There’s a softness to the early morning on the East End, a fragile, tentative first light. Some days dawn seeps in, imperceptibly, sketching a palette of blush and rose, muted pastels woven with strands of blue and gray; other days it is instantaneous, a neon pink and orange fan suddenly snapped open.
My sunrise walks around the loop at Maidstone Park by Gardiner’s Bay began as a quiet time for reflection, for the weighing of pros and cons. But as the months and seasons passed, they became a time for bearing witness to the incredible beauty and tenacity of the natural world. But more than anything, the walks became an anchor that kept me tethered to life.
I started walking in the fall, and by late winter there was a shift in the cadence of nature. Silence gave way to tentative chirps, sporadic at first, until one day there was a swell of birdsong, a chorus of delight at spring’s debut. Seemingly overnight, cocoons materialized on bare bushes. Buds soon appeared and shiny green leaves unfolded. Caterpillars escaped the clutches of their silky tombs and began their relentless leaf munching. Those that tried to make their way to the other side of the road often met an untimely demise, ground into the asphalt like an art installation — the boulevard of broken dreams.
Flowers that looked like mini lavender suns surrounded by a corona of spiky rays lined the roadway, while small white blooms mingled with sprays of delicate indigo petals. Lush bouquets of oversize, velvety leaves grew nearby, a lone shoot sprouting from the center and rocketing skyward. What looked like a corn cob emerged at the top of the stalk, and row upon row of tiny yellow flowers blossomed.
Sweet fragrances floated in the air as deer nibbled the scrub brush of the dunes. Rabbits froze when I approached, then bounced away, cottontails ricocheting like frenetic pinballs. Ospreys patrolled the skies at dizzying heights, ready to swoop down should a meal present itself.
The rhythm of the natural world can be drowned out by the minutiae of everyday concerns — the appointments, phone calls, shopping lists, and on and on — but it’s the rhythm of the natural world that keeps us grounded, and what we need most in desperate times.
That’s what I came to understand the spring I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. Shock quickly gave way to the reality of what lay ahead — an operation, six months of chemotherapy, and two months of radiation. After surgery and several weeks of debilitating chemo that left me flat on my back the next day, every bone in my body aching, I realized I had other sessions that were equally as important — the walks I took around Maidstone Park, where nature’s vibrance filled me with resilience and determination.
And so I kept walking, however slowly. On dowdy days when nature couldn’t seem to muster the energy to get out of bed (I knew what that felt like), it was as if a shroud had been pulled over the brooding bay, the water a slate gray, seamlessly melding into the cold steel of the sky. Other times I was treated to a dazzling patchwork of cerulean and green mixed with shades of lapis lazuli, small waves cresting white in the distance.
Misty days would reveal gossamer webs spun in the grass and draped in bushes, rendered visible by the heavy morning dew. I came to think of them as fairy beds that got rolled up after dawn. Somehow it became easier to set store in childlike things, maybe because I’d throw in my lot with the “I’ve just got to believe and it will come true” camp.
Several months into a treatment schedule that kept me isolated, I needed to see crowds of people and be reminded that there was still a normal world out there, so my husband and I drove to Montauk. Everyone was in T-shirts, shorts, bathing suits, and cover-ups. Except for me. In jeans, long sleeves, and a sweatshirt, I still felt cold, a side effect of the chemotherapy. Walking along the shops at Gosman’s, I couldn’t help but notice that when people glanced in my direction, there was a brief deer-in-the-headlights look, and then their eyes quickly darted away.
I asked my husband, Do I really look that bad? He hesitated. “I think it’s because you look like you’re in pain. You walk kind of hunched over and slow, and your breathing is labored.”
He was right. I walked, but haltingly, and stopped often to catch my breath. I remember thinking, how appropriate, I am literally like a fish that has been thrown on the dock, gasping for breath. It made me so acutely aware of how hard it can be just to survive.
After that, when I would see the remains of a squirrel on my walk, or the battered carcass of a rabbit, I would fight not to burst into tears. Once you know what it is to truly struggle for life day after day, you can no longer thoughtlessly shrug off the loss of it.
As the seasons changed, the one constant was the rejuvenating effects of nature. Mornings grew hotter and more humid, parched grass cracked under foot, and the salt water left its trace mineral on lips, skin, and hair. Fall blew in with a cool, briny scent that demanded deep breaths, bracing yet relaxing. The gentle music of waves washing back into the bay over smooth stones was a soundtrack I grew to love.
After leaves blushed and dropped away, winter approached stealthily, falling snow blanketing yellowed grasses and barren bushes. The sky, striated with cobalt, aqua, and teal, could bring tears to my eyes, whether from the cold or the beauty, I cannot say. On days when hazy sun emerged briefly through the clouds, I liked to think it was hope shining through.
All this from a small stretch of land nestled in the shelter of a bay.
And through it all, the recognition that even in the depths of winter, life still lurks, underground, or within dormant seeds thrown down in another time. After lying low through the season’s onslaught, a scouting party is sent out, a patch of greening grass here, a vine inching upward there.
I took my cue from nature, hunkered down, waited it out, and slowly the days got longer, birds timidly chirped, the sun’s caress warmed again, and life welcomed me back into the fold.
Carol Deistler, who lives in Springs, is at work on a collection of short stories. She volunteers with the Ellen Hermanson Foundation, which serves breast cancer patients on the East End.