After a month of missing class, Bailey Madsen was about to give up on school. But then, she found her mother’s bucket list.
At the top, circled four or five times, read “have Bailey graduate.”
“That just struck me,” Madsen said. “I was just like, I need to do this. I need to fight for her.”
Thursday afternoon, the 18-year-old senior graduated from Pleasant Grove High School, fulfilling one of her mother’s dying wishes.
A handful of the school’s students experience the death of a parent each year, according to Stephanie Nixon, Madsen’s advocate at Pleasant Grove High School.
Nixon has known Madsen since she was a sophomore and had met with Madsen’s mother, Nikki, both when Nikki was healthy and after her cancer caused her health to decline.
“Her No. 1 goal, which is so sad, is that the only thing she wanted was to make it to Bailey’s graduation,” Nixon said.
Madsen’s counselor, Josh Tenney, and Nixon had the idea of setting up a graduation ceremony for Madsen in early February so that Nikki could make it. At the time, they didn’t know that Nikki Madsen was already in hospice.
Nixon’s last conversation with her was about making sure her daughter graduated.
“It has been my No. 1 goal since Nikki passed away,” Nixon said.
Nikki Madsen died in February, 13 years after being diagnosed with colon cancer. Bailey Madsen describes her mother as a cowgirl, an adventurer, a woman who thought a broken rib was a pulled muscle and who hiked a five-mile trail in Moab with only one lung. When her daughter was upset, Nikki would open her arms, pat the bed next to her and urge her daughter to come over.
“She knew whatever I needed when I needed it,” Madsen said.
Before she died, Nikki surprised her daughter with a new viola, named Lola.
Madsen said an August scan showed that her mother’s cancer had metastasized. Even by that point, her mother had lived years longer than she was expected to.
“She was the definition of a fighter,” Madsen said. “She never, ever let anything stop her and get in her way.”
Nixon said Madsen’s teachers were alerted when her mother was close to dying and that teachers didn’t count Madsen’s assignments as missing for the month after her mother’s death.
“We have so many great teachers who are willing to accommodate that,” Nixon said. “They let her have that grieving process.”
Nixon said one teacher had lost their parents while they were in high school and were willing to do whatever Madsen needed. For one assignment that required Madsen to interview a parent, Nixon stepped in to help.
When needed, Madsen will go into Nixon’s office, grab a Coke and cry. She’s left Nixon about a dozen notes, and Nixon said that the two have become very close.
“I am every bit as excited to see Bailey graduate as my daughter,” Nixon said.
Nixon said Madsen is a caring, considerate student who has a gift of being around people with special needs.
“She is going to be amazing in life,” Nixon said.
Madsen is living in a home with her older brother, her emotional support dog, Zoey, and two roommates to help with rent.
Her father is not in her life, by Madsen’s choice. She said he is abusive and is the reason why she has knee issues and sometimes walks with a cane. After breaking off her relationship with him about three years ago, Madsen said she discovered that she has severe depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
She lives in her mother’s old room and hasn’t moved any of Nikki’s things. Madsen said in the months since her mother’s death she’s been driven by the quote “keep moving forward” from the movie “Meet the Robinsons.”
She’s drawn from her mother’s strength and their bond.
“My mom taught me that no matter who gets in my way, no matter who says anything, that I am stronger than that,” Madsen said. “And just, I can’t let them get to me.”
Teachers have given her the choice of which assignments to do, and she said Tenney started a group for grieving students.
Madsen hopes to one day become a certified nursing assistant and is interested in working with people who have disabilities.
Even with the support, graduation was a day Madsen didn’t know would come.
“There are some times where I can’t believe it,” she said. “I just look back and I’m like, wow. I am just speechless because if it weren’t for all the amazing people in my life, like my brother, my mom, my advocates at school and my counselor, and just a few, select friends, I would not have.”
Pleasant Grove High School provided her with a graduation gown free of charge. She plans to wear it beyond the graduation ceremony — there’s someone she wants to see.
“I am going to see if I can have that for a little bit longer and go to her grave with my diploma and be like, ‘Mom, I did it,’” Madsen said.