Finding Family, Part Four: My Constellation

Will I recognize them? And how embarrassing will it be if I don’t?

Despite having seen my sisters on Zoom and in photos, those were the thoughts in my head as I hurried up the jetway and followed signs from my gate to the terminal. What if I started off the weekend with a case of mistaken identity and rushed toward the wrong people?

I had nothing to fear: my sisters looked exactly as I imagined…at least, facially. Physically, they were shorter than I expected, which is to say shorter than me. I was suddenly the tall one, which is quite a statement, considering that I am not even 5’4.” Even as the middle child, it made me feel a little like the big brother.

They were warm, funny, and beautiful. My nerves were thoroughly calmed in a blur of hugs and chatter, as we made our way from the airport to lunch.

Ensconced in a cheetah-print booth at a Miami restaurant inexplicably decked out like a bordello on Fantasy Island, the conversation flowed like a stream, interrupted only by the occasional appearances of a handsome waiter with an unplaceable accent built to distract from his ineptitude. Our food was slow in coming, but it hardly mattered, as the conversation stretched into a second hour.

By the time we finally received the bill, the day had gone from sunny to surprise rain. “Surprise” wouldn’t ordinarily be the right word for a summer afternoon shower in Miami, something I had learned as a boy during summer stays with my dad. But this was different: it was a true downpour of the epic rain-blowing-sideways variety. We waited on the covered sidewalk for it to pass. Except that it didn’t.

Our car was parked a few blocks away and we had no umbrella. Should we keep waiting as long as it took? Or just suck it up and run for the car, knowing we’d be drenched? Maria Elena wanted to call an Uber, but Elizabeth and I told her to wait. My vast Uber experience — as a man who has never had a license — convinced me that a driver would be impossible to find in such weather. Meanwhile, Elizabeth was sure the rain would pass any minute. Maria Elena endured us, her doubting siblings, for as long as she could, but when twenty minutes had passed and we were still trapped, she called for a ride anyway.

Elder sister wisdom prevailed: She found a driver immediately and we were soon crowded into the back seat, laughing at the craziness of hiring an Uber for such a short ride. Water pelted the windows as heavily as if we were in a car wash and the decision seemed to be a good one after all. But as soon as we arrived at the parking garage, the rain ceased completely, as if to mock us. And just like that, we had made our first memory.

I paused in the midst of our afternoon to call my cousin Alex and ask if I should head up to Boca Raton to see my dad in hospice. I didn’t want to break the spell of this first visit with my sisters, yet I also wasn’t sure how dire things were. But Alex told me that my dad was not actually transferred to the hospice setting yet and didn’t even know he was going to. The oncologist had only just revealed that the treatments had gone as far as they could. Until all the arrangements could be worked out, Alex was holding off springing the news; a sudden visit from me would be a tip-off. I was free to focus on my sisters.

After a night of teasing each other and telling stories, we picked up in the morning with more of the same. But it was also time for me to meet the men in their lives: Maria Elena’s husband, who came to the US in the Mariel boatlift era, and Elizabeth’s boyfriend, a Columbian firefighter. I didn’t tell my sisters, but I was even more nervous about meeting their partners than I had been in meeting them. I was afraid these guys might have the macho swagger of so many Latino men, or that they would want to talk about sports (about which I know nothing other than how the Red Sox are doing at any given time), or that they might be conservative in a way that would make it hard for us to connect. Because my sisters love them, I hated the thought that we might not get along.

My fears were needless. Elizabeth’s boyfriend is the personification of chill, a sweetheart who indeed loves his (perpetually doomed) Miami Dolphins but doesn’t really care who else does. My brother-in-law and I are both natural-born jokers, so we kept up a steady banter, and reminisced about Little Havana back in the day. The five of us spent the afternoon and evening eating, exploring the murals of the arty Wynwood neighborhood, and eating some more. (If food is the language of love, this is a very loving family.)

The next morning, the circle expanded again, as I met my niece and her boyfriend and two of my nephews, one with his wife and children in tow. A table for 12 at Sunday brunch in Miami is a tall order to come by, so we ended up with a really long hightop plus a low “kids’ table” with the word “kid” spanning kindergarten to college age. It looked to me like Thanksgiving in the movies; in my own life, there had never been enough relatives to require a kids’ table. Sitting there surrounded, I realized I was suddenly part of a big family.

It was a thrilling feeling and one that gave me a little pang. My boyfriend is not very social by nature, so most of our relationship has been contained in time alone together. This noisy brunch was a perfect setting for me, but not for him; I both wished he was there with us and yet had trouble imagining him enjoying it very much.

One thing I didn’t doubt was whether or not I’d be back. This was clearly a first visit, not an only one. By the time we said our goodbyes, it seemed like I had known them forever, a cliché sentiment that was actually true.

The next morning, as we prepared for the workweek in our separate cities, we texted about the sudden void created by not being able to see each other. We had gone fifty years before that weekend without ever once saying hello and now it felt strange not to.

A few days after my return to Boston, dad did enter hospice. His care team couldn’t predict how long he might live; though quite ill, he is also someone who had survived decades of drinking, supplemented by a very Miami Vice 1980’s, and once came home from surgery to rearrange his patio furniture instead of resting. Having already outlasted his original prognosis by months, it was unclear whether we were looking at days or weeks now.

For me, this led to a dilemma. Having already made one Delta-era trip to Florida — where the governor’s policy essentially requires the citizens to play Russian Roulette with extra bullets — I was not eager for more pandemic travel. By this point, four of my friends had breakthrough Covid and though two cases were mild, two were quite devastating, and I felt like I had dodged a bullet by returning from my trip unscathed.

I determined not to go. And then Alex made a group chat for the people important to dad — and it was only six people. In a circle so small, how could I stay home? I decided the right thing to do was book another southern flight and hope for the best. And then an elderly tia mentioned that she wasn’t vaccinated — and I was reminded that I didn’t know the practices or beliefs of almost anyone on the list. I re-decided to stay home. And then to go. And then stay home. And once more to go.

One night I dreamed that my sisters and I were in the waiting room at my dad’s hospital. In dream logic, he looked just like he had when I was kid in Miami, with his shirt unbuttoned to the middle of his chest to reveal a shiny gold chain. He was mad that I was there and told me to go catch my train. One of my sisters found a restaurant in the hospital and we had lechon, but he wouldn’t eat because he was dead. The dream didn’t have an ending, some neat ribbon to tie up its lesson. When I woke in the morning, it offered no wisdom; it was proof only of my colliding lives.

In the end, I texted to say I wasn’t going to fly down, but that I wanted to do a FaceTime chat with dad and Lily when Alex got to the hospital. It turned out that my cousin was already in dad’s room, but dad was in a foul mood, complaining nonstop. He recommended against me calling dad right then. “Not sure it’s a good time. He’s way too grumpy.”

A few days later, dad died.

I felt grateful for the goodness of our “lasts.” Our last conversation would forever be the cheerful summer chat, devoted largely to the Red Sox. Our last visit would remain the one where he met Lily. But I also knew that I was no comfort to him at the end and that I will carry that knowledge.

I did not expect the grief I felt. Because of our complicated history, I had believed I would largely just feel relief that he didn’t have to keep suffering. But the loss echoed in me in surprising ways, bringing back the happier of childhood memories: watching him dance, his hips fluid and his smile contagious…the time he took me fishing offshore, the silver line flashing like lightning in the hot Miami sun…and the hot summer afternoon he unwittingly introduced me to my father.

When I admitted to my boyfriend that I had not imagined all the tears, he soothed me with a simple truth. No matter the history, he said, “Your dad is still your dad.”

There was no funeral planned, but I did find an outlet for my feelings. The Red Sox, as if answering my dad’s deepest wishes, made the ACLS playoffs. The morning tickets went on sale for Game 3, the first of the series to be played in Boston, I had my laptop, iPad, and phone all open to the team website, ready to run the cyber-gauntlet. When I got past the hold-your-horses-while-we-refresh screen, the first two sets of tickets I purchased sold out from under me. But a third try landed me a pair of right field roof box seats.

On a clear, windy night, Lily and I carried a picture of my dad into the park. High above the diamond, vivid green in the glow of the Fenway lights, we watched a game my dad would have loved: the boys in red and white absolutely slugging their way through the innings. It was the best kind of benediction for the dad that I knew.

October is always a month of transition in New England. The leaves change and so does the air. Blue-sky days compete with chilly gray ones. The festive pumpkins and cornstalks fool the eye, but the earth knows the remnants of summer are breaking down and fading away. It’s the right time, if such a thing exists, for endings.

Days after saluting my dad at Fenway, I wound down my relationship with my boyfriend, who I love. We had found the limits of where we could go together. The break-up had to happen; we both knew this — and still it hurt. He had comforted me so well when I lost my dad, but he couldn’t be my comfort in this. That wasn’t his job anymore.

But I wasn’t alone. Losses are made easier when you have family — birth and chosen alike — to turn to. The people I love and who love me shine in my life like so many constellations. Even when a star dims, my night sky is never black. As I left my boyfriend’s house, heading into the next chapter of my life, I knew just what to do.

I texted my sisters, the gifts the universe had delivered right on time.

Read Part One: The Man Who Wasn’t There

Read Part Two: You Have Sisters

Read Part Three: The Family We Choose

Previously Published on Medium


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