One particularly gray day I was driving my mother to a doctor’s appointment near downtown Honolulu, the least Hawaiian part of the entire Hawaiian Islands chain. She peered out the Prius window and said, “Wow, I never noticed how beautiful those buildings were before.”
I looked out the window. “Mom, those are some of the ugliest buildings I’ve ever seen.”
She stared at me for a beat. Then she started to giggle.
For 20 minutes straight.
My 79-year-old mom was stoned off her nut.
Two years earlier, my mom had been diagnosed with cancer. She underwent an operation, then chemotherapy and went into remission.
But the cancer came back, with a vengeance. This time, no matter how hard she tried, my mom couldn’t mask her misery. Most days her nausea was so bad that she couldn’t get out of bed. She stopped eating, her cheeks hollowed out and her skin paled.
I wanted to comfort her, but I didn’t know how. I thought back to my own life-threatening illness a few years before, to the darkness and loneliness that no companionship can ease. I worried about the fear that attacked in the middle of the night, so strong in her now that it showed itself in the light of day. She needed to relieve her symptoms so she could tackle the real problem: constant worry about the future.
A few friends suggested cannabis. But I knew this was a dead end: She had never had a sip of alcohol in her life, let alone smoked a joint. She was proud of this, too, as I heard every time I had a beer around her, which was a lot since we had a typical mother-son relationship: I drove her to nag, she drove me to drink. In fact, since my childhood there had always been a low-level tension between us, and in times of stress, like now, it flared up and kept us from being close, or even comfortable around each other. The result was a severe lack of fun and I worried that despite all my efforts to help, all I was doing was making things worse.
Finally, my sister couldn’t stand it any longer and got my mom’s doctor to write a prescription for medical marijuana. “We have to get her to try it,” she said.
After two days of perfecting an argument to win over Mom, we went to her apartment and braced ourselves for the fight.
She lay in bed, hollow-eyed and pale, bottles of useless nausea medication and a bucket nearby. My sister pulled out the pot prescription; we hoped it would lend our idea an air of propriety. “Mom,” my sister started unsteadily, “we think you should try using marijuana to relieve your symptoms. It’s legal and many doctors …”
“OK,” she said.
“We knew you’d say that,” I protested, “But you should give it a chance – wait, what did you just say?”
”I’ll try it,” she whimpered.
“Wow,” I said. “Now, I’m really worried about you.”
Then we mentioned the small hiccup in our plan: While medical marijuana was legal in Hawaii thanks to a just-passed law, island time was very much a thing – distribution centers were likely a year off, something I found particularly ironic since checking the surf usually resulted in a contact high. Still, it meant we had to “fill” her prescription the old-fashioned way: via pot dealers.
That worried my mom. What if guns were involved? Or the police caught us? Rap sheets were terrible for careers. Your reputation, ruined.
“Terry, you should buy the pot,” she said.
“Gee, thanks Mom.”
But she had a point. My sister is a psychologist with a spotless record, a respected reputation and a thriving practice.
I’m a writer.
I would be scoring the drugs.
Complicating things was the fact that because of my tendency toward paranoia – even while not on drugs – I didn’t smoke pot, so I knew no dealers. But fortunately, because of my affinity to surfing, writing and unemployed people, I did have a lot of friends who smoked it. One, coincidentally, was making cannabis candies for a friend battling throat cancer. So, within a few days I was back at my mom’s with some “totally chronic butterscotch.”
She looked and felt horrible, as usual. She’d hardly eaten in days and her pain and nausea were keeping her in bed. I gave her a candy, but neither one of us held out much hope – how could a small luminescent candy help when a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals had failed?
“I’ll check on you in an hour,” I told her.
Thirty minutes later, she walked into the living room. “I’m really hungry,” she said.
There have been a few times in my life when I have considered the existence of miracles: my daughter’s birth, my wife saying yes and my 100-pound mom downing three chimichangas and a bag of Cheetos. Yes, pot was, hands-down, a miracle drug. My mom’s nausea was gone, totally, and her pain went from a 10 to a two. Color flushed back into her face and she did something she hadn’t done in months: She smiled.
She was also really effing high. But, maybe because she didn’t know what even a Sunday brunch buzz felt like, she had no idea. As she mowed through her third chimichanga, my mom insisted that pot had absolutely no intoxicating effect on her. “I don’t feel a thing,” she said as her fork missed her mouth and stabbed her in the cheek.
“Did you feel that?” I asked.
She thought about it.
“No!” she said and broke out laughing.
Cannabis had another superpower, one even more impressive than stopping cancer pain and chemo nausea: It melted the tension that had existed between us for more than three decades. When my mom was high – sorry, Mom, but you were – we got along great. We watched movies together, we went on walks, I drank beer in peace. It was like being in a Christmas movie’s warm and fuzzy third act montage. Without the ugly sweaters.
To keep the good times rolling, I reached out to various questionable acquaintances and my sister became a master baker. But making pot brownies is far from a science, especially when the medicinal ingredient is sourced from a guy rocking surf trunks and a neck tattoo.
Fortunately, unlike legal drugs like oxycontin, it is, according to the CDC, almost impossible to overdose on cannabis – as my mom discovered the fun way one day when I came over with a fresh batch of brownies. “Take half of one until we know how strong they are,” I said and left to take my daughter to the dentist.
I returned four hours later. Two brownies were missing and my mom was in bed staring out the window at a nearby Waikiki high-rise, where glass elevators moved up and down. “Mom, did you eat two brownies?” I said, slightly worried.
“Yeah, but I told you they don’t affect me,” she said. “One odd thing did happen though.”
“I glanced out the window at the elevators for just a minute, but when I checked the time, two hours had gone by.” She seemed genuinely confused. “Do you think there’s something wrong with the clock?”
I laughed. “I think you’re really, really stoned.”
“No, that can’t be it,” she said, and went back to watching the elevators. Pain-free. Nausea-free. Carefree.
My mother died a year later. The pot brownies worked their magic right up until a few months before the end, when the cruelty of cancer could not be denied. But somehow in that year, between the hard times, the painful times, the dark times, we connected like never before. Cannabis gave me a mom, and my daughter a grandmother. And sometimes, it gave her what anyone fighting a life-threatening disease needs most: the ability to lose track of time, forget about the future and just watch elevators go up and down. It also allowed her to fight her disease to the end, with dignity and humor – even if she was baked for most of it.