Lucy was surprised to see that an unexpected sunflower had sprouted in a corner of her backyard. Where it came from, she didn’t know. Every day she carefully watered the plant. It quickly grew.
When the bud opened the bloom was just glorious. Large, yellow and beautiful, like a cheerful sun in a small green world.
Gazing at the sunflower, Lucy felt that life was indeed good.
Every person on Earth, she thought, deserved the feeling that life is good. Why not? Suddenly she had an absurd impulse: to give that one magical flower to the entire world.
Every person should see it. Smell it. Touch it.
At last Lucy settled on her best idea. She’d give the sunflower to a friend, who would then pass the flower to another friend, who’d pass it to another friend… And so on.
Seven billion people on an impossibly big planet wouldn’t see her flower, but a few would. That’s the best she could do.
Several days later she carefully harvested the sunflower and placed it in a tall vase. She brought the flower across town and gave it to her Uncle Carl, who was under blankets with a bad case of the flu. A note was tied to the sunflower’s stem: Once this small bit of sunshine has been enjoyed, please give to a friend.
“Thank you,” he said, sincerely.
The next day Uncle Carl was visited by Alfonso, one of his war buddies. “Now you have to give this to one of your friends,” he said. “And add a little water.”
The sunflower descended like a beam of golden sunshine when Alfonso handed it to his daughter, Maria. She rose from her dining room chair, stunned. “That’s for me?” she asked, with absolute disbelief. “Seriously?”
“Yes,” he smiled. “You’re my friend, right? But read the note. You now have to give it to someone that you think is special.”
Maria gave the flower to William.
William gave the flower to Jerry.
Jerry gave the flower to Daniella.
Before class, Daniella handed the sunflower to her Geometry teacher. Mr. Harrow didn’t know how to react. “Read the note,” she explained.
“But the flower is drying out,” he said. “It won’t last much longer.”
“You’re the best math teacher I ever had. So take it.”
Mr. Harrow took the vase containing the sunflower home. He read the note attached to the stem: Once this small bit of sunshine has been enjoyed, please give to a friend. He wondered who had bought the vase. He placed the vase by the television and thought of his late wife.
Next morning the flower had entirely wilted. The crumpled petals had lost their brilliant color and several had fallen off.
Mr. Harrow removed the note from the stem and put it in a drawer. He carried the vase out to his compost pile, and quickly tossed the flower onto the heap. The vase he carefully cleaned and placed in a corner of his quiet house.
The following spring Mr. Harrow took a slow stroll through the backyard on a gloomy, gray day. As he came around the garage he was taken by complete surprise. Two sunflowers were rising from the dead compost.
The small miracle caused Mr. Harrow to wipe away a few tears.
Perhaps, he thought, being a teacher of math wasn’t such a useless thing. Because he appreciated the revealed meaning of the sunflowers. And it was: simple multiplication can quickly encompass the world.
If seeds were carefully harvested from a dying bloom–and just two seeds sprouted–one sunflower might become two. Then, repeated, two sunflowers might become four. Four sunflowers might become eight. Eight sunflowers might become sixteen. And in 33 generations–33 years–one seed might produce well over seven billion sunflowers. Enough sunflowers for everybody. Everybody in the world.
Mr. Harrow found the old note in the back of the drawer. It still read: Once this small bit of sunshine has been enjoyed, please give to a friend. He then added in his own writing: When the bloom finally fades, harvest the seeds and grow more sunflowers. He made two photocopies of the note, one for each of his miracle sunflowers.
In math, even the smallest fraction contains world-changing power. One in seven billion seems like nothing, until it is turned upside down.
. . .
Lucy lay in a dark hospital.
The memory of her miracle garden had long vanished. She had become very old.
Judy, her granddaughter, came to visit one late Thursday afternoon. She was holding a surprise behind her back. She presented a sunflower, like sunshine, in a new vase.
“Can you believe it? Out of the blue my best friend gave me this! Isn’t it amazing? And it has a strange note. I’m supposed to give this flower to someone I love. I would like you to have this.”
Attached to the stem of the sunflower was a small photocopied note. The first half of the handwriting Lucy recognized. It was her own.
This short story originally appeared here!