The Meaning of The Hope Tree

The Hope Tree sculpture is steeped in symbolism. There are the 48 symbols of hope carved into its trunk. These are symbols from many different cultures and many different religions from around the world. We will explore those on the Symbols Page of this web site. But beyond those symbols, the very structure of the tree and the rocks from which it precariously grows have meaning.

From the very first sight of the sculpture as you enter the Martin O’Neil Cancer Center main doors, a story begins to unfold. There are many stages to accepting cancer. Everything about the sculpture validates and honors that journey. As you enter the building and see the sculpture in the center of the zen-like lobby – glowing from the huge barrel skylight above it, a glass wall of water streaming down behind it – it is deceptively small. You can only see a narrow portion of the base rocks, its twisting trunk and gleaming copper-leafed canopy. Similar to how you enter the Cancer Center for the first time – not knowing what lies ahead – the sculpture eases you into the growing reality of cancer.

From this view, the rocks that support the tree are fairly smooth and low to the ground. The trunk forms a burly attachment at the base that quickly begins to widen and thicken away from us in both directions. Life is still normal. All the various pieces and parts of your existence are still under relative control. But on the left side of this burly trunk attachment there appears a small bump – I call it my “wooptie-do.” This represents that first phone call saying “it’s nothing to worry about, but we just need one more mammogram view,” or, “the blood test looks fine except for one small area – let’s recheck it.” Our interest is peaked, but we are not yet alarmed.

Notice here that the sculpture begins to climb in both directions. The rocks get craggier, the pitch gradually gets more extreme, the connection point between tree and rocks gets thicker and more vigorous. There is a split in the rocks on the left side from which – once crossed – there is no return. Life as you have know it will never be the same again. Tree roots begin to appear and clutch the rocks for purchase. The left side of the tree climbs more slowly while the right side climbs quickly to an impasse. This is the time in your cancer journey when reality starts to set in. Not only do you actually have cancer, but you need to do something about it – and quickly. The world as you have known it is shifting beneath your feet.

You have now rounded the side of the sculpture and see how very large it is – its width, girth and protective canopy not seen to its full extent until now. The rocks on both sides of the tree become a maze of craggy caverns and caves to places unknown – dark and foreboding. The roots are desperate in their attempt to cling to something solid. Many hundreds of copper leaves shimmer above your head – poised to shield you from a storm.

As you complete the turn at the end of the sculpture it is clear that you are in the thick of reality now: You are deeply into the cancer experience. Maybe you can’t work. Your kids are likely scared to death. You may lose your home. You and your spouse are avoiding eye contact. You feel so sick. You are terrified that this might be it. But there above all this chaotic rock – your real life cancer experience in full bloom – a ledge begins to appear. A nest, if you will. And in this nest is a lamb. A very serene, sleeping lamb. What on earth is she doing there? Her name is Loralie and she is the patient.

Against all odds, she has found this place of peace and surrender amid all the chaos and uncertainty. The nest she rests upon was built by all of those people who support her and wish her well: family, doctors, nurses, scientists, chaplains, rabbis, priests, neighbors, friends, strangers – everyone who sends a card, leaves a voice mail, is kind and patient or twitters well wishes and concern. This nest is made from a neighbor’s casserole, flowers, hats to cover her bald head, massages for her aching bones – everything that she herself does and others do to encourage her to hang on. Just hang on.

Her serene expression comes from surrender. Not the kind of surrender that is giving up or defeated. No, this is the kind of surrender that comes from trust. Trusting in what the universe has in store for her – soaking up all the love, knowledge, skill, caring and good thoughts that surround her. The meaning of the symbols carved into the tree swirl around her head as she dreams of a healthy future.

She sleeps under a canopy of shining copper leaves. Upon a closer look, we see that the leaves are half spiral and half feather. This design is in homage to the ethereal nature of hope. We can’t see it, touch it or smell it – but we all certainly know when we have it. The spiral is one the earth’s most ancient symbols found in cultures all across the globe as an early symbol for an unknown but felt spiritual source. The feather symbolizes how hope can make us soar to the heavens when it takes wing. Most leaves on real trees bend and droop so that they may more easily absorb the rays of the sun and channel water to its far reaching roots. But not these babies! They are reaching for the sky. They want nourishment from a higher plane. They are reaching for the stars as we all do when we are need of hope.

Inch by inch, we reach the stars.

Food For Thought

One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn't do.

- by Henry Ford

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Hope Tree Facts

Height: 13 Feet
Length: 13 Feet
Width: 8 Feet
Number of Symbols: 48
Number of Leaves: 624
Start to Finish Process: 447 days
Fabrication Manhours: 14,775
Steel: 1,800 lbs
Clay: 1,000 lbs
Metal Cladding: 300 lbs
Copper Leaves: 208 lbs
Total Estimated Weight: 3,310 lbs
Floor Anchor Bolts: 20
Copper Wire: 1,286 Feet
Tree Traveled: 1,242 miles
Travel Time: 29 hours 44 minutes
Installation Time: 12 days
Project Team Members: 68