School, graduate honor mom's last wish

Vancouver man receives diploma from Portland Community College in mother's hospital room two days before her death

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter

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Vancouver mother Brenda Rainey's last wish was to see her youngest son, Jesse Rainey, graduate from college. But time was against her.

Jesse's graduation from Portland Community College was still a month away, but her doctors didn't expect her to live through the weekend.

"It became our race against time to go to PCC to get a ceremony in her hospital room," Jesse Rainey, 22, said. "She wanted to be a part of it."

On May 16, Chris Chairsell, vice president of academic and student affairs at PCC, met the family in Brenda's room at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center and awarded Jesse Rainey his diploma in front of his mother, father and older brothers, Shawn and Phillip.

The family gathered around Brenda's hospital bed. Stan Rainey introduced Chairsell to his wife, Brenda, who was breathing with the aid of oxygen. The ceremony began.

"I do hereby award you your associate's degree in multimedia," Chairsell told Jesse Rainey. "Before I hand it to you, I'd like you to turn your tassel to the left side. Consider yourself graduated."

Jesse Rainey adjusted his mortarboard. The Rainey family, including Brenda, applauded.

"Come stand next to your mom here," Chairsell said to Jesse. "We're very proud of you. I'll see you on stage Friday the 13th. I'll be standing there waiting for you."

Brenda removed her oxygen mask so she could talk.

"Thank you for making this happen for me," Brenda Rainey said with labored breaths.

She blew a kiss and waved goodbye to Chairsell.

Jesse leaned close to his mother and showed her his diploma. Brenda took the diploma from his hands, opened it, read it and looked up at her son.

She died two days later.

Tuesday afternoon in the Oakbrook neighborhood home where Brenda and Stan Rainey raised Jesse and his brothers, Jesse tried on his cap and gown in preparation for Friday's PCC commencement. He talked about how his mom's illness impacted his family.

About two years ago, Brenda Rainey was diagnosed with an aggressive form of rheumatoid arthritis that damaged her lungs. Each breath became a struggle.

"I had to help Mom get around the house. She was connected to an oxygen unit 24/7.," he said.

Rainey, a 2010 graduate of Evergreen High School, spoke about his plan to use his new degree, an associate of applied science degree in multimedia with certificates in multimedia and video production. He and his eldest brother, Shawn, own a video production business.

"We make narrative films and do online editing for clients," he said. "I found that niche — video — and want to possibly get into the big leagues as it were. Work for a production house or become an intern on a local TV show like 'Grimm.'

"I'm thinking how grateful I am to have gotten this far. There were times I didn't think I could get a college education, but with the support I've gotten and the effort I've put in, I know I've accomplished something worthwhile. I'm excited for the future, but scared at the same time.

"Mom was the biggest supporter of me going to college," Jesse said. "Mom was the backbone of the family, the one to listen to me when I came home. She gave me guidance when I needed it most."

The brothers have discussed organizing a charity program that not only honors their mother, but also raises money for people with lung disease.

"We want to tell her story," he said.