angels on earth/the last leaf


Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes
December 5, 2014 ·

A story about angels on earth…

This is a story I have often told my war veteran patients, to help just a little more, ‘take the war out of them’ and to allow that place to be filled again with hope and with true life force….

I’d like to tell you thereby the story by O’Henry —it is called The Last Leaf, published in 1907.

But/and it carries what I call “a story under the story,” and that únderstory with its instructions to the soul’ still holds–even though many who read the story today, might only think of it as a clever story with a divot of a twist at the end. It is far more.

To my storyteller’s heart and eye, it is a story about how roiling emotions and anger can cause such loss, and how peace and love can create such life.

You can read the original work in books, and here I’ll tell you the heart of the story in my own words…

Once upon a time, a small gaggle of artists live in the same tattered old building. One, a young woman, comes down with pneumonia in the draft and cold weather. She is near death. And she says she wants to die, and that she will die… when the last leaf drops from the vinetree outside her window.

Her dear friend, also a woman, tells her, no, she must be peaceful and think positively, that she will recover then. But the friend fears that the decision to die will kill her friend, rather than the illness.

There is an elderly artist-man who also lives in the building, one who for years has claimed he will paint a masterpiece, but he has never begun to paint much of anything.

He is cynical when the young woman tells him her friend, has said she will die when the last leaf falls from the vinetree outside the window, saying that is stupid and nonsense, not taking another’s suffering to heart.

The old man artist, as grumpy as he is, however, cares about the two young women and wants to shelter them… and goes to visit the sick woman to see the vine-tree from her point of view out the window.

But in the night, a terrible storm rises on its hind legs and with wind roaring and rain cracking at the glass windows, and the trees and plants… and the vinetree… being shaken and shaken by the fury, the young woman, friend to the ill woman—

draws the curtains, tells her friend to sleep now…. for secretly she is afraid all the leaves, including the ‘last leaf’ will surely be torn from the vine tree… and then her friend having lost her will to live, will die.

And so the storm rages on and on, the winds howling like banshees, the very windows trembling in their frames, the rain raining sideways in huge attack gusts.

And in the morning, with dread, the friend draws back the curtain, knowing the last leaf will have fallen… and lo and behold! One leaf, and one leaf only…. is still there on the vine tree! One leaf only, but a leaf nonetheless.

The ill woman is pessimistic, saying that leaf will fall today. But it does not. The leaf does not fall from the vinetree.

Suddenly, the ill woman realizes that she has been pitifully irreverent in wishing to die, and that if a leaf could cling to the vinetree in the midst of all tempests, then she too could hold on. Thus she regains her will to live, and recovers.

But/ and, the ‘story inside the story’ as I call it, is this:
The old man artist has now fallen ill with pneumonia and is being taken to hospital, for it is said nothing more can be done, and he is in his last hours of life.

A cleaner in the old building had found the old artist lying in pain, with his shoes and coat and trousers frozen stiff with wet and ice, as it seemed the old man had gone out in the storm the night previous, but for what??

The cleaner had discovered the old man’s lantern was still lit by his side, a ladder lay nearby, some brushes still filled with green and yellow paint.

And in the end, the heart speaks, asking about the last leaf–Didnt you wonder why it never fell when the wind blew so fiercely…. that is the old man’s masterpiece… at last– painted the night the ‘last leaf’ fell.

This comes with love for all who are in la lucha, the storm, that each one turns away from the self-knelling of ‘nothing can ever be made right’… and turns instead, in compassion, ‘to paint hope and hold on’ for oneself and others… for hope is made of the commitment to hold on, hold on… and to allow a heroic act, a masterpiece, a simple gesture of love, to be at the center instead…

and to let, for now, the old cynical self, the one who spoke often but without effective action, to lose energy, keeping the heroics of love, letting go any past failures at implementing in beauty, one’s best hopes. To live onward in solid commitment to soul, not ego. As so many of our leaders, great leaders, have stiven to do also.

Some may say this is a story about the ill woman, or her loyal friend, or even the last leaf itself. It isnt. It is about the elderly artist…..

about how from imperfection and brokenness, ‘all-big-speaking-and/but no-small-acts of effective doing’ can come the most pure and healing act of peaceable love … that changes everything to the best of what can be. The power of the small. Enacted. Not spoken.

Hang in there, angels are everywhere… look up, look down, look all around, but/and, look … and take it in, and see, truly see as fits for you, for each of you dear souls, for each of you angels in your human guise on earth…


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