The Last Leaf On Wendover Circle
Ever since I read it as an adolescent, O.Henry’s “The Last Leaf” has been one of my favorite short stories. The 1907 tale is one of his best and it has been anthologized and adapted to stage and film numerous times. For the uninitiated, here’s a summary:
In turn-of-the-century Greenwich Village a young woman artist lies bedridden, a victim of some unnamed disease. Her only view through the window near her bed is of a vine growing on the adjacent building. As the cold weather sets in, the vine starts to lose its leaves, and as it does so, her health worsens by the day. She becomes convinced that when the last leaf falls from the vine she will die.
She has a friend and neighbor, an elderly fellow painter who comes to visit regularly. He’s widely regarded as a failure because no one can relate to his modern, unrealistic canvasses.
When the young woman’s fever intensifies, the doctor is called in. The old painter hears the prognosis of the doctor who claims that if his friend can make it through the night, her fever will break and she will survive her illness. The problem is, there’s a big storm brewing and the chance of the final few leaves remaining on the vine until morning is slim.
That night the storm indeed hits and when morning comes the young woman opens her eyes to see a lone, perfect leaf clinging to the vine. She is buoyed by the sight and rallies to beat the fever.
And here’s where the classic O.Henry twist comes in. As it turns out, the perfect leaf was painted by her artist friend, the one ridiculed for not being able to paint anything realistic. In the middle of the night he’d braved the storm to help his friend, and subsequently dies of pneumonia for his trouble. Well.
Some years after reading the “The Last Leaf” there was an incident in our suburban neighborhood which echoed O.Henry’s story. It involved the Naples family, who lived two doors down from us. George “Knobby” Naples, the head of the household, was a friendly, gentle giant of a guy. He had contracted cancer and was living out his last days at home, where, from his bedroom, he could look out onto a pretty, mid-sized elm tree in his front yard. With fall came the usual palate of yellows and golds, while George’s tree assumed a deep barn red color. Then, as winter set in, all the trees in the neighborhood gradually lost their foliage—every tree except George’s, that is. The tree outside of George’s window maintained its corona of red, not dropping a leaf.
Before too long, George Naples succumbed to his disease. The neighbors all attended the funeral—George was well-liked—and when they got back to Wendover Circle they found a surprise. All the leaves on George’s tree, intact only that morning, were scattered on the ground.
Coincidence? Maybe. Or was it an inter-species mitzvah, a stubborn elm defying nature to give a dying man a hint of beauty?