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  • Tracy N. Coley

A Tribute to a Radiant Light

Quilted self-portrait by Cleo Ward. © Cleo Ward Family

Richard Ward looked lovingly at his wife as she slid back into a deep morphine induced sleep. He gently stroked her soft, silver hair before releasing her delicate hand, then took a seat in the chair at the foot of the bed. He didn’t say much at first. I didn’t expect him to. Watching Cleo struggle to move or communicate four days following a massive stroke on January 13th was heartbreaking. The doctors said rest was the best prescription to clear the blood clot in her brain. She was now three days shy of her 75th birthday.

The bag of fruit and snacks I brought sat on a tall rolling table beneath the television in the cramped ICU hospital room. Richard was too anxious to leave her side to eat in the hospital café, so he dined on snacks and meals visitors brought to the room.

I’d not intended to linger after I dropped off the snacks, but I felt he wanted to talk. I learned from my own experience that sometimes simply listening is all that's needed to comfort a patient's family, especially after long consecutive days in a confined, antiseptic hospital room where the only sounds are the beeps and whirs of the machines keeping the patient alive. So I sat in the chair beside her bed, Richard and I both watching Cleo's chest rise and fall to the beat of the heart monitor. To break the awkward silence, I asked Richard how he and Cleo met. A wide smile reached the tired wrinkled corners of his eyes, which twinkled as he unfolded their 40-year-old love story.

Richard hired Cleo to work for him in a Midtown Atlanta bank in the 70s. Her compassion for the homeless caught his eye. Each day on the way to the bank, she'd stop to talk to the homeless, sometimes giving them food or a book or newspaper to read. After a short time, Cleo was promoted and transferred to another department. When their respective marriages ended a few years later, Richard and Cleo reconnected. Their friendship blossomed into romance and then into marriage. For the next 40 years they raised their children into adulthood, continued to work, doted on grandchildren, and eventually retired to bucolic Madison County, Ga., next door to Richard’s son and his family.

Richard’s devotion to Cleo flowed from every spoken syllable, his soft, deep voice breaking as he recalled her beauty. An hour later, we were both teary eyed, hopeful that this wasn’t the end of their story. I knew Richard was hanging onto a miracle. But Cleo had so much against her. She was winning the fight against cancer a second time, and had finally gained control of the edema in her right leg, when the stroke overpowered her in the middle of the night, which affected her left side—her good side.

My mom and I last visited with Cleo and Richard three weeks ago, when she was making progress in a nursing home rehab center. But the cancer resumed a relentless and indomitable march over her body. Five days later she was sent home with hospice care. And within another week she departed on her own terms, in her own home, with one last valiant breath surrounded by her devoted husband and family.

I first came to know Cleo, my mother’s friend, in 2013. Cleo sat on the opposite end of our church pew, my mother and their mutual friends sandwiched between us. They all belonged to a Tuesday morning craft group where Cleo often brought her latest quilting project.

Cleo was humble and gracious and committed her life to serving others. Her colorful, textured quilt work reflected her individuality, loving spirit and sentient being. Her hand stitching was so perfect that it was once mistaken for machine stitching and disqualified at a quilting show. But in typical Cleo fashion, she shrugged it off with her signature laugh, head tossed back, and focused on things more important than her own success.

Cleo is the second friend I’ve lost to cancer in 2-1/2 months. It doesn’t seem fair that the kindest souls are taken from us. But none of us are guaranteed tomorrow, nor even today. We take for granted life’s frailty and how utterly indiscriminate cancer can be. Her pew seat remains empty, but we feel her presence. I’m thankful to have known her for the last seven years. To her friends, Cleo was a jewel-toned luminary in a monotonic world. Like the magical technicolor transformation in the black-and-white opening of "The Wizard of Oz," Cleo illuminated deep, imaginative perspectives on world issues, relationships, and everyday life and quietly, positively changed our own views. I have no doubt her radiant light, just as colorful as her quilts, will shine for a long time.

Rest, my friend. We love you.



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