CLEVELAND - Michael Gonzales can't stop smiling and can't say enough about the garden that he sees from the fifth-floor window of his room at Seidman Cancer Center, on the main campus of University Hospitals of Cleveland.
"It's just so beautiful," says the 37-year-old cancer center patient, who lives in Newbury Township. "It takes your mind off of everything else."
Gonzales is enthralled with the Mary and Al Schneider Healing Garden that abuts Seidman and is connected to the hospital at 11100 Euclid Ave. The garden is filled with well-thought-out elements that benefit the physical and emotional health of cancer patients and visiting family and friends.
The healing garden, which is about one-third of an acre, isn't visible from the street. A wall separates the setting from hectic Euclid Avenue. But the public, whether visiting Seidman or not, is welcome inside the garden, which is accessible from the intersection of Euclid and University Hospitals Drive. The garden entrance is on the east side of the driveway that leads up to the hospital's main doors.
"This is open to the community," says Terryl Koeth, a registered nurse and director of community and social programs at Seidman. "We would love to have people come in and feel the peace of this garden." It is open from 8 a.m. until dusk daily, year-round," she says.
The garden was designed by landscape architect Virginia Burt, whose company, Visionscapes, is in Burlington, Ontario. It's a gift from Cindy and Bob Schneider. In 2007, the couple donated $2.75 million for the garden. His parents both died of cancer. Bob Schneider is the former owner of Patio Enclosures.
Burt visited the garden recently to explain the sights, sounds, structures and textures of the setting, all of which have specific meaning.
The garden opens with a low, swinging Fractal Gate that combines openwork iron, acrylic colored glass and carved wood handles. The handles, carved by local sculptor Norbert Koehn, are stylized hearts, and the wood is meant to bring warmth to the touch as soon as you enter.
A granite labyrinth is the heart of the garden. The spiral path is the same design as the one built in Chartres, France, about 900 years ago, explains a garden brochure. Since at least 4,000 B.C., humans have walked labyrinths to find calm and peace, and connect with something larger than themselves.
The labyrinth has three focal points, says Burt, who also designed gardens for the Gathering Place in Beachwood and Community Health Partners in Elyria. Initiation is the first step. Journey represents the turns taken to reach the center. Illumination is what you reach at the center, and leave your cares there.
"It is proven that walking a labyrinth at any age lowers one's heart rate and blood pressure," says Burt. "You can walk the labyrinth with a prayer or a problem or with joy in your heart. Anything you wish. This is cross-cultural. It's the belief that there is something greater than we are, and this helps you tap into that."
A rose, the ancient symbol of enlightenment, is at the center of the labyrinth. Once walkers feel like they have resolved an issue, they retrace their steps outward.
Visitors can walk the labyrinth alone, or guided walks are available.
The path around the labyrinth has large sculptures that represent earth, air, fire and water.
"Fire" was inspired by lava Burt saw during a trip to Kauai, Hawaii.
"I wrote down an intention for the garden as a `place for inspiration, rejuvenation and loving,' " says Burt. She burned the piece of paper, leaving the edges. She traced the edges to make a 24-inch diameter template and cast that in bronze to make what look like rings of fire. Orange lighting symbolizes flames.
"Water" is a flat, shallow, dancing reflective pool that visitors can dip their toes in, and it's wheelchair accessible. It also gives off a mist, and there's another mister at the opening of the garden.
"Earth" is a 6-ton polished granite boulder, smooth to the touch and carved into a seat that's about the size of a love seat.
Wind and breezes stir the "Air" structure, a tall, colorful double helix of disks.
The garden was planned with input from cancer survivors, their families, staff, physicians, caregivers, volunteers and management. Among other suggestions, survivors and families said they wanted the garden to include a symbol of strength.
"People said they wanted to feel the close strength of rock," says Burt.
There are two granite seats, back to back, one in the sun and one in the shade. Other rocks are smooth enough on top to sit on.
Plantings, which are in the hundreds, are a blend of soft ground covers, bright flowers, ornamental grasses, shrubs and trees with unusual bark. About 75 percent of the plantings are native to this area, says Burt.
Special lighting draws the eye to landscapes and sculptures, and a rainbow of colors washes against the inside walls of the garden.
The path that wends around the labyrinth and through the garden includes bluestone slabs etched