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Understanding the Family: A Guide for Clinicians

Lisette and Gabe’s father went missing when they were nine and seven and never came back or called. Lisette remembered him like this: a stocky figure in a white undershirt, exhaling smoke, watching wrestling on TV and winking down at her where she sat on the carpet. Reading the paper with glasses on. Cutting a callus off the ball of his foot. Gradually they and their mother began talking about him as though he was dead.

Their mother gradually faded herself out of his side of the family. She told Lisette she found being around them too painful. “But don’t lose them,” she said. “That’s your family. Especially your abuela.” So once Lisette and Gabe were old enough, they started driving down for summer visits that slowly became more frequent. In that era of constant baby showers—like 2006, right?—they went to Miami nearly every other month.

And every time they descended the peninsula from their sleepy Gulf Coast rat-town for some family celebration or other, they and their cousins celebrated by getting wasted. They drank around the world, expensive or cheap, depending who was buying: Puerto Rican rum, Brazilian cachaça, Irish whiskey, Dominican beer, Colombian aguardiente. They got disgusting hangovers.

One hot night they all stood in Uncle Ruben’s driveway talking and guzzling sweaty Presidentes. A plastic bottle of vodka went around. They were all buzzing about some stupid summer blockbuster Lisette was privately boycotting. Everyone else wanted to see it. One cousin threatened to tell everyone how it ended and people shouted at him to stop. Pretended to put their fingers in their ears, the girls trying to cover his mouth with their hands. They screamed, “No spoilers! No spoilers!”

He laughed and pushed everyone’s arms away with his free hand, the other hand gripping a beer. The arms kept flying back. “The guy gets a gun and shoots himself!” he yelled. The cousin laughed so hard he was almost crying. “The guy commits suicide!”

Natalie put her hands over his face, tripping drunkenly over her own feet and sloshing her drink on her short shorts. “Like Uncle Berto!” she gasped. “Riiiight?”

Someone kicked her. People stopped laughing and the driveway went hush. Natalie clapped her hand to her mouth and stared at her feet. Everyone pretended to look away--and then Lisette and Gabe knew it was true.


Their buzzes wore off a little as their uncle talked. Their dad’s younger brother had overheard the commotion and shepherded them inside the house. Now they sat at the round table in his yellow kitchen. The overhead lamp looked like an upside down white salad bowl and it illuminated Uncle Ruben’s hands as he spoke.

He told them that their dad had turned up in Port St. Lucie over a year ago. They’d given up looking for him by then. He’d been living in a rented duplex with a girlfriend. She’d called, frantic––she’d gone into the bathroom to find incredible pools of blood around Berto, who lay on sheets of plastic over tile and the gun laying beside him.

It turned out that all this time, everyone else (their uncle, the cousins, even their mother) had known about it. Gabe was angry at all of them. He wanted to know why? Why did younger cousins know? They’d all been there the night the woman called, explained Ruben, but they’d been ordered to keep their mouths shut. So ugly. How could they tell them? Ruben especially thought it best not to tell Mima, their grandmother. His mother, their dad’s mother.

“But now you know,” said Uncle Ruben, “and Mima still doesn’t. And your mother and I think it’s better if she doesn’t. To protect her.”

“Okay,” said Gabe, holding his head in his hands, his elbows on the table.

Lisette nodded and didn’t say anything. Her uncle put a hand over hers but Lisette took it away and put it in her lap. She looked from her plump hands to Gabe’s bony ones, to Ruben’s hairy ones. Later, when she remembered sitting at that table, it seemed time had grunted to a pause, and that if there was a before and after in her life, the place where it folded in two had yellow light, a round white table, and foreheads and arms and hands lit up underneath it.

Lisette worried about future phone conversations with Mima. She spoke often of her son in a hopeful voice. Between her own bad Spanish and her complete absence of hope Lisette already had a hard time piecing together good responses.

“You know what I’d say if your father knocks on my door tomorrow?” Mima would say. “Where have you been? Why didn’t you call? No! I wouldn’t say nothing like that. I’d say, Son! Come in. Sit down. Have you eaten anything? Sit down, son. Let me bring you something to eat.”


That night after everyone had gone to sleep, Gabe swiped a half-empty bottle of Bacardi and two cans of Coke left over from the party. They got in Lisette’s car and began the slow escape from Uncle Ruben’s subdivision, a labyrinth of tile-roofed villas lined up five feet apart. Gabe sat in the passenger seat pouring rum into his Coke can.

“Don’t do that while we’re driving,” Lisette said.

“Why not?” said Gabe.