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My Place in the Family of Things

by Elisa GraydonCaregiverMarch 7, 2022View more posts from Elisa Graydon

My Place in the Family of Things: How Nature Helps Me Cope as a Caregiver.

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, 

the world offers itself to your imagination, 

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – 

over and over announcing your place 

in the family of things.” – Mary Oliver 

Walking on a trail in Massachusetts alone on a bright spring morning, I couldn’t breathe between tears. I passed couples and families enjoying each other’s company in the sun after the isolating pandemic winter we had all just been through. I was there to distract and calm myself down while I waited for my husband to call me from his oncology appointment. A few weeks before, Tom, my boyfriend, was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer and was about to start chemotherapy. Because of the pandemic, I was not allowed into his oncology appointments. I understood, but dropping him off at Dana Farber and then waiting for updates just added to the lack of control Tom and I were now feeling about our lives. After roaming around a grocery store next to Dana Farber for hours, I knew the next time I went with him for an appointment, I needed a plan. After a quick Google search, I found myself at Houghton Garden, a tiny natural garden hidden in a beautiful neighborhood. 

I walked onto the trail and took deep breaths of fresh air, closed my eyes and felt the warmth of the sun on my face, observing and grounding myself as much as I could. It wasn’t working. I felt so scattered; how could I focus on the present when the present was so awful? Presently, Tom was sitting in a doctor’s office while I was wandering around a park. I felt panic begin to set in like I was spinning around seeing everything and nothing all at once. Cancer, the park, the diluted conversations of people walking nearby, the doctor’s office. How are we going to do this? Why is this happening? What is going to happen? It just seemed like too much. I started to cry and gasp for air. 

I continued on the trail crying, everything a blur. All of a sudden, a feeling came over me where I felt both part of and in the presence of nature. A voice from within me said, “You and Tom. You are part of it all. It is okay.” It was a simple message but I felt reassured by it, not comforted but accepting. “Yes,” I thought, “It was true.” The feeling that I was both a part of and in the presence of nature suddenly made me feel less alone. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply and took long exhales. I could feel the warmth of the sun on my face. The sounds of the people around me blended in with the sound of the trees blowing lightly in the wind and some chirping birds. When I opened my eyes, I felt like I was finally able to breathe normally. I felt grounded again and ready to listen to the appointment. When I got back to my car, I listened to what the doctor had to say. The visit was a short one, and I picked up Tom and we quietly made our way back to Providence. Neither one of us had much to say. I wanted to tell him about my experience and the park, but I didn’t want to upset him. I just held his hand, hoping he wouldn’t feel so alone after a miserable day. 

I have been hiking on and off my whole life. I always enjoyed the outdoors and cherish anytime I get to spend an extended time outside, but since Tom’s diagnosis my connection with the outdoors has become deeper. I go outside to heal and connect, to feel part of the world. My work day is inside, and a lot of our time now is spent inside doctor’s offices and infusion centers, so taking and making the time to be outside has become a priority for me when I am able to prioritize myself. Most of the time I can get a walk or a hike in, but some weeks I just have to make plans and have them to look forward to. Sometimes when I am anxious or stressed, I have to resort to breathing techniques and grounding myself with the surroundings immediately in front of me. It is difficult for me to plan larger outdoor trips right now, but I am grateful to have many trails where I live. 

Later in 2021, in between rounds of chemotherapy, Tom and I were married outside on the banks of a lake in a park not far from our house, surrounded by a few friends and family. It was a park I walked often with Tom and our dog, my mother and friends. It never occured to me that I would get married there one day but feeling the undeniable slight chill of fall and watching the light on the water of the lake, it felt like this was the most obvious and beautiful place to be in that moment. 

In March, it will be a year since Tom was diagnosed with colon cancer. After sixteen rounds of treatment, he is responding well to chemotherapy and we are hoping he can have surgery soon. I still walk and hike almost every weekend. I still cry and get panic attacks. My now husband, Tom, gets sick from chemotherapy, and on infusion weeks I wonder how we can keep doing it all. Sometimes I can live with the unknown and sometimes it is unbearable. I have never had the same feeling that I did in the park that day, but I still have the same thought whenever I am in the woods or even just staring out at the snow falling from my window or the windows at the infusion wing at Dana Farber: I feel both in the presence of and part of nature. It isn’t necessarily a comforting feeling like someone holding your hand but a reassurance that I have “a place in the family of things.”

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