My daughter’s chocolate brown eyes are sparkling. “Mommy, I’m going to plant these apple seeds, and they’re going to grow into trees, and then we’re going to save money and eat free apples forever!” Cassidy holds out her hand. A dozen tiny seeds rest in her palm, plucked and saved from apple cores all week long.
“Okay, honey, let’s give it a try,” I say. My heart gives a painful squeeze, because I know she knows I’ve been worried about money, and she’s trying to help.
I know nothing about planting apple seeds—I’ve always thought they wouldn’t grow until they’d passed through a bird’s digestive tract or something gross like that—but I figure, why not?
So we go outside and she pokes her seeds into a planter. For several weeks she waters and watches. I mostly forget about the seeds, but Cassidy doesn’t.
Then one shiny spring afternoon she comes running into the house, shrieking, “My trees are growing, my trees are growing!”
The whole family rushes outside to gather around the planters. Sure enough, nine little sprouts have nudged out of the dirt. Mr. Tall Dark and Handsome and I stand gaping at them as our daughter does a proud happy-dance.
“She did it!” I whisper to Kevin. “I didn’t actually think they’d grow!” His raised eyebrows say he thought the same thing.
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The little seedlings unfurl and stretch skyward, soon large enough that we have to transplant them into nine medium-sized pots. Some don’t survive the transition, but most do. And within a few months, we’ve got six growing apple trees, each about eight inches tall. My daughter fusses over them like they are her children. We start calling her Little Farmer.
Summer fades, the long luxurious evenings shorter now, and cooler. And something happens to the trees. A dark stain wraps around the base of the green stems, and spreads upward. Within a few days, the stems have turned brown and hard—they look dried out. Barren. Cassidy doesn’t seem worried, and I dread telling her that I think her beloved trees have died.
A few autumn weeks pass. I keep a wary eye on the hard brown sticks poking up out of their pots, wondering when it’s time to give up and throw them away, fill the pots with something else. But then I notice something: the sticks are taller. A few are dotted with tiny golden leaves.
And I realize: the trees weren’t dying—they were growing. They were changing their green stems into tough woody stems, future tree trunks. They were getting ready for winter and hard cold. Shedding their fragile baby shape and forming the tough layers they’d need to survive the winter.
For a minute I let my imagination run free: How did the baby apple trees feel about the transformation? Did they understand what was happening inside, or did they fear the change? Jesus’ words flash through my mind: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).
Begrudgingly, I sigh a little prayer. “I hear you, God. I don’t like it, but I hear you.” He’s been trying to teach me something for a while now, and I’ve been fighting him, trying to find a way around it. But now, looking at the little trees, I let myself listen: Sometimes growing is like dying.
Our family has faced some hard things in the past few years, things I couldn’t see past. Problems that felt too overwhelming, too exhausting, too much to bear. Sometimes I felt little pieces of me dying inside, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it through the transition. How often I’ve come back to ponder our little trees. Every time they remind me: sometimes growing is like dying.
My kids are growing up, and it’s my job to help them through it—to give them the perspective and character and tools they’ll need to grow through the countless changes and challenges life will throw at them. Some days I hear myself spouting canned wisdom: “Don’t worry so much about what people think—you can’t make everyone happy. It’s not up to you to make people happy; it’s up to you to do right and make God proud.” I walk away and God makes me eat my own words, take my own advice, re-learn my own “wisdom.”
I never realized how much grown-ups have to keep growing too. I have to keep growing too. Life doesn’t stop being hard or complicated just because you’ve made it past puberty, or through college, or through the early years of marriage, or past the potty-training stage, or into your empty nest years. At every step, there are hard things. Things you aren’t ready for. Things you’ve never faced. Things you think you can’t survive.
And it’s time to grow again, to shed the green baby stem that helped you through a gentler season, and develop a tougher layer that will see you through the long hard winter.
I fight it, that growth. I don’t like it. I’m happy with my cute green baby stem.
But there’s no other choice. Frost is coming, maybe even ice and snow. And if I don’t surrender to growing, as scary as it is, then I might really die.
Sometimes growing looks like dying, but it’s not. Sometimes growing feels like dying, but it’s not. Growing is how we keep living. How we make it through the barren months, the painful times.
And when spring comes with its warm breezes and life-giving rains, that growth—that small near-death we suffered so many cold months earlier—pays off. We uncoil new leaves to the sun, happy to be alive. A little bigger, a little stronger, a little more beautiful. A little closer to bearing the fruit we were meant to bear.
Today, three years after those tiny apple seeds first sprouted underground, six huge pots line my back porch steps: four leafy apple trees and two pear trees, added to our “orchard” later by my Little Farmer (who is not so little anymore). The trees reach past her waist now, and again they need larger pots. Fall is here, with winter hard on its heels. Soon the young trees’ summer leaves will blush and die. All winter long they’ll rest and wait, looking naked and sad. But come spring, they’ll bloom again, stronger than ever. Although these trees have already given our family a lot to chew on, metaphorically speaking, their work is not yet finished. One of these summers, they will have grown big enough and strong enough and mature enough to fulfill the purpose that God intended and a faithful little farmer dared to dream: bearing fruit to feed a growing girl, a growing family, a growing me.