As we entered into Holy Week on Sunday, I was reminded of the holy week during which Lent began for the guests and residents at the Denver Catholic Worker House this year.
On the morning of March 5, all of the Workers walked down to the Samaritan House Chapel together for the Ash Wednesday Mass where with the ashes we received the gift of the consciousness of our own mortality.
From that point forward, the day proceeded as usual. There was noon prayer, 12:30p lunch, and 6p dinner.
When we set down to dinner that night, I did not realize that we would be sitting down to our last meal with our friend and long time guest Doug Stein.
In the middle of the night, Doug was in so much pain that he had to be rushed to the hospital where he later underwent emergency surgery that could not be completed successfully. In the afternoon on Friday, March 7, life support was removed and Doug died peacefully.
The cerebral consciousness of our own mortality that we received on Wednesday morning sunk down deeper into our souls. We could feel it.
“Death is so immediate. So permanent.” I said.
* * *
As we move deeper into this Holy Week, Doug’s story is on my mind.
Doug was born in 1945 and raised in a Catholic children’s home. When he turned eighteen, Doug joined the Air Force and was actively enlisted for about a year. After his brief career in the Air Force, Doug married Tina, and later the two headed west to start a new life.
Eventually, their fresh start led them to move into the Catholic Worker House as guests sometime in the late 1980’s. At the Worker, Doug and Tina were refreshed and renewed and landed on their feet when Tina started a job at a Women’s Shelter in Denver called the Gathering Place.
Doug and Tina later ended up obtaining housing and began to offer hospitality to guests out of their own home. In 2003, Tina died of cancer and Jennifer and Anna promised her that they would take care of Doug.
After a few months, that promise led to Doug moving into the Worker House where he would live for what became the last ten years of his life.
* * *
When Kaylanne and I moved into the Worker in January, we came to know a Doug whose health was deteriorating, and whose spirit was affected by his deteriorating outer shell. Nevertheless, Doug managed to portray glimmers of that personality that many had come to know and love throughout his time at the Worker.
By January, Doug was wearing oxygen 24 hours a day and was always anxious that his tanks were going to run out and result in the immanent cessation of his breathing. But even with an oxygen tank in his hand and air tubes constantly attached to his nostrils, Doug was still the best-dressed, most charming man in Five Points.
Doug owned at least twenty pairs of shoes, all of which were perfectly shined and ranged in size from an 8 to a 14. The last week of his life, he used his monthly disability check to buy a brilliant gold diamond ring.
With a clean shave, a shiny pair of shoes, a brilliant diamond ring, a toothless smile, and his suave, yet simple charm, Doug could walk into the kitchen at the Worker House and get whatever he wanted.
On one exceptional morning after complimenting my “wireless, buttonless, hand crafted” method of making pour over coffee, Doug wound up with a fresh cup of coffee and then, over coffee, coaxed me into giving him a ride two blocks down the road to grab a pack of cigarettes. But most often, our interactions would go something like this…
“Mmm… that smells good!” Doug would say between breaths, as he meandered into the kitchen. “What are you making tonight?”
“Risotto.” I might say, “It’s like a really cheesy rice. I’ll serve it with some fresh vegetables and fruit, it will be great.”
“Oh, wow, that sounds great.” Doug would reply, “I love cheese. This will be great. You’re just the best cook, Cole, you know that?”
“Oh thanks, Doug.” I would say, “Well, you’re just the best guest, you know that?”
By this time he had me eating out of the palm of his hand, and you knew what was coming next…
“You know what would be great with that cheesy-rice?” Doug would say, “Some beans, and some chili, and some tuna, and maybe even a hot dog or two. It’s real simple, you just throw the hot dogs in the microwave, warm up the chili on the stove, and open the package of tuna.”
Doug would go on, “I’ve got all of that just down in my room, just right down these stairs in the basement. You want me to go get it?”
If I was feeling strong, I might be able to turn him down… but more often than not, Doug would wind up with some strange version of a risotto-tuna-pinto bean-hotdog casserole.
* * *
Doug was a hard man to turn down. Because of his charm, of course, but also because it was never so apparent that such a simple task—like opening up a package of tuna and setting it beside his place at the table—could ensure someone that he was loved, cared for, and accepted; and thereby, if only for a moment, overturn the narrative of loneliness, isolation, and under-appreciation that had been reinforced for most of Doug’s life.
Over and over again, we all did our best to open up a package of tuna, or talk to Doug about the weather, or tell him how nice he looked so that through those simple actions, Doug might hear the voice of the One at the Center of his soul calling him the beloved child of God.
No matter how many times we participated in the undoing of that evil old narrative, it would end up winning out, and Doug would need to be reassured.
But the path that we journey this most Holy Week gives me hope that the narrative of love, care, acceptance, appreciation, and support won in the end. During another holy week at the beginning of March, Douglas Stein died in a room full of people that loved him. A man that was born into a loneliness and isolation deeper than anything I could ever imagine died surrounded by the deep and subversive friendship that is the foundation of the Kingdom of God.
For Doug, death, I hope was the end of an evil old narrative, and the beginning of a new and beautiful story. A story where no evil veil could manage to keep covered the infinite, eternal, immense, and immanent love of God for his beloved child, Douglas Stein.