I don’t know how old I am. Maybe three. I’m sitting on shaggy carpet in a dark bedroom. Light pours over me from a bathroom. My mom and dad are there, arguing. She’s backed up against a wall. His hands are pressed flat on either side of her. He’s screaming. She’s screaming. About me. And then, nothing.
This is my first memory.
I don’t remember ever living with my father. He moved to Mississippi when I was young to work in security for a company that employed small cruise ships for daytime gambling targeted at senior citizens. My mom divorced him before I knew what “divorce” meant.
I hated when he visited. He was unlike me in every way: a 6’4” former Special Forces operative with a Terminator build and a macho persona to match. He criticized my mother because she spoiled me and let me “act like a sissy.” He compared me to his other sons, who were, to me, as tall and as macho as he was. I was the youngest, the shortest, the weakest, and the biggest disappointment. My mom defended me. I was her Pooh Bear, and she allowed me to be myself. She kept me from him as much as she could.
I never had any want to make him proud. I knew that was futile. But I felt like I had to impress him nonetheless, if only because I was afraid, of what, I don’t know…
It’s May 20, 1998. I’m 11 years old.
I’m sitting with my family in a small hospital waiting room. The room is spectacular because it looks like it’s actually trying to feel generic—fake wood paneling on the walls, dusty rubber plants in the corners, Kmart-framed paintings of pastel flowers.
There is only my family in this room, about seven or eight of us. There’s no room for anyone else. A man in a brown suit escorted us here from the ER waiting room. I thought he was taking us back to see my mom.
Earlier that night my mom was on the couch and had something like a seizure. Her body contorted. She moaned as if she were in horrible pain. I threw my arms around her and made her promise me she’d be okay. She turned blue and stopped moving. An ambulance came and swept her away. Now we’re here, waiting.
The man in the brown suit reenters the room.
Fast-forward ten minutes and we’re all in tears. My grandmother makes noises I haven’t heard before, a mix of screaming and sobbing. I’m dizzy. The Kleenex can’t go around fast enough. Everyone is hugging me, crying, telling me they love me.
Mom is dead.
Someone in the family calls my father. They tell him Mom’s passed away and they hand the phone to me.
“Scooter,” my dad calls me by my nickname.
His voice is unemotional. “You’re coming to live with me.”
What? No, no, no.
I’ve just learned my mom is dead. And now this. Unthinkably insensitive.
My mind jumps back and forth between my mom jerking around on the couch, struggling for air, and me in a football helmet trying to make my dad proud. “You’re gonna be a man, son,” I can hear him say. He’ll force me away from doing anything I want to do—no more playing dress up, no more bedtime stories, kisses on my forehead, or the smell of Mom’s perfume. I’ll be a prisoner to his idea of masculinity.
I want to cower behind my Mom and cry. Please, god, no. No, no, no.
I take the phone away from my face. I want to throw up. I whisper, terrified, to my grandmother, “Daddy said I have to live with him.”
My grandmother takes the phone and clears her throat.
“Now, Jerry,” she says, “He’s going to stay right where he is.” Her voice goes mute. Everything does. I see everyone around me writhing in pain but I can’t hear them. Is this really happening?
Flash: Mom on the couch, moaning. Flash: Mom holding me in a rocking chair, singing to me. Flash: Dad yelling at me to “man up.” Flash: Dad forcing me into football pads, happy that he can finally make a man of me.
Flash: I’m on a shaggy carpet, watching them argue. They’re fighting about me. About who gets to keep me…
I moved in with my grandmother the next day.