Cleon Grant, a 19-year-old Andrews High School senior with a rare skin disorder, died two weeks before his graduation in June, but his family said they know he is doing just fine in heaven.
Members of his family said they know he is in heaven because they have seen his image in the clouds. Shawanta Gilliard, the wife of Cleon's birth father, Quiozell Gilliard, captured Cleon's image in a photograph while the two were driving over the L.H. Siau Bridge in Georgetown on May 25. Shawanta said she took the photograph of a group of clouds to the right of the bridge five days after Cleon passed away.
When she looked closely at the photo she saw Cleon's image staring back at her. She was shocked, she said, and when when she compared it to a recent photo of him it bore a remarkable resemblance.
"It blew my mind," Shawnta said. "I think it is very powerful to know there are miracle signs and wonders that God can create."
Cleon's mother Valentina Hucks raised Cleon with Davey Preston. His siblings are Randall Harter, 17, Kaden Green, 6, and Amora Preston, 3.
When Hucks saw the photo she said it was a sign from her son who was an artist. She said Cleon was also an honor roll student, who would have graduated with honors, and was an inspiration to others.
"He is making art in the clouds with God," Hucks said. "I feel like he is up there, making sure we still have fun and that we get out our feelings."
Cleon was born with dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa disorder. According to physicians, the disorder, known as EM, is a rare genetic condition that makes skin so fragile that it can tear or blister at the slightest touch. Children born with it are often called "butterfly children" because their skin seems as fragile as a butterfly wing.
Hucks said Cleon had to be bandaged from head to toe and soaked six to eight hours in the tub every Sunday. She said although he had to deal with pain and discomfort from the disorder, he was hardly ever sick, even with a cold.
Due to his disorder and multiple surgeries on his hands, Cleon didn't have any fingers, she said. But that didn't stop him from creating artwork, competing in the Special Olympics, playing the snare drum and keeping up with school work — holding the paint brush, pencil or other objects with both hands. He attended Waccamaw High School in his junior year, but returned to Andrews High in his senior year.
"Cleon never let his skin disorder get in his way of being a normal child," Hucks said. "He was quite amazing."
She said Cleon also loved the beach and the pool. Surprisingly, the salt water and chlorine seemed to do well for his skin, she said.
"He would get in the water and it helped his skin. He wasn't supposed to be in the sun, but that didn't keep him from going to the beach," she said.
Cleon didn't let other people's comments or stares bother him, Hucks said.
"We taught him to not let stares bother him and he didn’t," she said. "We told him, 'You are unique. God built you this way.'"
Hucks said Cleon showed his unique spirit in his artwork, including self portraits, a bust of himself, landscapes, carnival scenes, a butterfly created with melted crayons, and even a recreation of the Mona Lisa created with dots.
"He was in the BEACH gifted and talented visual arts program since the sixth grade," she said. "Everyone in school wondered how he could do so much better than they did."
Cleon loved to joke and brought smiles to people's faces, Hucks said. He touched a lot of people in his short life, teaching them to not complain and giving them strength.
Kara Merritt, Cleon's preschool teacher who kept in touch with him and his mother through his life, said Cleon never gave up hope, even with all of his challenges.
"He really inspired me because he was always determined to do what he wanted to get done," she said. "He didn’t let things get him down and he didn’t want sympathy. He just wanted to be friends with everybody."
Kim Morris, who worked with Cleon from age 1-3 as an early interventionist at the Georgetown County Board of Disabilities and Special Needs, agreed. She also kept in contact with the family over the years.
"Even back then he didn’t complain about all he was going through," she said. "He was a smart little boy and continued that through his life. It was a lot of learning how to do things on his own, and learning what he could do at that age."
Hucks said Cleon even foresaw his own death, telling her one day about a week before he went in the hospital for the last time, that he would not be at his high school graduation.
"He called my name and said, 'Ma, every year someone dies before graduation and this year it is going to be me,'" she said, not thinking much about it at the time. "He was talking to God. He believed in God and had a relationship with God. He knew he was ready."
The family attended the Andrews High graduation ceremony and received his diploma, along with a ceramic angel, while wearing T-shirts with a butterfly image on the front that Cleon created. Hucks said Cleon was planning to attend Coastal Carolina University in the fall.
"He really wanted to go to CCU and we even went on a tour," Hucks said. "They said they could accommodate him."
Anyone who would like a Cleon Grant T-shirt to honor and remember him can contact Valentina Hucks at email@example.com. Proceeds from the $20 sales will go to cover Cleon's funeral expenses.