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My Gay Father-in-Law [Must-Read]…

My Gay Father-in-Law [Must-Read]…

With the subject of the Catholic Church and gays much in the news, I am thinking a lot about my father-in-law Dennis, who came out as gay and left the Catholic Church in 1971. 

As my wife Jennifer grew up, her relationship with her dad was rocky. They saw each other rarely because she lived on the West Coast, and he lived on the East Coast. When they did get together, sparks often flew. He would snap at her if she said or did anything that contradicted his own perspective. 

But prickly personalities and religious differences need not destroy the love of a family. Jennifer took “Honor Thy Father” not as a suggestion but as a commandment. So, she made enormous efforts to cultivate a good relationship with him. 

But every time Jen spoke with him on the phone, her face was braced for trouble, her voice was tensed up, and her every word was picked with the deliberation of a diplomat. Since he lived in New York and we lived in Los Angeles, we didn’t see him often. 

However, that changed when we moved for a fellowship year to Princeton. We would travel to New York City every three weeks or so to visit with him and his legal husband Claudio. We kept it light and focused on common interests. We never talked about religion unless they brought it up. We knew where they stood, and they knew where we stood. As the year went on, Dennis became more and more ill. It became clear that death would visit him soon.

So, on our final visit to New York City, we all knew that this would be the last time that we would ever see each other. Jen and I were heading back from Princeton to Los Angeles, and Dennis was moving from New York City to Claudio’s home country of Uruguay. They gave us a few mementos to pack in our car, and they walked us out to the sidewalk to see us off.

I thought you would hate me.

When I said goodbye to Claudio, he told me, “You know, Chris, I was terrified to meet you. I’m an atheist, a Jew, and gay. So, I thought you would hate me. But you have never been anything but loving and kind to me.” On his cheek, I gave Dennis a kiss goodbye. Tears filled my eyes as Jennifer and her dad embraced in their final farewell. 

So, Dennis and Claudio moved to Uruguay, and Jennifer and I moved back to Los Angeles. But Jennifer kept in regular contact with her dad on the phone. He became more and more ill. A nurse who cared for him gave us updates. Within months of the move, the nurse told us his death would be within days. 

I asked Jen, “Should we try to see if your dad would allow a priest to give him last rites?” She said she would see if he was open to it. She called and talked to him. 

But Dennis didn’t think he was dying, so there was no need at all, he thought, for last rites. 

Well, would he be open to a priest coming to pray with him, to give him Anointing of the Sick? Yes, he’d do that. 

I reached out to a priest friend in Los Angeles, Fr. Paul, who connected me to another priest living in Uruguay. This priest rushed over for a visit to my father-in-law. The priest heard Dennis’ confession (his first in fifty years), administered last rites, and gave him viaticum, his final Holy Communion. In the last picture we have of Dennis, just days before he died, he looks exhausted but joyful. In his emaciated hand, he holds a crucifix the priest had given him. The nurse told my wife that he wouldn’t let go of it. She washed his hands around the crucifix. 

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