Fall comes early in Asheville, North Carolina. The air is chilly when I get out of the car at the cemetery to visit the grave. I think of winter coming, of Christmas, of this writer’s most famous work. I take a picture, marveling at the coins spread over the gravestone. As I turn to go, a frigid wind gusts, scuttling leaves over the ground and across the driveway.
Leaves . . . I remember that story.
O. Henry’s headstone is covered in coins, mostly pennies, which usually add up to $1.87 – the amount of money that Jim and Della had at Christmastime in his famous short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” This shortage of money is why Jim sold his gold pocket watch to buy combs for Della’s beautiful hair, and why Della cut and sold her hair to buy a platinum fob chain for Jim’s prized watch. Their sacrificial love for one another has made the story an enduring classic.
There is another story of O. Henry’s that I love almost as well.
I remembered it as I planned to write “Oh, Henry,” yesterday’s post about my son’s dog. I should write about O. Henry next, I smiled to myself. A little word play with the titles. How enticing.
That’s when I thought about the fallen leaves blowing over the writer’s grave.
I scrounged up my old paperback copy of O. Henry’s short stories and reread “The Last Leaf.”
In this tale, two young artists live in a three-story Greenwich Village building. One of them becomes sick with pneumonia. She watches the leaves dropping from an ivy vine against the wall just outside of her window, convinced that she will die when the last leaf falls. To her astonishment, the last leaf hangs on through high wind and rain. To make a short story shorter, the leaf remains because an old artist in the building crawled up a ladder in the dark of a raw November night and painted it on the wall with the vine. The girl begins to recover and the old man, Behrman, dies of the pneumonia he catches from being out in the weather while painting that night.
The old artist had always wanted to paint a masterpiece and never pulled it off – but the last lines of the story have the roommate telling the recovering girl about the leaf: “Didn’t you wonder why it never fluttered when the wind blew? Ah, darling, it’s Berhman’s masterpiece – he painted it there the night the last leaf fell.”
Self-sacrificial love at work again – but there’s more to it.
That leaf symbolized hope, sparking the desire to strive, to overcome. The old artist’s small gesture inspired the young artist to keep living.
This leaves me thinking, in the course of our days as teachers, as writers: Are we not the artists who paint the pictures of possibility, of hope, in the minds of others? Do we spark in others a desire to strive, to reach for what’s beyond their grasp, or to hang on only long enough until this, too, shall pass?
Our masterpieces may never be world-famous; they may be as simple as knowing the right word, the right idea, the right vision, the right story, and sharing it when it is most needed. Inspiration leaps from one heart to another, creating something to hang onto, outlasting high winds and rain. We may never see the full effect of our work, but that’s all right.
We paint the leaves where we can.
I close my old paperback book.
O. Henry, I am so thankful you were here.