On this the first day of the autumnal equinox, it seems the right time to reprint this post, first published in October, 2019.
When I was a young teenager, around the ages of 13 and 14, I was enamored of the stories of O’Henry. I thrilled to the surprise endings, and, being of an emotional age group, I loved the almost sappy sentimentality of many of the stories, as well as the rollicking humor. No matter how badgered and belittled O’Henry’s stories were and often still are by literary critics (all of whom probably have some type of stick up their butts), I enjoy these rare little gems to this day. If I could find somewhere a book containing all 600-some of O’Henry’s short stories, I wouldn’t jib for a minute at the cost; I’d purchase it immediately. For years I’ve found that, when my world seems dreary to the point of misery and difficult beyond bearing, I can turn to the pages of my old O’Henry books and escape to that world of 100 years ago: to love and laughter and surprise. Each year on Christmas eve, I re-read The Gift of the Magi, always feeling my throat tighten and tears sparkling behind my eyes as I reach the well-known ending.
But love The Gift of the Magi as I most certainly do, one of my favorite O’Henry stories is one less well known: The Last Leaf. If you have never read it, then I will not give away the ending; you must find it on-line somewhere and read it for yourself. Suffice it to say, though, that I have thought of that story many times in the 50-odd years since I first read it—thought of it, and of the lessons it taught my young self about surrender and survival, courage and compassion, true talent and recognition, ultimate sacrifice, and genuine acts of love. But The Last Leaf wasn’t really on my mind a few weeks ago as I trotted out my front door to wander down the drive and pick up my mail from the box. I didn’t really get very far on my mission, for as I stepped down from the porch to the walk, I glanced at the ground and saw a single fallen autumn leaf.
It was astonishingly beautiful. It could not have fallen from any of the nearby trees, all of which are soft maples, so it had to have been swept there on the wind—swept to just that perfect, bare patch of earth where I would glance down and see it.
I stooped and picked up the leaf, turning it gently in my hands, holding it to the soft and fading afternoon light. Had I been a Millennial, I suppose I would have just reached for my phone and snapped a photo of the leaf, posted it to various social media and picture sites, and gone on my merry way. But a Millennial I am not; I stopped for the leaf. I picked it up and held it and admired it—communed with it, if you will. I don’t know how long I stood there, enjoying its delicate beauty and amazed by the fact that it had lain there, waiting for me, but I do know that for as long as I stood there, holding that leaf, wondering over its brilliant colors and tracing the tiny veins with my finger—for those moments, I was mindful. Truly mindful. My last leaf became a meditation of sorts.
Eventually, I continued on my way down the drive to pick up my mail…but I did not let go of my leaf. I carried it with me, brought it into my house, and finally photographed it, so that I would have not just a reminder of its beauty, but of those few moments when the world slipped away and I became genuinely one with the Spirit of Nature.
It was then that I recalled the O’Henry story The Last Leaf, and considered that this little gift from the gods and goddesses of Autumn had waited there to teach me a lesson that I–that we all–too often forget: to stop. To stop for just one moment, and be mindful. To notice. To marvel and wonder and admire, for just an instant, all the incredible, astounding and overwhelming loveliness of this world wherein we dwell. To appreciate.
To (like the heroine of the story) learn to live.
If you have never read the O’Henry story, then I will not give away the ending; you must find it on-line somewhere and read it for yourself. Suffice it to say, though, that I have thought of that story many times in the 50-odd years since I first read it.