I spent last week on the central coast of California, with my friends Tensie and Dennis from the Guadalupe Catholic Worker.
Tuesday morning Dennis [Apel] was kind enough to take a long walk with me, out near the Oso Flaco Dunes. I turned on the tape recorder and asked him to tell his story.
The transcript runs to 31 single-spaced pages. And I'm just gonna run the whole thing, in as many segments as it takes.
Because it's my damn blog and I can do what I want!
No, really, because I think it's an important story. Whoever you are, whatever your station in life, my hope is that you'll find something that inspires and challenges you as well.
|THE PACIFIC IS BEYOND...|
You know, your former life.
Well I could go on forever, so just stop me, but…you know I lived a lot of my life unhappy.
Oh well I actually didn’t know that. How old are you now?
What happened was when I was in first grade I decided I was going to be a Franciscan priest and I made that clear all the way through grammar school, and I went off to high school, seminary.
You went to Catholic school, cradle Catholic.
Yup, and I went to a seminary in high school, Franciscans, and then one year of seminary, and then I decided I didn’t want to be a priest. But that’s all I had wanted to be for so long, I didn’t know what to do with myself after that.
Okay let me ask you what drew you to Christ and to the priesthood?
What happened was number one, I was Catholic, so my parents went to Mass every Sunday and we said the rosary multiple times a week in my house. All of our friends were Catholic, my parents with in the Couples Club which was all Catholics, so I was very immersed in that.
You grew up in Downey, California.
Yes. And one of my parents’ friends had a son who had become a Franciscan priest. We met him and I knew him and I was very taken by his decision. Because of all the things I’d been exposed to, of course, one of them was St. Francis. It was the mythical St. Francis, but still, it was St. Francis. This idea of service and voluntary poverty and being with the outcast, that attracted me. So that’s what I’d wanted to do. So when I left the seminary, I didn’t know what to do with myself.
And how old were you at that point?
It was after my first year of college, so 19.
Okay, so then what?
Well, then I wandered through my life until I was 36.
[Laughs]. It’s been a long desert.
I will say, you know what, Heather, I left the seminary and I left the Church, only out of boredom, it wasn’t like I hated the Church or had some philosophical difference with religion.
Didn’t the seminary, without going into it too much, kind of…some substandard?…
No, the seminary was great. Though I was sexually abused there [laughs].
Yeah. Okay, that’s what I was getting at.
But the truth is the implication of that never hit me till much later.
And I wasn’t…it wasn’t horrible sexual abuse. The seminary was a good experience and I have lots of fond memories of it. But when I left I didn’t know what to do and I can’t remember how I met some people who were going to the Religious Education Congress, that huge gathering that takes place in Anaheim every year.
They said Why don’t you come, and I just went because they were friends and--I'm going to give you the precipitating event here. And I looked down the list of workshops and I saw one on Death and Dying. And I don’t know why I was attracted to it, but I was. It was a couple from Seattle. So I went and they were very moving, and they talked about how people had terminal illnesses were very lonely and it’s such a difficult time because people don’t know what to say so they don’t say anything.
They just don’t go. They don’t show up because they don’t know what to say. And they’re afraid of it. So I was moved by that. Something archetypal, something moved in me. So I went back to my church, which I hadn’t been going to, and I knocked at the rectory door. And the priest that showed up there, I’d never met him, I just knocked and said I’ve just been to the conference, and if you ever have someone who’s dying and has no-one, I would like to do that. I would like to just go and be with them.
And he said Thank you very much, and he took my name and phone number and it was about three days later he called and he said, Okay, I got someone for you. And it was a guy in a nursing home who was dying of cancer and had no-one. And the priest said, But you gotta take him Communion. I said, Well I don’t know how to do that, and he said Come on by. So he takes me to the sacristy and he says, Here’s the key to the tabernacle. He says, Here’s some pyxes right here, just put a Host in the pyx and go and take it. That was the sum total of my…
What city were you in now at this point?
In Downey. So I asked the priest, Well what do I say to the guy, and the priest says, I dunno, say an Our Father or something. That was it.
So I went to see the guy, his name was Gerald I remember, and the first day I went to see him, from here to that stand of trees [sixty feet or more], that’s how far away I could smell him. He had a cancer that had opened up, he was literally decomposing, and he looked horrible, and he couldn’t speak any more, and I’m thinking, I’m supposed to sit with someone and I don’t even know what to say and they can’t talk to you…anyway, I did, I began to visit with him regularly. He died, but he had someone to come to see him, and I felt good about that.
And did you talk to him?
Yeah. I talked to him. And he could nod his head, he could squeeze my hand…These are white pelicans, that you don’t see very often.
Really. Oh wow.
Yeah, they’re migratory, the white ones. We have brown pelicans on our coast.
I didn’t know pelicans would fly that high.
Oh, you know what, I saw some in the Eastern Sierras, I would say they were so high they were almost little specks.
Really! Cause on land they seem sort of…ungainly, almost. They just seem kind of heavy. And would you just say, cause I’ve thought of going to nursing homes and just saying Do you need someone to…just sit with people for an hour.
Nursing homes are depressing. I remember going to see Gerald, it was Mother’s Day, walking to his room and here’s this little gray-haired woman in a wheelchair, her head all bent over, and right when I walked by, she looked up and sort of snarled, Arentcha gonna say Happy Mother’s Day?
So much for the docile Lamb of God. Well my mother died in a nursing home so I saw…well, anyway…what kind of stuff would you say to him?
Oh my family, my work. I was a salesman at the time so I’d talk about my clients and where we’d been. I’d take em to the theater, we’d see Phantom of the Opera for the fiftieth time, stuff like that.
You were a salesman.
I worked for a trucking company. People had to ship things….this is a cinnamon teal over here.
Gol-ly! There’s just tons of em, hunh.
Let’s see if we can see a good ruddy duck. See this duck with the white face over here?
I see…little heads all out there.
You look real close, he’s got a blue bill.
Oh wow. Get OUT!
It’s powder blue, it’s so cute.
Oh it’s interesting, you look at the reeds and at first you don’t see anything, and then when you look closely, you see Oh, there’s just a whole bunch…there are a whole bunch of fowl everywhere…
Okay, take these [handing me the binoculars]. See these two ducks here, look at the one that’s closest to the reeds and when he turns his head this way you’ll see he’s got a beautiful blue bill.
Oh gosh! I see it! Isn’t God something…Can you imagine?
Yeah. It’s like that cause it’s breeding season.
Oh, so it won’t be like that all the time.
No, it’ll be more like…look at those white pelicans. Those are pretty rare here.
Man, this is just a paradise of birds. Crazy. Oh look…those are white pelicans? Oh, man.
Yeah, they’re almost never here. Usually, they’re more skittish.
How often do you come out here?
Not very often. Isn’t that terrible? After my heart attack [Dennis suffered a major heart attack a few years ago], I said, I’m gonna take every Friday afternoon off and come out here. And I did, for about a year. And then on the one-year anniversary of my heart attack I was out here, looking at the birds, and…what is that? I thought. And by the time I got back to the car, I was throwing up, I was doubled over, the pain was horrible. I’d dislodged a kidney stone…look, they’re flying. They have this incredible blue on their wings, I don’t know how to describe it…
So there’s cinnamon teal and ruddy teal?
It’s cinnamon teal and a ruddy duck. Look, the while pelicans are dipping in simultaneously.
So wait, you dislodged a kidney stone.
Yeah, and it was…I ended up in the hospital.
Oh Dennis. Look at them! Now wait, one of them has a big bulge on its bill, right?
I don’t know what that is. It seems like more than one of them has the bulge. [consulting his Sibley’s bird guide]. This doesn’t show a bulge.
Just spectacular. Look at that wing span.
Okay, so anyway, you’re a salesman, you’re bringing him Communion…and you’re married.
Yeah, I’m married. And I’m working as a salesman. And I had this good experience with Gerald so I continued on. They’d call me for various people, mostly people who needed Communion, not necessarily dying.
You were a lay Eucharistic minister, kind of.
Yeah, then one day I went to see Fr. Don. Fr. Don was the chaplain at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital, which was a rehab hospital…
Yeah, see this one has a bump on its bill.
Right, and that one has a bump, and that one over there has a huge bump. I wonder if…
Is that where they carry their eggs? [laughing] That’s how much I know about biology…
Oh shoot, the battery on my camera’s low.
That’s a mystery to me.
Maybe when we get home we can google pelican beak bump…where’s the pouch?
Underneath. It’s like a big expandable bag. Look, so now there’s six of them.
That’s wild. Um…okay, so you went to visit this priest who was at the rehab hospital...
TO BE CONTINUED!..
STAY TUNED TO HEAR HOW DENNIS LEFT HIS JOB, STARTED A NEW LIFE, AND BECAME A MAJOR PEACE ACTIVIST JUST HOME FROM THE MARSHALL ISLANDS...