Manuel Muñoz on Trying and Failing to Tell The Story of His Biological Father
“Everyone asked me how I felt, but the mystery was how he had felt.”
In the summer of 2014, I was visiting my family in California when the news came from Mexico: my biological father had died. Not one month after I was born in 1972, my father had departed for Mexico and never returned to the States. He left my mother with five children to raise, with me as a newborn and my sister only just a year old. My mother was twenty-five.
My older siblings had been old enough to remember him and they received the news with bitterness and resentment, denouncing him. We had just finished eating dinner and I had a quiet seat at the kitchen table, half-expecting my siblings to let loose some stories I had never heard. That’s the way in our family. In remembrance, we tell stories we’ve heard thousands of times, and it often leads to another anecdote being unearthed for the first time. So many of them circulate in our family lore that it’s hard to determine who has heard what, or who has heard which version, or who has never told a particular story.
In my biological father’s case, he was someone I had heard very little about, a figure who prompted contempt and disrespect—deep, fierce emotional responses, but not stories. My siblings spit their hatred of him and their wishes for a dark afterlife. He was nothing more than the single story that would always define him. He was a man who had abandoned his children.
I helped my mother wash the dishes and, out of earshot from the rest of my family, she asked me how I felt. Nunca puso pan en mi boca, I told her. He never put bread in my mouth. My youngest sister and I had never known him. We didn’t care.
This was a reaction that many of my friends were skeptical about after I shared the news with them in the days and weeks after. How was it possible that I didn’t care? Or that I could claim to have no feeling? A few of them wondered if I had ever imagined a conversation with him. Others asked if I had ever longed to hear his voice. Some suggested, as delicately as possible, that maybe I hadn’t ever fully processed what it meant to have never known him. His death meant that any plan to meet him would never come to fruition and the cathartic release of speaking to the hurt and loss he’d caused could also never be achieved.
I sometimes understood them to say something else: because I didn’t know what having a father really meant, there couldn’t be a way to properly acknowledge why this parental loss runs so deep for so many. In seeking a truer reaction about the passing of my father—a reaction they could trust—I could see that my friends were filtering it through their relationships with their own fathers. In that regard, I felt a world apart from them.
The story of my biological father had always seemed beyond imagination. I write fiction because I am often trying to get at the emotional mystery of a glance or an unspoken exchange or a decision made in a moment. Whatever might reside in the unsayable has always seemed most potent to me, as a reader, when it’s confronted by a character who may not know the most satisfying answer. In fiction that I love best—the stories that have moved or disturbed me—characters often do things that they later regret. Their stories trace a pattern of behavior that we follow not in the hope of comeuppance, but to see when or if they recognize how their decisions have led them astray.
In trying to confront what those around me considered such a devastating milestone in life, I tried to write about it, but neither essay nor story could help me articulate it. I got nowhere past the whispered chat with my mother. My mother can be blunt and direct, her honesty unvarnished. Maybe, at that brief moment we shared while washing dishes, she was trying to urge me to say something more. Maybe she, too, was taken aback by how indifferent I seemed. I lacked even a deep, fierce emotional response—how could I tell a story about any of it?
Not a year later, my stepfather suffered a terrible stroke and I rushed home from Arizona to help my mother with the caretaking. The dread I felt was a first; it was unbearable to think of losing him and, for a few weeks, it looked as though we might. In those early stages when he wasn’t coherent, I could do nothing except read the fear and exhaustion in his eyes. I traded visitation hours with my mother at his rehab center and it was here, when I was alone with him and he could not necessarily correct me, that I would tell the nurses that he was my father and that I was his son. At its most basic to any outsider, there was no need to draw any fine lines around what exactly that relationship dynamic meant. There was no need for qualifiers like “biological” or “step.” It became clearer to me that he was my “real” father.I lacked even a deep, fierce emotional response—how could I tell a story about any of it?
In nearly losing him, I understood the pain and loss that many of my friends had already suffered, and I also began to understand something of the inevitability of death. In nearly losing him, I recognized the urgency behind hearing as many of his stories as I could gather. As his speech came back, even as his memory seemed hazy, I asked my real father some questions that I never would have before.
My father is irreverent about most things, even death, and I got to ask him if he still felt that way now that he’d been close. (His quintessentially Mexican answer: ¿cómo no?) I heard about my father’s first time crossing the border at only fifteen years of age. The frightening darkness of the desert, the holes in the simple wire fencing, decades before the US-Mexico border was as militarized as it is today. The small trailer he rented—the cheapest housing he could find—parked under a bridge to evade the police. How he hadn’t thought much about providing for children that weren’t his own. Hungry children, he told, were everywhere you could possibly look.
In graduate school, a classmate once told me that he didn’t think any of my characters were believable because they were cloaked in the nobility of the poor. I never quite understood that comment. Later on, I began to wonder if poverty itself—and the choices it can drive one to make—was what my classmate could never come near. Some of the things my father talked about sounded improbable, if not impossible, and they nearly always involved some refusal to accept what seemed futile. Why else cram into the trunk of a Volkswagen after you’ve already been deported several times? Why else turn to a different foreman seeking fieldwork when the last one refused to pay the agreed-upon wage?
In asking my father more questions, I began to see not the stories I wanted to replicate, but the survival he managed to achieve. However impossible his stories sounded—whatever loss or conflict he meant to convey by telling it to me—it ended with the very real outcome of him in the present moment, in a county rehab center, being brought back to health by one of his sons. I knew the arc of most of his life; imagining the last part that would one day come became mercilessly easy to see.
For the other father—the missing and absent one, the ghost and shell—I knew only the absolute end. There was, of course, a whole other life back in Mexico, but none of it ever took shape for me. He lacked the dimension of a real person, which is what my imagination has always needed to widen the depth of feeling in hearing the experience of another. I was the listener in my family: I could always make great leaps of empathy when I heard the smallest of details, matching what was told with who was telling it.
My mother, for example, remembering the lone mesquite in the backyard of their small house in Mathis, Texas, where she’d stand under the branches whenever her brothers punished her, tearfully counting the leaves. Or the story she told me of being released from the El Centro, California border patrol office and walking the three miles through the desert toward town, the big-rig truckers slowing down and offering her rides. She was aware of the danger and grateful for the trio of women leaving a cannery shift who picked her up and drove her safely to town. I could always study the look on my mother’s face as she told and retold these anecdotes, another layer of vulnerability to decipher and read—and put to use when it came time to write.
For the other father, no such thing.
At the end of Dear Life, Alice Munro introduces a last cluster of four pieces that she describes as “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.” The pieces are candid, too, about how they aren’t beholden any longer to the expectations of fiction if a detail sounds too improbable to be believed. For those of us who write almost exclusively of place or of family, they offer a respite from the assumption that our stories are only thinly veiled lives. The line between fact and fiction is both acknowledged and blurred, and some passages seem to test whether or not we’re truly ready to let go of those assumptions about the origins of a fiction. As a reader, I admit that I’ve often been on the lookout for the source of a story’s inspiration, for the telling details that proved so vivid that I could easily trace a story’s outline and unearth its true and vulnerable heart.
What I’ve discovered is not that I learned anything new about telling a story but about listening to them. In hearing more and more of my parents’ stories, I began to wonder why they told them to me at all. It struck me that, perhaps, they trusted me in a new way. The more I learned about them, the more they wanted to tell. Some of the stories felt like confessions, as if time itself had given them a shield from judgment. I felt my empathy grow for them; deep as it had always been, it only grew deeper. I began to understand the reward of the story told three or four times, paying attention not to the stray, mismatched details, but the catharsis of letting it go all over again. As a listener, I have grown closer to comprehending what Munro meant about those last four pieces: “I believe they are the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life.”
For my ghost father, I would never have the experience of watching him tell an anecdote. Or a self-effacing joke. Or an excuse. An evasion or a confession. A justification. A childhood memory. A longing. Perhaps this is what I was reacting against, difficult as it was to articulate back then. Everyone asked me how I felt, but the mystery was how he had felt, all those vanished years after he returned to Mexico. I wanted the autobiography of that feeling.
The story goes that he came back to the US in the early aughts. A friend of the extended family brought him back to our little town, where all of my siblings still lived, and drove him surreptitiously from house to house, workplace to workplace. He watched his grown children from a distance and he heard what they did for a living, how long they lived in that house, how they were getting on in life, and so forth. He saw all of his children again. Except one.
More than once, friends have urged me to write that story down. But it would take an empathy that I don’t think is possible quite yet, if ever. Right now, I won’t even grant him the grace of his name on the page. I have a picture of him, an identification photo stapled to a work request to enter the United States. I have a small x-ray of his lungs, a required clearance for tuberculosis delivered to the consulate’s office in Celaya, Mexico. That’s a large leap to make, from the hard eyes and the dark interior, to imagine a man who makes the effort to see the children he had long abandoned. Maybe one day. “We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven,” writes Munro in the last lines of Dear Life. “But we do—we do it all the time.”
The Consequences by Manuel Muñoz is available from Graywolf Press.