My husband and I moved into the downtown of our Colorado city in September 2010, just around the time medical marijuana dispensaries arrived in earnest. Our home was a fixer-upper in a gentrifying neighborhood. We were newlyweds and we believed in the potential of our dilapidated, HUD-repossessed house, purchased for a song.
We tried to meet our next-door neighbor a few weeks after settling in, but we found her elusive. Another neighbor told us her name was Mary. Mary’s three rat terriers paraded through her yard in sweater vests, screeching at anyone who walked past. The only time we glimpsed their owner 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.
Eventually 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.
Months passed without a proper meeting. 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.
How D.A.R.E. they?
Of course weed is now everywhere you look in Colorado, prompting a lot of raised eyebrows and chuckles at Denver’s tagline, “the Mile High city.” Edibles, CBD, and greenhouse complexes bent on sprouting the spikey plant have become commonplace in my state—a “cannabis revolution,” the press named it. In 2010, though, Mary Jane was new in town. And it rankled me.
I grew up in the manicured suburbs of Annapolis, Maryland, colonized in earnest by white flight between the 1950s and 1970s as middle class whites escaped Baltimore and other nearby urban centers. As a teenager at a private Christian school, I had fit right in as a goody-two shoes, straight-As conservative. I grew up with D.A.R.E. videos and M.A.D.D. as gospel truth. I had nightmares about the ads of weathered smokers who had traded Adam’s apples for tracheotomy tubes, and so indoctrinated was I that I did not take a puff from a cigar until my early twenties, and even then the smoke nauseated me.
It was not just that I had cared what my parents and teachers and pastors thought of me, because I did, wanting my “testimony” to remain unvarnished. But I also felt that drinking, smoking, and getting high were morally questionable. I asked myself, what kind of person turns to drugs? Answer: A person who wants to shrug off their problems onto someone else, someone more responsible, with more brain cells intact: frankly, someone more like me.
So as I watched marijuana take over my city, I saw it as a threat to the success of our city itself: it was a pollutant, sure to bring trouble, reciting to myself the statistics and moral policies of Dr. Dobson with conviction. Meanwhile, my husband and I became pregnant, which gave me even more reason to cultivate a quiet disgust for my weed-smoking neighbors. (“How dare they,” I thought. “Don’t they care about the unborn?”). I even tried (and failed) to root my feelings in my Christian faith. And though I’d never even met them, I turned up my nose at my weed-smoking neighbors. I described my neighbors to friends as “old hippies,” I rolled my eyes at them, I avoided eye contact, and I decided they were unemployed, living off of medicare, no doubt, which told me all I needed to know. Their habit came to represent the worst of human nature: irresponsibility, decay, and failure.
But of course Christianity has this core tenant about loving your neighbors, even the ones you don’t like. Seeing as I hadn’t even met mine, I could not ignore the pang in my gut that told me I was doing it wrong. Hadn’t Jesus lunched with sex workers and criminals? Still, I chose to simply ignore my gut in favor of my feelings of superiority.
In fact, I ignored this gnawing expertly, just magnificently, until the day I actually met my neighbors.
“I’m . . . so sorry.”
This afternoon, I was hauling bags of groceries from the car to the house, six hooked around my forearms and wrists, when I noticed Creepy Gandalf taking out the trash. We were barely ten feet from each other, with a chain link fence between us.
I felt an inner nudge. I said, “Hello. Um, 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, feet away from him. This close up, his hair looked unwashed.
“Great to meet you,” I said. He nodded slowly. I said, “So, have you lived here awhile?”
“No, not long, just come up from Texas.”
I nodded. “How do you know Mary?”
“Well, I’ve known her since college.”
“Where’d you all go?” I asked.
“Texas A&M,” he said. “We dated for a while back then, stayed in touch, you know. But when I found out she had cancer, well,” he shrugged, “I wanted to come and be with her.”
“Mary’s got bone marrow cancer, and she’s not doing too good.”
I swallowed. “Wow,” I said. The pang in my gut grew unignorable, more like being punched than nudged now. “I’m…so sorry.” I said.
“Yep,” said Gary as he turned his back to me. Then the conversation was over, and he tipped the trashcan on its wheels, walking toward the alley, leaving me in shock as I bent to gather up the plastic bags at my feet.
As it turned out, Mary had cancer. Actually, Mary was dying from cancer, a cancer that causes your bones to fracture from the inside out, a cancer where every movement causes pain to richochet throughout your body. The pain finally ends when your kidney can no longer process all the extra calcium in your veins, put there by your cracking bones, and it fails, taking you with it; or maybe you bleed out after brushing your teeth too enthusiastically, or nicking your finger while chopping potatoes, because now your blood cannot clot right; or maybe a cold takes you because your antibodies cannot fight anymore.
Mary was dying, and there I was next door, worried about a second-hand high.
I realized, if this cancer ailed me, I would be crazy not do to everything I could to alleviate its searing pain.
Which led me to the obvious conclusion that if anybody needed a smoke, it was Mary. Mary, who hobbled into her house, with Gary’s help, every day after receiving chemotherapy treatments. Mary, who had traded her long, grey hair for scarves. Mary, now so skeletal, whose calcium treatments probably made her thirsty and nauseated, but never hungry—not to mention the nausea that surely accompanied her cancer treatments.
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. I walked next door to deliver her letter and finally, I introduced myself. She stood in the door and we gossiped about the neighborhood, exchanging stories about neighbors’ out of place lawn ornaments and house renovations and bike thefts. When I turned to leave after ten minutes, Mary reached out her arms and hugged me.
“Thanks for comin’ over,” she said.
I blushed at her kindness. “Yep,” I said. “Of course.” How could I have thought all those terrible things about her?
A week later, we had another conversation across the fence about how both of us couples loved old movies, and the next day, a Netflix DVD appeared on our doormat: H. Wells’ 1953 film, “The War of the Worlds,” and a note from Mary: “Tell me whatcha think.” A few days later, we returned it with a thank-you note.
Then one of Mary’s rat terriers found its way into our backyard through a hole under the fence. I returned the dog in Mary’s front yard, amongst piles of yellow leaves, amongst her other dogs. She had told me she regarded these dogs as 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 as winter fell. All of us retreated indoors. Then—was it just a week or months?—we did not see Mary anymore. We wondered, had she moved into a nursing home? When we no longer saw Gary on the porch, and a “for sale” sign appeared at the sidewalk, with movers hauling away furniture, we feared the worst. I asked one of the movers about Mary, and he told me she had passed. I cried.
Neighborly, not Friendly
Many things changed in our neighborhood after Mary passed: houses were sold and repossessed; furniture was piled on the sidewalk, hinting at evictions; lawn ornaments were rearranged. We welcomed new neighbors on the opposite side twice, and each time, I knocked on their doors to deliver cookies. Mary’s house was passed to a cousin, twice removed, before being sold and demolished. Now two shiny duplexes sit on the old property. We ourselves have since moved away to a city an hour and a half north; we live in a new house with new neighbors.
But I cannot shake Mary from my memory. At the time of her death, she and I were not at odds; I was a good enough 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 can handle extending love to those we count our friends, the ones on our team, but our enemies? How about our neighbors that we do not know, or care to know, whose skin is darker or lighter, who make decisions we would never make, who believe opposite what we do, who vote for the other candidate? Yes, even them, and especially them.
I wish that I had befriended Mary. She was also a writer, publishing blog entries on a Buddhist website, writings I never bothered to read. I wish I had asked about her faith, and that I had told her about mine. I wish I had learned her dogs’ names; I wish I had learned her last name. Most of all, I would rewind the tape to knock on her door with a plate of cookies (perhaps with a dash of CBD in the dough), to offer her the welcome I never did: really, it’s the least I could do.
Cover photo by Daniel Herron.
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