His sister stood at the window of the pharmacy, nervously tapping her foot. She was waiting, yet again, to hear the number. The cost. How much she would have to pay for her brother’s medication. Something to ease his pain, something to soothe the nerve endings. Something to make him forget the disease that was ravaging him, driving him down to death.
Her cousins thought she was foolish. “He’s dying,” they said, “and he’s dying because of that lifestyle of his. He’s a freak, a pervert, a homosexual…and that disease is a proof of what God thinks of people like him. Why spend your money taking care of him? He brought this on himself.”
And now she was at the pharmacy again, and the man behind the counter was delivering the blow. Another $400 co-pay. That was more than the food money for the month. She’d be eating Mac and Cheese or cans of
She knew he was dying, even though they never said the words out loud. She chuckled bitterly to herself as she thought, “as if not saying those words would make a difference. As if pretending would make the pain go away.”
She sighed, and took out the credit card, hoping that the card wouldn’t be declined. $400. A lot of money. But it was necessary. Her brother was dying. She had to do what she could to soothe him, to ease his way, down the long road to the darkness and the light.
The pharmacist handed her a receipt to sign – thank God the card went through – and then a small white bag. Felt awfully light for something that cost $400. But it was what he needed, and in a way it was what she needed, too. She had to know that she was doing what she could for him, no matter what those nasty cousins said.
What they seemed to forget is what he had done for her.
Twenty years ago, when she was sixteen and he was a gorgeous, outrageous 23. When her mother died, at their father’s hands. When she had no place to go. They hadn’t been close. Growing up, he had lived with his own mother. The only thing they had in common was the damage their father had done to both of them. But when her mother died, and their father was hauled off to jail, and she had no place to go, he said “You come over here and stay with me for a bit. I’ll do a makeover on you, girl. We’ll make you look SASSY!”
He always was out there, no closet for him, loving who he was, loving life. She was a little afraid of him. He was too exuberant, too easy with his love for her and for many others. But she had nowhere else to go, and he was family of a sort. So she stayed with him in his little apartment, decorated with castoffs he found on the street, a thousand wild colors, posters, music playing at all hours. Two more years of high school, then another two years while she was working at the salon during the day and going to beauty school at night. Then she got her own place and a man in her life for a while, until he left her. That was something she had in common with her brother – men came and then men left.
She’d see her brother from time to time over the years. They weren’t all that close after she moved out of his place. He didn’t like the men she was with. She didn’t like the men he was with. But then one day, he came to her door, and he looked different. The old exuberance was gone. The joy, the hope…no more. His beautiful face was lined, and there were dark marks on his skin. She thought “Somebody’s been beating on him,” until she realized this was disease, not bruising. They talked, for a long time.
The wheel was turning. She moved him into her little place. Nowhere near as pretty as his apartment had been, but it was serviceable, and she put him into her own bed, and went and slept on the couch.
He was ill. The disease was killing him. For many years after he was diagnosed, he had been able to fight it, but now there was nothing left to fight with, and he needed her.
The wheel was turning, and now it was her turn to give back to him. She couldn’t make him over, and she couldn’t make him sassy, but she could give him a safe place and a comfortable bed, and she could give him her company and her love.
As he became more ill, it took more meds to keep him comfortable. Now, at the end of the road, the doctors pulled out the big meds. They helped him, easing the ache in his joints and his bones, but damn, they were expensive.
She went to the cousins, asking for just a little help…they had nothing to offer but cruel judgment. No surprise there. They hadn’t offered her a place to stay when her mother was killed, they had just tsk-tsk’d and said what a fool her mother had been to love that man. No, only this dying man, this man they said was such a sinner, only he helped her.
So she stopped asking, and she just took a deep breath and paid the bills. She’d run into the cousins on the street and they’d say “You’re throwing that money away. You want to help somebody? You could be taking care of other folks, worthwhile folks, instead of that bad brother of yours.”
All she knew was that his love for her had been so extraordinary, his care for her so generous, with no expectations in return but her love, that she actually wanted to spend that money to take care of him. Creams for his dry, ashy skin, pain meds to get him through the night, special milkshakes that would slide down past the sores in his mouth and rest easy in his stomach. Nothing was too much.
Never mind what the cousins said. Never mind what the pharmacist thought as he rang up her bill. Never mind anything, except her gratitude for this dear dying man, so misunderstood, so outside the norms. He was still able to make her smile with a sly wink, even now. Of course she would take care of him. How could she not?
For most of us, gifts become currency. My husband gives me a GPS, I give him a leaf blower. My sister gives me a cookbook, I give her a pretty scarf. My child gives me a handmade card, I give him some milk and cookies. It’s not a game of measuring relative value, but there is a sense that if you give me something, I’ll give you something back.
But what happens when the thing we are given is so beyond measure that we cannot possibly give something of equal value back?
Think of the whole story of the woman in this story. Mary is the sister of Lazarus…yes, the same Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead. She’s the same Mary about whom her sister Martha complained: “That Mary doesn’t help me in the kitchen, Jesus – she just sits at your feet and learns what you teach!”
This woman is unusual. She has seen, perhaps more than the other people around her, the gift that Jesus is offering to his followers. That chance to hear the Word, to sense that one is in the presence of God, that’s a gift beyond measure. And something tells her that he is doing more than just teaching, that there is something larger at play here. She doesn’t know what it is, but it frightens her and reminds her how precious he is, and how much she loves him.
No, it’s not romance that she’s feeling, it’s something more like awe. So as her sister Martha prepares the meal for Jesus and the others, Mary slips out to go buy something that feels like the right response to that awe…a pound of rich perfumed ointment, costing as much as the month’s food. And as the meal is served – lamb stew again – Mary comes quietly through the door. She seats herself on the floor by Jesus. Does she know that the gift is not just his teaching, not just his presence, but that fact that he will soon die for them all? Most likely not, but it doesn’t matter. She knows he gives them a gift beyond recompense, and she is strangely sad that she cannot give him anything of equal value. But she bends over, crying now, and massages his tired feet with that ointment. Rich men use that much ointment over the course of several months. But she doesn’t stint. She uses it all, and when she is done massaging it into his feet, she wipes away the excess, not with a fine linen cloth, but with her hair. She has been touched so intimately, to her very soul, by this man – it requires an equal intimacy. Cloth would be too distant and impersonal. It must be her hair.
We are given an extraordinary gift. The wheel turns. Jesus knows us, and invites us to know him, in a deep and intimate way. Our response should be equally intimate. Can we be brave enough to open the most distant corner of our heart to him, to let him in and let him change us into something even more wonderful? How could we say no?