St. Augustine said, “Faith has two beautiful daughters. They are named courage – to speak of things as they are – and hope, to see the way forward by which they may be changed.”
As a young girl in northern Wisconsin, Terri Gilliland lived a near idyllic life with her four siblings and outdoorsy parents. Carefree days playing tag, kickball and jump rope comprised her afterschool and summer activities. Vacations consisted of camping, canoeing and hiking, but no matter the time of year, Sundays were set aside for Mass, family dinners, visiting relatives and fair weather picnics.
Gilliland, 49, naturally assumed this trend would continue after her marriage to Tracy, 28 years ago. A proud mother, she enjoyed watching her three children, Tiffany, TJ and Stacy grow and thrive into their teenage years, but about 10 years ago, keeping watch over her brood became more difficult.
Gradually, the faces of Tracy and her children began to blur; she had trouble driving at night, and her eyes became sensitive to bright lights. As Gilliland struggled to navigate in crowded and unfamiliar places, an unfamiliar feeling of terror overwhelmed her. A diagnosis of Retinitis Pigmentosa confirmed her worst fears; her vision was slowly deteriorating. The illness began by affecting her peripheral vision and would slowly progress toward the center of the visual field.
Dealing with the loss of her sight was difficult, but her husband’s near fatal motorcycle accident, and 16 year-old TJ’s diagnosis of brain cancer brought her to her knees.
“My husband was hit by a drunk driver and suffered traumatic brain injury, which altered his personality,” she said. “And TJ had a brain surgery and a series of chemotherapy and radiation treatments – but thankfully, both are stable now.”
For 10 years, Gilliland struggled with her blindness, her husband’s injuries, TJ’s recovery, while trying to be a loving mother to Tiffany and Stacy, and wondering at the same time why God allowed such tragedy to happen.
“I remember one day when I was at my wits’ end,” explained Gilliland. “My husband was clinging to life and I was praying he would make it. He was covered in stitches, had a swollen head, his face was crushed in and he had casts on his body. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Methodically, she dug into her handbag, searching for a lifeline of some sort, and her fingers grazed a small bottle of holy water from the Vatican, given to her by a close friend.
“I opened the bottle and dipped the water into my hands and began making the sign of the cross on his head, his chin and all over the parts of his body that were injured,” Gilliland said. “Exhausted, I put my head down and for the first time I felt a sense of peace. In a few minutes, I looked up at him and with my limited vision I could see lights crisscrossing through his
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Name: Terri Gilliland
(Submitted photo courtesy Terri Gilliland)
body from every part that I touched. It was very powerful, and at that moment, I knew he wasn’t going to die.”
For months, Gilliland tended to her husband and children as if she were wandering through a craggy mountain in a thick fog. Without her faith, family, friends and members of her parish, St. Peter in Kenosha, she would have given up.
“There are days when I don’t know what my kids ate, how they ate and how I got to and from the hospital,” she admitted. “I could not see out of this fog, but all of these people carried me and kept me focused. I am a very emotional person, was trying to hold it all together, and did a lot of praying.”
While not all of Gilliland’s prayers were answered, she accepts that God has a reason and a purpose for everything that happens. Accepting the unexplainable allowed a sense of humor to blossom in dealing with the not-so-easy answers.
“I was really praying that my husband would not lose his vision, but he did lose it permanently in one of his eyes,” she said. “So I was thinking that, ‘OK, when we tell our kids that we have our eye on you,’ we mean it literally because we only have one eye between us.”
She befriended Ed Groelle, the driver who took her to work as a state rehabilitation specialist associate for the blind and visually impaired, and shared her story and struggles.
“We talked all the time, and Ed convinced me to write a book about my experiences,” she said. “I kept telling him that no one cares about my life because everyone has trials and challenges. But he told me that I was still standing, and smiling and happy with my life and that it doesn’t happen with everyone who is faced with the things we have.”
Gilliland recorded her stories and Groelle formed them into a manuscript. Her story, “In a Moment” was recently published and is available on Amazon, through Sharper Vision Store, Wisconsin Council for the Blind and Carolyn’s Coffee Shop in Kenosha.
“It caused me to dig really deep for two years,” she said. “And in that two-year period we have 60,000 words, I cried 600,000 tears and 60 pounds later, I am a new woman. This was very cathartic for me and I finally got to empty all that I was holding inside me.”
A deeply personal account of Gilliland’s struggles, the changes in her marriage, the effects of the cancer on her son and her other two children gives hope to others going through tumultuous trials.
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Terri Gilliland is available for
“In a Moment”
She has also published two
“When some read this book, they say how personal it is, and wonder how my family feels about my sharing these moments with the world,” she said. “But they were all on board and I think it is important to tell people that we all have moments in life that stop us in our tracks and those moments turn us off the path we are on and define who we are and how we are to become. Every moment of every day there is someone out there crying and bleeding and filled with despair, and at that same moment, there is someone singing, laughing and filled with joy. They all balance the moments of life.”
In addition to her work with the state, Gilliland speaks to groups on overcoming challenges, relating to those with disabilities, and being accepting of any adversity. She remains active in her parish, serving on the parish council, in adult formation and as a group leader for the Renew Faith sharing group.
“I never thought I would get through something like this, but I think that everything that happened, had to happen for me to get to this moment,” she said. “I have learned so much about myself, about others and despite my limitations want to give back to my community, to my parish and my family.”