The Last Page

My Mom's Marijuana

By Dan Shapiro '88

My parents always kept a small plot of land in the backyard as a garden. It was roughly the size of an average bedroom. Pretty small. But they hovered around that garden all spring and summer. They plowed, fertilized, hoed, mulched, and sampled the soil. They watered. They pinched leaves. At night they pointed to pictures in books and seed magazines that eventually accumulated and took over the dining room.

And then, a few months later, there was a crop of something. Usually a crop of mutant something. One year it was zucchini. Thousands of zucchini crawled out of the garden as if cast in a late-night horror film. Neighbors came home to anonymous zucchini breads, pies, and cakes delicately balanced inside of screen doors or stuffed into mailboxes. Dad kept a huge zucchini next to the bed in case there were intruders.

In April, the planting month, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. I was in my junior year at Vassar. A few nights before I was scheduled to start treatment I called a friend, the only person my age I knew who’d had cancer. He muttered five gruff words into the phone, "Chemo’s grim man. Get weed."

I trotted into the living room and nonchalantly announced to the family that I was going to buy marijuana to help with the nausea and vomiting.

There was an oppressive silence, punctuated only by the rapid tapping of my mother’s finger on an armchair. Then she began, her voice carrying that staccato edge she generally reserved for my father. She told me in no uncertain terms there would be no drugs in the house. She berated me about the dangers of illicit substances, the horrors that visit lives filled with addiction, and swore to me that her roof would never shelter a drug user. She ended her diatribe with an outstretched finger.

Armed with my Vassar education, I argued back that for me, marijuana would be medicine, the only medicine that could temper the violent treatment I faced. That it wasn’t addictive, and that my body would soon process toxins far more dangerous than marijuana. But at the end of our conversation we were where we began. I knew my mother. Once she was entrenched in a position argument was futile. I retreated.

I still wonder what happened to her during the night because next morning she ran her finger down the "smoke shop" listings in the phone book. She called a number of establishments, asking detailed questions and jotting down words like bong, carb, and water pipe. Then she gathered her keys and purse and, 30 minutes later, was walking down the aisles of a head shop called Stairway to Heaven, taking notes and carefully checking the merchandise for shoddy workmanship. Mom is a Consumer Reports shopper.

I was sitting on the ground in the backyard when my mother’s car pulled into the driveway. A few moments later she appeared on the back porch waving a three-foot bong over her head. She proclaimed her find with the same robust voice she’d used for years to call my brother and me to dinner. "Is this one okay? They didn’t have blue . . ."

When I entered the house she delicately handed me the bong and some money. She brushed dust from my shoulder and softly told me to do whatever I needed to get the marijuana. After a quick phone call I left to make my purchase. When I returned with the small baggy my mother asked to see it. I felt a sharp adolescent fear, conditioned from years of living under my mother’s vigilant eyes. I handed it over. She looked into the small bag. Incredulous.

"Where’s the rest of it?" she asked.

"That’s it, ma." I said. She squinted at me. "I swear, ma. That’s it."

She murmured quietly. "Honey, give me the seeds."

I thought of huge zucchinis.

When my father learned of my mother’s plan he clipped two articles out of the paper with the titles "Police Raid Yields Results" and "Drug House Seized." He put them under a magnet on the refrigerator and underlined the worst parts. That night, as we prepared for dinner, Mom read them, nodded soberly, and said, "Bring them on."

That summer my parents plowed, fertilized, hoed, mulched, and sampled the soil. They watered. They pinched leaves. And that August the mutant crop arrived. Ten bushy plants grew over 11 feet tall in our backyard, eclipsing the sunflowers in front of them. Far more weed than I could have smoked in a lifetime.

Dan Shapiro is an assistant professor in the department of integrative medicine/psychiatry at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center. This essay is an excerpt from his book Mom’s Marijuana: Insights About Living, Harmony Books, 2000.