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'Bittersweet': College honors late music student's passion with diploma to his parents

All his life, Brandon Myers dreamed of working in music, maybe as a composer or a teacher.

But the 23-year-old suffered from a rare condition called Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which progressively weakened his muscles and made it difficult to move his body.

Not that he ever let his disease stop him — at school, he learned how to conduct performances using his head because he couldn't use his arms, and he and his dad often went to concerts, taking trips to see the Rolling Stones, Heart, AC/DC and Journey, among others.

"He never complained when he lost any of his abilities," Shari Firestone, Brandon's mom, told TODAY. "He just took it in stride and proceeded to life his life to the fullest."

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Brandon had another dream, too: to graduate from college.

He was studying music education at Five Towns College in Dix Hills, New York. But his dreams were cut short on April 24 when he died of heart failure. It was devastating news for his family, but also the community at the college.

Courtesy of Rachel Myers
Brandon Myers lived for music, his family said.

The school awarded Brandon his bachelor's degree posthumously at a commencement ceremony on May 21, where his parents were presented with the diploma their son had always wanted.

"It was really unexpected," said Shari, who lives in Holbrook, New York. "I was quite shocked. I never thought I would be going to my son's graduation without him, but it was very... bittersweet.

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"He really, really wanted that degree. It's like what he lived for," she said. "It kept him going. He loved music. He loved going to school. He loved learning."

Courtesy of Rachel Myers
Brandon with his mother Shari Firestone (left) and sister Rachel Myers (right).

While Brandon hadn't yet completed all the required credits for his bachelor's degree, Mara Maltz, registrar at Five Towns College, thought it was certainly deserved.

She said Brandon was a dean's list student and in good standing at the college, calling him a "courageous young man who pursued his dream."

For his family, the degree "meant the world," Brandon's sister, Rachel Myers, told TODAY.

“Brandon was always a ‘when’ person, not an ‘if’ person," she said. "It was when he would graduate from school, when he was going to live on his own, when he was going to learn how to drive a car.

Courtesy of Bob Myers
Myers with his family. "He taught everyone a lot about perseverance and positive attitude," his dad told TODAY.

"None of these were things we thought could happen. So him graduating… it just proves that if you work really hard and want it bad enough, it will happen.”

Brandon, who used a wheelchair, split his time between the homes of his parents, who are divorced.

His dad, Bob Myers, a professional musician who lives in Wading River, New York, said his son was determined to get an education no matter how difficult it was at times.

“It would take us two solid hours just to get him from the bed in the morning into the van to drive to school," he told TODAY. "And he never complained.”

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“I remember when I took him there five years ago to register, and someone took us around the school,” Bob continued. “I said, ‘I think Brandon is going to learn a lot here.’

Courtesy of Rachel Myers
Brandon at a concert with his dad Bob Myers. The two shared a love for music.

"And she said, ‘I think we’re going to learn a lot more from him.’ And I think that’s what happened. He taught everyone a lot about perseverance and positive attitude."

Rachel said she knows her brother would appreciate his hard work being recognized. In fact, she even thinks he sent the family a sign.

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"After the ceremony, my mom went outside with Brandon's diploma and my aunt took a picture of her," she said. "And this white feather fell onto her shoulder. A large, white feather.

"There were no birds around, and no one was wearing any fur coats or anything with feathers," she continued. "It was just the two of them outside. We just kind of took that as a sign that Brandon was really happy, and proud to accomplish what he always wanted to."

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