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Seeing Possibilities - Spring 2003

Seeing Possibilities
Carol Anne Gillis cares and dares – and thanks her mother

At 5:30 every morning in Littleton, N.H., a petite woman steps out her front door and begins to walk slowly with a cane past the dark storefronts. Carol Anne Gillis '68, M'70 is teaching herself to "see" with the tip of a cane in preparation for oncoming blindness.

Carol Anne GillisMuch like an iris-in of an old movie, when the scene shrinks to a dot on a black screen, Gillis's peripheral vision is being closed down by retinitis pigmentosa. Whereas most people have 180 degrees of peripheral vision, Gillis has 5.

Walking three miles before dawn lets her "focus on the information I'm getting from the cane, without having to dodge cars and people," Gillis explains over tea in a sitting room with pink walls and curtains in her house in the heart of town.

In facing blindness head on, Gillis shows fortitude from the memory of her deceased mother, Katheryn Nicholson Gillis, whom she calls her Annie Sullivan. She's showing the pluck that Kathryn showed when her daughter was judged legally blind at age three and she refused to make an invalid of her.

She has to. She has lots to do. She logs a hundred volunteer hours a month providing hospice care and serving as president of the board of directors of Hospice of the Littleton Area, which she founded 20 years ago and has recently written a book about.

She also has a therapy practice for individuals and couples, and is a dedicated member of the Friday Club literary group, for which she reads two books a month – Karen Armstrong's Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths and Joe Klein's biography of Bill Clinton – and presents a paper on one of them.


Gillis's life is the story of a little girl who could barely see but, through her own determination, her mother's moxie, and the support of family and friends, grew into an accomplished leader who earned two master's degrees. Choosing to focus on the "care" in "career," she has had careers as a high school teacher, hospice caregiver, and psychotherapist. And it all goes back to the constant reading that her parents, especially Katheryn, did with Gillis when she was a child deemed blind.

"In those days, there were no special classes...for visually handicapped children," she writes. "[On] weekends...I would go from one [parent] to the other for them to read to me until their voices gave out. Through this, I learned the listening and comprehension skills I would need the rest of my life."

All through junior high, high school, and college, says Gillis, "she [Katheryn] read to me before she went to work in the morning, after supper in the evening, and on weekends."

"Love alone awakens love," she adds, quoting Pearl S. Buck. "And my mother taught me about loving. She was incredible."

In Angels in the North Country: Profiles of the Givers, Receivers, and Supporters of a Rural, Volunteer Hospice, which she wrote in longhand and was typed by a high school student, Gillis sketches the patients and volunteers of the Littleton hospice, from a woman who "underwent ninety-some surgeries" to a hospice caregiver who herself survived breast cancer.

It was her mother's death that moved Gillis to start a hospice. In the summer of 1979, Katheryn moved from Keene to Littleton, where her daughter had taught high school English since 1969. Carol Anne was not able to drive, but Katheryn could, and the two women joyfully planned the things they would do together.

A year later, her mother was in excruciating pain, dying of colon cancer in Gillis's home.


Carol Ann and Katheryn

"To supplement the family income, she rented out rooms in our home; served three meals a day to 23 Royal Canadian mounted policemen; made her own bread and baked goods; made potted meat (similar to Spam) and sold it to grocery stores; had a garden; kept a hen and sold the eggs; and raised chickens and sold them. In spite of days filled with work, Mom and Dad still found time to have tea with me and my dolls and to read to me."

Angels in the North Country

"Aside from the wonderful people at North Country Home Health Agency, there was no organization I could turn to which would supplement what I could do and fill in what I couldn't," writes Gillis. "I was acutely aware of the things I could not do, and I was terrified I would let my mother down...I kept saying to anyone who would listen, 'I can't be the only one who needs help like this.'

"I was flailing around," she says, "trying to get help. I think if I had been able to see, they might've taught me how to give injections for pain, but I couldn't."

Gillis Wondering quoteAfter her mother died, Gillis continued to teach, but she was frightened without the bedrock of Katheryn's presence in her life. With retinitis pigmentosa, she explains, "you can lose your sight over time or right away. I was petrified. I would go to bed at night wondering if I would see in the morning."

At the suggestion of her cousin, Mildred Wolfe, Gillis took a leave of absence to enroll in the Greater Pittsburgh Guild for the Blind, where she learned how to read Braille, eat in public as a blind person, use "facial vision" (for example, sensing a door beside your cheek in the dark), and manage other aspects of living with complete blindness.

While there, Gillis enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh's master's program in counseling, with the goal of starting a hospice in Littleton. Thanks to Mildred's connections, she had a room in a college club within walking distance of her classes, and, for a year, huge canvas mail sacks were dumped weekly in the club's foyer: cassettes of textbooks on Freud, Jung, Piaget, etc., read by volunteers at Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic.

From 1983 through 1992, Gillis not only continued to teach at Littleton High School but also launched the Littleton hospice and a part-time therapy practice.

Gillis First Step quote"The first step I took was to offer an eight-week course on death and dying in the hopes of setting up a core of bereavement volunteers," Gillis explains. She attended meetings of the tumor clinic at the local hospital, and she got the word out about the hospice, giving talks to local organizations to raise money. "Anyone who invited me and could provide a ride to get me there had a willing and eager speaker," she says. In time she had people volunteering to be trained in hospice care.

Gillis relinquished the role of hospice director in 1988 but still works with clients and serves on the board of directors. She sees clients in her home or works with them on the phone, or volunteers drive her to patients' homes.

She retired from teaching in 1992, when she could no longer correct papers. She's also given up family counseling, since she's unable to see more than two people's faces at a time, but she's busy with her individual and couples practice. And there's her reading for the Friday Club.

She retired from teaching in 1992, when she could no longer correct papers. She's also given up family counseling, since she's unable to see more than two people's faces at a time, but she's busy with her individual and couples practice. And there's her reading for the Friday Club.

Chatting with a visitor in a room full of decorations, from the stained-glass sunflower on the wall to the six candles on top of the large TV, Gillis doesn't immediately appear to be blind. In fact, since she recently had cataract surgery, she can read from books rather than a closed-circuit TV. But her central vision is less than 20/200, the legal cutoff for blindness, and her peripheral vision is nil. Extend your arms in front of you with your hands at eye level and six inches apart, and stare at the space between them; you'll see your hands easily. Gillis can't see hers.

"There were educators who told my mother I would never graduate from high school," she said. "She didn't buy into that. She saw possibilities, and she enabled me to strive for them and reach them." Gillis was never excused for not doing well on a test.

"My mother could've made an invalid of me, but she didn't."

Katheryn went to work and brought up Gillis on her own in Keene after divorcing when her daughter was 11. "She would get up early before school and read to me. She would be sitting in this very chair, and I would be lying on the couch."

"When we had to read The Grapes of Wrath, I looked at the thickness of the book and thought, There's no way I'm gonna read that book! My mother read it to me in one weekend! She started on Friday night and read straight through Sunday – except for Saturday morning, when she worked."

Gillis could read, but it was a laborious process that often gave her a migraine, and Katheryn was constantly trying to "save" her daughter's eyes.

While Gillis was an undergraduate at Keene State, she and her mother, between the two of them, read all of her textbooks.

"When I started graduate school in 1968, I had a friend, Gerald Nicholson, in Manitoba, who read my textbooks on reel-to-reel tapes and mailed them to me," says Gillis, gratitude in her voice. "And he got his dad and another person to read books for me." When Gillis moved to Littleton to begin teaching English, she said, "My mother continued to read the books I was teaching and would send them to me on tapes.

"Days before her last surgery, Mom was still giving me the gift of love. Although weak from six surgeries followed by 23 radiation treatments, which made her very sick, she was, little by little, taping Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native and typing a copy of notes on the book for me. She was not able to finish."

Deborah Klenotic is assistant editor of Keene State Today.