The Last Leaf, by O Henry
The time: November, eighteenth century. The place: Greenwich Village, New York. The people: struggling, low-income artists. The characters: Sue, Johnsy (Joanna), and Behrman. The problem: pneumonia.
Sadly, in those days, pneumonia made its way through Greenwich Village, and it entered Sue and Johnsy’s art studio. Pneumonia had no preference, and it came to Johnsy. One morning, the doctor visited and then invited Sue into the narrow hallway outside Johnsy’s room.
He explained that Johnsy had only one chance in ten of surviving. Not that she would certainly die of the illness, but she had lost her will to live. Johnsy could beat pneumonia, but she lacked the desire. The doctor asked Sue if Johnsy had something on her mind that might inspire an aspiration to live.
Sue told the doctor about Johnsy’s hope of someday painting the Bay of Naples. “Paint? No!” Johnsy needed something to occupy her mind – like a man. But Johnsy had no such hope.
With that dismal answer, the doctor left.
Sue carried her drawing board into Johnsy’s room to be near and watch over her. As Sue sketched an elegant pair of horseshow riding trousers, she heard Johnsy counting backward, “Twelve,” and then a little later, “eleven” and then “ten.” Why was Johnsy counting backward? Sue asked about the regressive counting.
Johnsy peered out the window and Sue’s eyes followed. Nothing to see, except the adjacent building's brick wall, which sat only twenty feet away. What was Johnsy counting?
“Six,” Johnsy whispered. Then, “Five.” In a weak voice, Johnsy explained that the ivy vine clasping the brick wall was dropping its leaves. Only three days ago, there were one-hundred leaves on the vine, but now – five. When the last leaf falls, so must she. She would die.
The absurdity of it all! She had never heard such nonsense. Sue encouraged Johnsy to eat more broth, but she continued gazing out her window, “Four.” Another leaf had fallen.
Darkness was setting in, and what bothered Johnsy the most was that nighttime might arrive before the last leaf fell. She wouldn’t see the wall until morning. Death grew nearer as she awaited that last leaf.
Sue wanted to pull the window shade, but she needed the light of day, and she refused to leave the room for more than a few minutes. She encouraged Johnsy to sleep.
Sue left the room to seek Old Behrman, a painter that lived below the two ladies on the ground floor. Sixtyish and wearing a Michael Angelo beard, Behrman was an artist, that over the past forty years, had never painted his masterpiece; but then too, he drank gin excessively. Sue needed old Behrman as a model for her drawing, and thus, fetched him up to Johnsy’s room.
She told him the story of her roommate’s foolishness. He too thought nonsense of it, thinking it was the fever that had given her such thoughts.
When they entered the room, Johnsy was sleeping. Sue pulled the window shade, and the two of them left for another room. Composing her artwork, Sue and Behrman observed the vine on the opposite brick wall; the same wall Johnsy waited for the last leaf to fall. They watched as a cold November rain mingled with falling snow outside.
Sue awoke early the next morning after only an hour of sleep and found Johnsy glaring at the green window shade that blocked her view. “Raise it,” she commanded.
Sue reluctantly submitted.
Hanging onto the vine, a lone leaf, dark green in color and yellowing with decay near its edges, clung tightly. Despite the beating rain and gusting wind, that lone leaf held fast – unmoved by the elements.
Johnsy gazed and waited for it to fall. It wouldn't be very long. When it fell, she would fall also. The thought of death possessed Johnsy. She was ready. She waited, but as the day drew to a close, that one leaf clung firmly to the vine.
When Sue raised the shade the next morning, the leaf still adhered to the wall. It was stalwart: unmovable.
Later that day, Johnsy told Sue of her aspirations to paint the Bay of Naples.
When the doctor arrived, Sue excitedly told him of Johnsy’s change of heart – of her will to paint.
As the doctor prepared to depart, he told Sue of another patient. Old Behrman, in the apartment below, had pneumonia.
The next day, the doctor returned and told Sue that Johnsy was out of danger. She would recover, but not so for Behrman. They were transporting him to the hospital that very afternoon, and he would not return. He died later that day.
When Sue went into Johnsy’s room, she told her about Behrman. The building's janitor found Behrman two days ago, and his clothes were soaked and icy cold. Everyone wondered why he had been out that night and where he went. They found a lantern, brushes, and a palette with green paint, yellow paint, and a mixture of other colors.
Johnsy turned her head to look out the window and saw the leaf on the brick wall, the last leaf, the leaf that never fell to the ground. Johnsy understood why the leaf had never fluttered in the wind. It was Behrman’s masterpiece.
Story adaptation, The Last Leaf, shortened from the original author: O. Henry (1862-1910).
All of us need a “last leaf” – something we hold on to in times of despair. The Last Leaf is a story of hope. While Johnsy wanted to die when that last leaf fell, Behrman provided hope by making certain that last leaf would never drop. It remained on the wall no matter what happened with the wind, rain, and snow. That last leaf gave Johnsy hope.
None of us can live without hope. We cling to the hope of things on earth, things that make life worthwhile. The hope of a smile on our child's face. The hope of a hug or term of endearment from our loved one. The hope of visiting friends or family. The hope of a good night's rest. The hope of better health, or the hope of a beautiful sunrise.
We each find hope in different things. Some are more physical in nature, others are dreams, and others are spiritual. Whatever gives us hope also inspires us to live better lives.
Eventually, however, earthly hope withers and fades as leaves on a vine. Someday, when we face death's door, we’ll turn our eyes to what comes next. Many believe life continues after death: reincarnation as another person or animal, or eternity in either heaven or hell. As Christians, we place our hope in Jesus, who gives us ultimate hope of eternal life in heaven with Him, hope far beyond this life.
A new year
God repeatedly gives us chances to start again. Every day is a gift from God to begin anew, but God also gives us something that comes once annually: the hope that comes with the start of a new year.
What will 2021 bring us? Only God knows, but we look forward to it. We anticipate it. Do you place hope in daily, weekly, monthly, and annual objectives? Maybe your hope includes people or events far into the future – years from now. Either way, those are all hopes of things in the near-term. While we need earthly hope, let's remember not to place too much emphasis on it. Instead, let's focus on eternal hope. Let's set our focus on God and the hope only He can give that satisfies like no other.
In this New Year, may . . .
24 "The LORD bless you
and keep you;
25 the LORD make his face shine upon you
and be gracious to you;
26 the LORD turn his face toward you
and give you peace."
- Numbers 6:24-26 (NIV)
Love you & God Bless,