The End of an Era

This marked the last day of my time in the coronary care unit. I leave with mixed feelings – mainly pure exhaustion and relief. At the end of a month in an intensive care unit, my emotional and physical strength are completely drained. I spend 28 days pouring every ounce of energy into these patients, their care – and suddenly, after what seems like an endless string of sleepless days and nights which blend together, the month is finished. I leave behind patients who will linger in my thoughts for some time.

Today my sentiments correlate well with a photograph I took on a foggy day along Pebble Beach Drive of the Lone Cypress. Solitude and a tinge of sadness, not for my departure but for my patients. It is nice to be in a quiet place after nights of beeping monitors, ear-piercing phone rings, and intrusive pager melodies. It is a relief to be removed from those circular intensive care units, with glass doors lining the circumference – all too stark a window into every breath, into every moment of my patients’ lives. Sometimes I feel as though I am in the center of a spinning merry-go-round, walking, running in one direction and then another. But the spinning sensation is all from my movement. The patients are still.

And this merry-go-round with its glass circumference is a precipice – surrounding us are the sheer cliffs which separate life from death and which plunge into the ocean’s depths. We build this structure, a well-functioning machine with its rhythm and noises, powered by our own incessant movement. But the structure is more fragile than it seems – the glass ready to shatter and the moving parts on the brink of halting. Even in the best intensive care units in the United States of America, we are not invincible.

R. Fitch made the first newspaper reference to the Monterey Cypress on January 19, 1889. “Rounding a short curve on the beach, we approach Cypress Point, the boldest headland on the peninsula of Monterey. Down almost to the water grows the cypress, and on the extreme point a solitary tree has sunk its roots in the crevices of the wave-washed rock, and defies the battle of the elements that rage about it during the storms of winter.”

The lone cypress tree, springing from rock, has withstood the test of time – it has withstood the barrage of the elements for over 200 years, including wind gusts up to sixty or seventy miles per hour. It has survived. But the tree has roots which date back even further. In Greek mythology, the cypress tree was named for Cyparissus, a youth from the island of Cea, son of Telephus who was loved by Apollo. He mistakenly killed his favorite stag. Overcome with grief, he metamorphosed into a cypress. As a result, the Cupressus sempervirens, or cypress tree, is the principal cemetery tree both in the Western and Muslim worlds. Below is an excerpt from Metamorphoses.

Ovid, Metamorphoses 10. 106 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :

“In all the throng the cone-shaped cypress stood; a tree now, it was changed from a dear youth loved by the god who strings the lyre and bow [i.e. Apollon]. For there was at one time, a mighty stag held sacred by those nymphs who haunt the fields Carthaean [i.e. on the island of Keos]. His great antlers spread so wide, they gave an ample shade to his own head. Those antlers shone with gold: from his smooth throat a necklace, studded with a wealth of gems, hung down to his strong shoulders–beautiful. A silver boss, fastened with little thongs, played on his forehead, worn there from his birth; and pendants from both ears, of gleaming pearls, adorned his hollow temples. Free of fear, and now no longer shy, frequenting homes of men he knew, he offered his soft neck even to strangers for their petting hands. But more than by all others, he was loved by you, O Cyparissus, fairest youth of all the lads of Cea. It was you who led the pet stag to fresh pasturage, and to the waters of the clearest spring. Sometimes you wove bright garlands for his horns, and sometimes, like a horseman on his back, now here now there, you guided his soft mouth with purple reins.

It was upon a summer day, at high noon when the [summertime constellation] Crab, of spreading claws, loving the sea-shore, almost burnt beneath the sun’s hot burning rays; and the pet stag was then reclining on the grassy earth and, wearied of all action, found relief under the cool shade of the forest trees; that as he lay there Cyparissus pierced him with a javelin: and although it was quite accidental, when the shocked youth saw his loved stag dying from the cruel wound he could not bear it, and resolved on death. What did not Phoebus say to comfort him? He cautioned him to hold his grief in check, consistent with the cause. But still the lad lamented, and with groans implored the Gods that he might mourn forever. His life force exhausted by long weeping, now his limbs began to take a green tint, and his hair, which overhung his snow-white brow, turned up into a bristling crest; and he became a stiff tree with a slender top and pointed up to the starry heavens. And the God, groaning with sorrow, said; `You shall be mourned sincerely by me, surely as you mourn for others, and forever you shall stand in grief, where others grieve.”

And so the lone cypress withstands the elements for centuries. It survives. It prevails. But the tree itself is a symbol of death and mourning, associated with the story of a young boy overwhelmed by grief and loss. Fragility lies beneath its outward resilience. The line between life and death is finer than we imagine.

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