The Doc Project

How a Cape Breton beach brought two strangers together, just when they needed each other most

Beulah Chandler was on her favourite Cape Breton beach when she filmed the most beautiful thing: Duncan Gillis, a stranger, helping his ailing wife walk on the beach. Over 37,000 views later, their story is only beginning.

When Beulah Chandler saw Duncan Gillis help his ailing wife on the beach, she had to film it

Duncan Gillis and Beulah Chandler, meeting for the first time. (Emma Smith/CBC)
Listen29:54

This documentary first aired in April 2018.

by Emma Smith

For Duncan and Cathy Gillis, it was just a typical day at the beach. They had no idea they were internet stars in the making.

On August 28, 2017, the husband and wife from Port Hawkesbury, Cape Breton, were heading to their car after an afternoon at Government Wharf Beach.

They were unaware that only a few feet away, a woman was so moved by what she saw that she picked up her cellphone and started recording. 

The video, which was later posted to Facebook, captured Duncan patiently helping Cathy, who was wearing a wide-brimmed sun hat and clutching an oxygen tank.

While Cathy sat in a folding beach chair, Duncan carried a second chair about 10 steps ahead and set it down in the sand. Then, he walked back, took his wife's arm and led her slowly to the waiting chair.

Duncan went back to get the other chair, which he then placed a little further down the beach. He repeated this patient leapfrog until Cathy got to where she wanted to go.

When you love somebody, that's what you do.- Duncan Gillis

 "When she got sick, it was just the right thing to do," says Duncan.

Even when Cathy was so sick she needed an oxygen tank, she loved going to the beach. (Submitted by Duncan Gillis)

Cathy had a form of lung disease called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. But even as it became increasingly difficult for her to get around, she and Duncan kept going to the beach. 

The summer of 2017 was Cathy's last.

She died at home in March 2018.

Duncan and Cathy met in 1966 and got married three years later. (Emma Smith/CBC)

The roughly four-minute video would become one of the only mementos Duncan has of Cathy at the beach, one of her favourite places.

"She loved the calmness," says Duncan. "And she loved putting her feet in the water."

The video led to an unexpected friendship with the woman who recorded it, who has her own special connection to that beach.

Government Wharf Beach is one of five beaches in Port Hood, earning it the title of the beach capital of Cape Breton. (Submitted by Beulah Chandler)

Beulah Chandler uploaded the video to Facebook, and before long, it had more than 37,000 views.

She didn't know the couple, but in the video you can hear her whispering to her daughter to pay attention. "He's taking care of the love of his life," she says.

"Here he was slowing down and showing her kindness, like he didn't have a care in the world, like that was what he was created for, just to help her along," says Beulah, who lives in Port Hood, about a 40-minute drive from Duncan.

Beulah Chandler and her seven-year-old daughter were spending a day at Beulah's beach the day they saw Duncan Gillis. (Submitted by Beulah Chandler)

Beulah goes to that beach almost every day of the summer, but that day in August was special.

She was there to remember her son Joel on what would have been his 25th birthday.  

He died four years earlier when, on the way home from an evening at the beach, the small car he was in with six of his friends veered off the road and flipped over. 

Joel Chandler, 20, died in 2013 when the car he was in with his friends veered off the road. Two other young people also died. (Submitted by Beulah Chandler)

Beulah remembers the sound of sirens waking her that night.

She only got to see her son alive one more time, for a brief moment. 

"I remember pressing my face up against the window of the ambulance and we prayed, we prayed for Joel to have one more chance," says Beulah through tears. 

Joel died before reaching the hospital.

For Beulah, the beach is a place of comfort now that Joel is gone.

It's where he learned to swim in deep water, and it's where he'd impress his friends with his adventurous antics like driving dirt bikes into the water or doing back flips. It's where he spent the last day of his life.

Beulah and her husband Gary have nine kids. (Emma Smith/CBC)

"The beaches and the wharf are pretty special," says Beulah. 

When Beulah saw Duncan helping Cathy, she says she was reminded of the tiny moments we often miss. 

"Watching that was beautiful for us, and it turned out to be a blessing to him," Beulah says.

There's a lot worse things people could be watching on the internet than me helping my wife!- Duncan Gillis

Beulah never thought Duncan would see the video. 

But he did.

Duncan says it's been hard to get used to the quiet now that his wife of 48 years has passed away. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Duncan says some people ask if he's upset about what some might consider an invasion of privacy. But he says he doesn't mind.  

"I was surprised that I was videoed, but I'm not upset," says Duncan, "because there's a lot worse things people could be watching on that internet than me helping my wife!"

On March 26, 2018, just over two weeks after Cathy's death, the two Cape Bretoners met for the first time at Duncan's home.

Beulah and Duncan met for the first time in late March. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Beulah brought homemade biscuits and Duncan laid out an impressive lunch spread.

They spent a couple of hours sharing memories, and vowed to meet again. 

Beulah baked her special biscuits for the occasion. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Duncan says he's thankful to have the video of Cathy to return to, now that she's gone.

"I think it's going to remind me of all the good times Cathy and I had together," he says.  "I'll go back to that more than once in the next few years."

The video that Beulah captured that August day is one of the few mementos that Duncan has of his wife at the beach. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Listen to the documentary "Beulah's Beach" by clicking the Listen link at the top of this page. Or, download and subscribe to our podcast so you never miss a show.

Beulah's No-Fail Biscuit Recipe: "Geraldine's Biscuits"
Beulah's favourite biscuit recipe comes from her friend Geraldine MacInnis.  

5 cups flour
10 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar

Mix and make a well in centre, then add this mixture in with a fork:

1 1/4 cups milk
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup oil
2 eggs 

Don't overmix! Roll out on floured table 1/2 inch thick. Bake in a hot oven (425 degrees) for 10-12 minutes. Enjoy with a good cup of tea!


About the producer

Emma Smith

Emma Smith has been with CBC Nova Scotia since 2017. She's a graduate of UBC's Graduate School of Journalism and the former editor of a community newspaper on Nova Scotia's South Shore. You can follow her work at @emma_dsmith.

This documentary was edited by Acey Rowe.