TYLER, Texas — What what would you do with only days left to live? Who are the people you want to embrace? What are moments you want to capture before you pass?
Mark Patterson was diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer in January.
He beat the disease once before. However, cancer returned and spread to his lymph node system near his kidneys.
After the diagnosis, several of his organs began to fail.
Doctors placed him in hospice care in Tyler.
"The questions was, 'What is your goal?'" Mark's wife Darla Patterson said. "He broke down and started crying and said, 'I just want to see my baby girl graduate.'"
Patterson's adopted daughter Christan is a senior at Lindale High School. Her graduation is slated for May.
"My dad is my rock," Christan said. "Even though I might break down once in a while, I know God has my back, and I want to stay strong for my family, as well.”
Mark and Christan share a special relationship. Though not related by blood, Mark cherished Christan as any father would his own daughter.
"My mom and dad are my mom and dad," Christan said. "It doesn't matter if it's blood or not blood. They love me."
Lindale ISD stepped in to allow Mark Patterson to witness one last moment of the joy through the heartbreak.
Employees at the district's bus depot, where Mark once worked, spearheaded an effort to put together a mock graduation for Mark Patterson to see.
"The people who he used to work with at the bus barn in Lindale, one of the drivers came to me and she said, ‘What if we do Christan a graduation?’" Darla Paterson recalled. “The principal, the superintendents, and Lindale let this happen. They let teachers come. They let students come. Those were her three best friends, the girls you saw her with, and they’ve been her rock.”
As Christan began to get ready for the ceremony, she had time to reflect on what this graduation will mean compared to her official graduation at the end of the semester.
"The graduation in May will be special, but I know I will be laughing more and be more outgoing since I’ll be with my classmates," Christan Patterson said. "But I know this one will definitely be something in the books."
On Wednesday at Hospice of ETX, Christan donned her graduation robes and set forth on a ceremony that is worth much more than a diploma.
"I'm really glad I got to let him see that and he got to experience that," Christan said. "I was thinking about my dad a lot, thinking about him more than my feelings, because I want to put him first before me."
Though Mark did not have the strength to show it, his family has no doubt he, like everyone else, was overcome with emotion from the deeply moving ceremony.
“Amazing. That would be his word," Darla said. "Today was amazing. Because all these people that love our family, they stepped up. They left their jobs. He would say amazing. That’s what he would say.”
Christan says putting her father first is only a small show of appreciation for the man who gave her unconditional support and love that not even cancer could weaken.
“I just know my dad is very caring and very loving, and that he thanks everyone that was apart of this. And if he wasn’t on medicine and everything, he would be crying right now," Christan said. "He’s such a strong man. He’s so loving and so caring, and I’m so glad he’s here with us today right now.”
As the family prepares for the next stage of their life, a GoFundMe account was set up to help them handle the financial burden of Mark's cancer.
As for Christan, the senior has a bright future ahead of her. She was recently accepted to 11 different colleges.
“Her journey is starting and a new journey is starting for her. She’s an amazing kid," Darla said. "That girl is going to accomplish anything she wants to do. There is no stopping that girl.”
“My strength comes from God. I have so much faith," Christan said. "I know if my dad passes, I will be fine. My parents will be fine, my mom, my family. It’s okay. Life is going to go on."