LOOKING AHEAD: Eagle River woman mourns family one pair of glasses at a time

Tuesday, March 5, 2019 - 11:41
  • Sally Cook poses with some of the remaining eyeglasses frames from her mother’s store. Cook’s mother, “Miss Joy” Leedham died in 2018, leaving Cook with of hundreds of pairs of glasses. (Rashae Ophus Johnson/ For the Star)

After the fall day when Joy Leedham left her Optical Matchmakers-Home Optics shop to head to a doctor appointment, it would never be the same place of joy. Her epic eyewear enterprise, which spanned more than 20 years and surged to global fame with Sarah Palin, ended as abruptly and as quietly as Leedham’s life.

She was ambushed by cancer. Like her son-in-law shortly before and her husband soon after, advanced aggressive cancer and imminent death came in threes for the family.

Almost a year after Joy died, her husband Jim has succumbed to cancer, leaving behind daughter Sally Cook, her two children — and roughly 1,000 pairs of eyeglasses.

Different Cancers, Same Prognosis

“Miss Joy,” as Leedham was commonly known, discovered her passion as an optician while working at an Anchorage eye care clinic. In 1996 the Chugiak resident launched her own business doing in-home consultations for fashion-forward frames. After over a decade of house calls, Leedham opened her downtown Eagle River store above the DMV in the Parkgate Professional Building.

Dizzy spells and fatigue led her to consult a neurologist in September 2017. After an MRI, a nurse ran into the parking lot and intercepted the Leedhams with jarring news — tumors were ravaging Miss Joy’s brain. It was glioblastoma, brain cancer. Terminal.

Miss Joy’s final season was fleeting as an Alaskan autumn; she never returned to the shop, and within weeks it was shuttered.

“It was devastating and heart-breaking that she had to just walk away, but what else could she do?” said Cook, an English teacher at Chugiak High School. “I was trying to close her store, and all I know about business is I don’t know anything about business.”

What Cook did know was the anguish of watching of a loved one slip away after a terminal cancer diagnosis — a parting both painfully long and bitterly brief. Only three months prior in June 2017, Cook lost her husband Thomas to a rare bone cancer resulting from neuroendocrine tumors. Traditional chemotherapy and radiation hardly fazed it.

Those close to Miss Joy believe the trauma of losing her son-in-law — “the son she never had” — crippled her resistance to glioblastoma, that her broken heart was a complication too great to overcome.

And cancer was not done yet with the family. In May 2018 — just three months after Miss Joy died — Jim Leedham received his own dreadful diagnosis: Lung cancer. Terminal.

Legendary Loss

When Miss Joy had to suddenly abandon shop, her longtime administrative assistant, Karen Lord, did her best to complete the job. She notified clients through the limited channels in place — a list of promotional email subscribers and the shop’s Facebook page. But nonetheless many of Miss Joy’s fans were not aware she was dying until after she was gone, Feb. 1, 2018.

By contrast Thomas Cook, a teacher at Teeland Middle School in Wasilla, had been uplifted in his final season by hundreds of supporters, including staff, students and their families. They made cards and organized cheerful fundraisers like a head-shaving challenge and a taco feed to help cover medical bills.

“I watched the end of my husband’s teaching career, and I watched the end of my mom’s business career,” said Cook, who met her future husband in eighth grade. “People should become teachers.”

Though she lacked the quantity of coworkers and the mass notification methods of a school, Miss Joy was adored by countless patrons near and far. They dropped in periodically for prescription and style changes as well as frame adjustments and repairs, and often lingered to chat and savor one of Miss Joy’s homemade cookies. Sometimes when she couldn’t sleep, her loved ones said, she would get up in the middle of the night and “start baking and praying for people.”

“Many women — and men — who came in were hurting in some way, and she could just tell. They would spend hours talking to her,” Lord said. “It was almost more of a ministry than an optical shop. People felt like they were losing their mom or their mentor, they felt so loved by her.”

“Toward the end, when she was kind of losing her touch with reality from the illness, she said Sarah Palin had called” to express her support, Cook recounted. “We thought she imagined it, but we looked through her phone and sure enough, we found [Palin’s] number.”

When Palin debuted worldwide as the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008, her rimless rectangular Kazuo Kawasaki eyeglasses became an overnight sensation and catapulted Miss Joy into the international limelight. Miss Joy proudly regaled major news outlets with the story of how she met the rising political star during a parade when Palin complimented her daughter’s eyeglasses; how they selected the famous frames in Palin’s kitchen from 300-some pairs; and how she customized the lens shape to perfectly suit Palin’s eye measurements. Optical Matchmakers-Home Optics soon was filling hundreds of orders from as far as Australia.

“She just loved people,” Cook said. “She loved helping people.”

Though somehow Palin had heard of her terminal diagnosis, many of Miss Joy’s customers stopped by only to discover the business had vanished, and with it Miss Joy and her distinguished eyewear collection.

Cathy Medland first met Miss Joy while she still was selling specs exclusively from a car wrapped with the Home Optics logo.

“I heard she did home visits when I had all these little kids at home, and I thought, ‘To have someone come to your house and try on all these glasses — how fun.’ She brought in cases of glasses, the mirrors and everything, and we sat around my table and tried them on. She always found the right ones,” Medland said. “I just loved her. She had that special spark, you know?

“I had heard through the grapevine she was ill, but I didn’t realize how ill, and then a few weeks later I ran into a mutual friend who asked if I had made it to her memorial service.”

Looking Forward

Unable to liquidate Miss Joy’s inventory so rapidly, after the store closed Lord and Cook began selling the frames at church sales and via Facebook to help cover funeral costs and medical debt for Cook’s grieving and ailing dad. Cases of eyewear were stacked in his living room — a constant trigger for missing Miss Joy.

“My mom would want these to be helping people, so we’d like to find homes for them,” Cook said, estimating a thousand frames remain in the cases. “Dad would love to tie that end up emotionally. He would feel good if that was finished.”

But matching Miss Joy’s remaining frames with new owners was closure Jim Leedham would not see fulfilled. He fought back with chemo and radiation and bought a little time. Shortly after midnight on February 7, he was gone too.

“It’s such a crapshoot what’s going to happen to our bodies. I’m angry,” Cook said, her voice indignant then trailing. “I feel lost.”

She and her two children, Grant, 22, and Carrie, 20, are learning to cope with grief, overlapped with grief, overlapped with grief. Cook said her school family as well as her late husband’s school community have surrounded them with compassion. Students cut out paper hearts, wrote messages on them and strung them together. Cook said she reads one each day.

“Some of them are really gut-wrenching — kids have crap in their lives too. One just said, ‘I think you’re neat,’” Cook said. “People say, ‘How can you teach?’ But how could I not? I don’t know how I could have made it through the year without my students.”

The family’s church community at Eagle River Grace in Chugiak also has buoyed her family through the onslaught of tragedy.

Jim Leedham’s obituary said he “held his church family dear to his heart as they were faithful and tireless in the care of his family while navigating through years of agony in cancer’s devastation.”

Their sister church in the Czech Republic, where Eagle River Grace serves an annual mission, collected an offering to benefit Thomas Cook.

“It was enough money that I knew it was a sacrifice to them,” Cook said. “It just so happened that when it arrived, it paid for our last medical bill.”

Supporters from Eagle River Grace assisted with funeral arrangements, and they host occasional eyewear sales to carry out Miss Joy’s legacy and help Cook achieve closure with her mom’s lifework.

“Every time we sell one, it just feels right,” she said.

Loved ones say Miss Joy encouraged leaving sorrow behind and focusing on the positive. Through any lenses, she could see the bright side.

Across the cover of Optical Matchmakers-Home Optics’ memorialized Facebook page, a favorite quote from Dr. Seuss is emblazoned like an epitaph, reminding loved ones of Miss Joy:

“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

* To view the remaining selection of eyewear, contact Sally Cook at [email protected].

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