Forest bathing and ocean gazing

How spending time outside helped me cope with the terrible reality of my future husband’s cancer diagnosis

When someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, your life grinds to a halt. In my case, it was my fiancé, Garrett. With the swiftness of a Maine storm, the skies darkened and we received the calamitous news. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, stage II, with tumors spread in a ghastly network through his chest.

I am a person who expects the worst—or so I thought. But as it turns out, there’s no way to anticipate the nasty curveballs of fate. Although Garrett was just 29, a healthy and active man with a ready smile and a passion for science, his body had somehow brewed up a disease, one I associated with people far older than myself. At 27, I never expected to be wheeling my fiancé around a hospital as he drowsily recovered from surgery. I never thought I’d spend months sitting in a chemotherapy ward, eating hospital food and trying to keep a bright disposition for the man I love whose veins were being pumped full of Superfund-orange colored chemicals.

I look back on that time—the entire year of 2015—and I recall two things with a clarity that is perhaps enhanced by the distance of a few short months. First, I remember the fear. For months, I was devoured by dread. Even though I viewed him as a superhuman hiker, an unparalleled athlete, and my very heart-center as unmovable as a mountain, Garrett was mortal. I could lose him.

The second thing I remember is how we fought that fear: by staying, throughout it all, completely ourselves. For us that meant spending time outdoors, laughing under a canopy of green, joking in the confines of a canoe and kissing on the beach.

Nature did not cure Garrett. Doctors did that. But nature helped to heal me, and it brought him solace during a difficult time. When things are hard, we both tend to head for the hills, literally. Our early courtship consisted of long walks in Cambridge, Mass., seeking green spaces, and impromptu trips to Walden Pond. He says he fell in love with me one day when I took off my shoes in the city so I could feel the rain on my bare feet. I fell in love with him one hand-picked flower at a time. (Garrett has a tendency to spot the most beautiful weeds and pluck them for me, delivering them to my hands wearing a broad smile. Once, when I asked why, he gave me the most beautiful compliment of my life: “You just remind me of flowers. And you deserve them all.”)

After we moved to Maine, we continued the little rituals that defined our early years as a couple. But here we had space to expand them, to truly embrace all that Mother Nature had created. And that didn’t stop when he got sick. Between chemotherapy visits, we hiked the midcoast mountains, staring in awe at the jewel-like islands strewn across the Atlantic. We spent hours sitting on the beach at Kettle Cove, watching the waves roll in and searching the sand for treasures. We canoed across the mirror-like waters of Sebago Lake in the spring, wondering at the silence that spread across the lake.

In between chemotherapy and radiation treatments, we even planned an ambitious vacation. Overnight, we drove the
16 hours up to Cape Breton Island, where we camped on a cliff overlooking the sea and watched bioluminescence light up the waters of the Atlantic. We watched a pod of whales move lazily through the ocean, majestic and regal. We hiked to waterfalls and at night, tired from the excursion and tanned by the late-summer sun, I grew dizzy with happiness as I stared at the stars. On that small Canadian island, I saw the Milky Way blazing through the sky, a magical pathway to otherworldly realms. I saw the Northern Lights cast a green glow upon the water, looking for all the world like the famed Emerald City of Oz. I cried that night, not from fear or anger as I had been, but from joy.

Nature, I found, can shake our minds clear of even the most terrible realities. Of course, I am not the first to discover the healing power of green spaces. Other cultures have words for this phenomenon. In Norway, they have Friluftsliv, which translates to “free air life” and defines a lifestyle spent breathing in the fjords and mountains. Germany has Waldeinsamkeit, a combination of Wald (woods) and Einsamkeit (solitude) that describes the feeling of wonder you get from being in nature. But my favorite comes from Japan: shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.”

Katy-Garrett-walk-backThere is no term for this in English, but I suppose we don’t need one. Whether we have the word for it, most of us living in Maine understand the power of spending time outside. It’s more than just a big, woodsy playground. It’s a place where we can heal our hurts and calm our anxieties. Like any good mother, Mother Nature offers a soothing balm when our tired hearts need it most.

And I, for one, will be forever grateful for that small miracle.

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