlighted, the following day, in his grandfather’s Bible. Josh, Noah, and Grace, Mike and Betty’s other grandkids, firmly held steadfast jaws and faces in the same manner as I had witnessed Mike hold his on numerous occasions requiring strength. The service was filled with tears, laughter, and the poignant beliefs and memories of Mike Mullens.
When John and I entered the funeral home, sunlight filled the skies with brilliant radiance, reminding me of Mike’s radiant eyes when he smiled. As we exited the building upon the funeral’s conclusion and began our drive to the cemetery, the clouds were brooding with the temperament of Mike when he was worried about a loved one or someone who had committed a transgression. Soon those clouds became threateningly dark, reminding me of the way Mike’s eyes could darken whenever he observed or spoke of a person’s misbehavior or “wrong” opinion. During the graveside ceremony, the sky began to cry rain as I had seen tears stream down Mike’s etched face on more than one occasion when he was feeling moved or saddened. Driving away, the skies unleashed their anger, shooting daggers of lightning bolts and booming thunder. I had to inwardly grin; I had certainly known Mike to verbally unleash stormy words of clarity with those who had crossed the line! It seemed as if the day’s weather was full of Mike’s passion.
An hour or so later, as John and I were driving away from our own church’s evening mass that we attended after Mike’s services, we saw a colorful rainbow arching out and from the heavens above. How fitting, I thought, as we drove down 5th Ave of Huntington, that our entire drive was spent moving toward an eternal sign of peace and love. It was as if, in full Mike Mullens style, he had the final words of the day after all. “I am in my heavenly home. I am at peace.”
Once more, I could him whisper not only to me, but also to all that he knew and loved. “You gotta get through this. You gotta stay strong. You gotta trust God.”
Rest in peace, Mike. You will be missed, but you will not be forgotten.
Stephanie Hill is a freelance writer and a teacher at St. Joseph Catholic School in Huntington. She is also a lifelong resident of Lawrence County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can check out her website, stephsimply.com.