The Jesus in Mary Jane

Meeting my pot-smoking neighbors taught me to take Jesus more seriously.

In September of 2010, around the same time medical marijuana dispensaries first arrived in earnest in Colorado, my husband and I moved into downtown Colorado Springs. We were newlyweds, and we believed in the potential of our dilapidated HUD-repossessed house, purchased for a song.

But when we tried to meet our next-door neighbor a few weeks after settling in, we found her elusive. Another neighbor told us her name was Mary. We noticed her three rat terriers, who paraded through her yard in sweater vests, screeching at anyone who walked past. The only time we glimpsed Mary was during her walk from her car to her front door, as she stepped through her yard, littered with trash, Hindu stone statutes and tumbleweeds.

Months passed without a proper meeting. Then we caught sight of a man accompanying her on her walk. The man was lanky, with straight white hair to his shoulders: my husband called him “Creepy Gandalf.” We debated who he was: Mary’s brother? Boyfriend? Nurse? We would watch him through our windows as he hauled Mary’s grocery bags into the house, and then we watched as he opened her car door and held her hand as she made the trek to her house. We decided we liked him.

I ignored this gnawing expertly, just magnificently, until the day I actually met my neighbors.

Then Mary and Creepy Gandalf started smoking weed on their porch during the day. Coming home from work in the evenings, we would have to walk through plumes of the spicy smoke, while Gandalf sat on Mary’s porch, hunched and puffing in the winter air.

Marijuana was becoming a familiar smell in our neighborhood. We noticed the green crosses of the MMJ dispensaries on every corner downtown, which tempted many people to drum up a reason to get an ounce from a dispensary. I heard somewhere that back pain and a bad case of PMS were the favorite excuses. Any healthy person could ask around and find an accommodating doctor to write a prescription and, voila, grass in hand.

All this rankled me.

I grew up in the manicured suburbs, full of rich white people, and I had been a goody two-shoes, straight-As, church-going Christian since I was young. I did not start drinking alcohol until I actually turned 21. I had been so thoroughly convinced by the anti-smoking ads, with their pictures of elderly people who had traded Adam’s apples for tracheotomy tubes, that I did not take a puff from a cigar until college, and even then it made me sick to my stomach.

Also, I almost never swear. Are you rolling your eyes at me yet?

So I turned my nose up at my weed-smoking neighbors. I described them to friends as “old hippies,” I rolled my eyes at them, and I wondered, “Do they even have jobs? What do they do all day?”

I even tried to root my feelings in my Christian faith. But Christianity has this sneaky core tenant about loving your neighbors, even the ones you don’t like. I actually believe that Jesus died for people who hated him, so I could not escape the pang in my gut that told me I was straight-up wrong in feeling so great about myself and feeling resentful toward them — I could not escape it, that is, unless I simply chose to ignore it.

That’s what I did: I ignored this gnawing expertly, just magnificently, until the day I actually met my neighbors.

*

I was hauling bags of groceries from the car to the house, 10 at a time, when I noticed Creepy Gandalf taking out the trash. We were barely 10 feet from each other, with just a chain link fence between us.

“Hello,” I said. “I don’t know if we have actually met yet, but I live just over here. I’m Liz. What’s your name?”

“Gary,” he said with a slight drawl. He walked toward the fence, and I set down my bags in a heap.

“Great to meet you,” I said. He nodded slowly. I said, “So, have you lived here awhile?”

He said, “No, not long, just come up from Texas.”

“Oh,” I said, nodding. Then: “So, how do you know Mary?”

He said, “I’ve known her since college.”

“Where’d you all go?” I asked.

Mary was dying, and there I was, her next-door neighbor, worried about a second-hand high.

“Texas A&M,” he said. “We dated for awhile back then, stayed in touch, you know. But when I found out recently that she had cancer, well,” he shrugged, “You know, I wanted to be with her.”

“Cancer?” I said.

“Yep,” he said, “Mary’s got bone marrow cancer, and she’s not doing too good.”

“Wow,” I said. “I’m . . . so sorry.”

“Yeah,” said Gary as he turned his back to me. He tipped the trashcan on its wheels and started walking toward the alley at the back of the yard.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, raising my hand. He looked back at me over his shoulder and nodded.

*

Mary was dying from a cancer that causes your bones to fracture from the inside out, a cancer where your every movement causes an ache to cascade throughout your body. At the end, maybe your kidney cannot process all the extra calcium in your veins, put there by your cracking bones, and it fails; maybe you bleed to death after brushing your teeth because your blood no longer clots right; or maybe a cold will take you because your body cannot produce the antibodies to fight anymore.

Mary was dying, and there I was, her next-door neighbor, worried about a second-hand high.

I knew that if this cancer ailed me, I would be crazy not to do everything I could to alleviate its searing pain.

Which led me to the obvious conclusion that if anybody needed a smoke to relax her joints and give her an appetite, it was Mary. Mary, who hobbled into her house, with Gary’s help, every day after receiving chemotherapy treatments. Mary, who had lost her grey hair. Mary, now so skeletal, who probably had no appetite at all, because of the extra calcium in her blood, calcium that probably made her thirsty and nauseated, but not hungry.

And me? Well, I was just a self-righteous ass.

*

A month after meeting Gary, my husband and I received Mary’s cable bill in our mailbox. We walked next door together to deliver her letter and chatted with her about the neighborhood for a while. When we were turning to leave, Mary gave me a hug.

A week later, we had another conversation across the fence about how both of us couples loved old movies. The day after we had talked, a Netflix DVD appeared on our doormat: H. G. Wells’ 1953 film, The War of the Worlds. We returned it a few days later, unwatched, but with a thank-you note.

A couple of weeks after that, one of Mary’s rat terriers found its way into our backyard through a hole under the fence. I picked it up, walked around my house to Mary’s front yard, and deposited it among the piles dead leaves with the other dogs. She had once told us these dogs were her babies, and this time, I smiled when I saw them all in their sweater vests, jumping and yapping at me.

After that, our interactions became fewer and fewer. Then — was it just a week or months? — we did not see Mary anymore. We wondered if she had moved into a nursing home. When Gary disappeared and the house went up for sale, with strangers roaming her property and hauling away furniture, we feared the worst. I finally asked one of the strangers about Mary, and they told me she had passed. And I cried.

*

Many things have changed in our neighborhood since Mary lived next door: neighbors’ houses have been sold and repossessed; piles of furniture on the sidewalk have told stories of renters evicted. We have had new neighbors on our other side twice now, and I knocked on their door with cookies to welcome each set. Mary’s house was sold and demolished after her death, and now two shiny duplexes sit on her old property.

I cannot shake Mary from my memory. She and I were not at odds. I was a decent neighbor. But I was not her friend.

And Jesus is adamant on this point: that his followers are to love their enemies. Of course, we all love our friends, but our enemies? How about our neighbors that we do not know or care to know, who are so different from us? Yes, even them, and especially them.

I wish that I had taken Jesus more seriously and that I had become Mary’s friend. I want to go back and read the articles she wrote for a Buddhist website, the ones I can no longer find no matter how long I search the Internet. I want to learn about her faith and tell her about mine. I want to learn her dogs’ names, even if they did annoy me.

Most of all, I want to drop by a plate of warm cookies, in hopes that for a few seconds she might forget the pain that followed her to the end of her life and just spend some sweet moments with a friend.

Elizabeth Grant
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  • Marnie

    How many stories have I missed the same way? God knows every story and cares about each one. Help me to see the stories…and share in them.

    • Rational Conclusions

      Some stories your god did not care about:

      Strong circumstantial evidence that there is no god (or did they all die as martyrs?)

      Number of god’s creations
      who died horrible deaths from the following diseases:

      1. 300,000,000 approx.

      Smallpox

      2. 200,000,000 ?

      Measles

      3. 100,000,000 approx.

      Black
      Death

      4. 80,000,000–250,000,000

      Malaria

      5. 50,000,000–100,000,000

      Spanish
      Flu

      6. 40,000,000–100,000,000

      Plague
      of Justinian

      7. 40,000,000–100,000,000

      Tuberculosis

      8. 30,000,000[13]

      AIDS
      pandemic

      9. 12,000,000 ?

      Third
      Pandemic of Bubonic Plague

      10. 5,000,000

      Antonine
      Plague

      11. 4,000,000

      Asian
      Flu

      12. 250,000 or more annually Seasonal influenza