Trauma ran away with my childhood: Losing my father to violence forced me to grow up fast

I used to love it when my dad would take me for rides on his motorcycle. Even in his mid-forties he had the spirit of a man still in his twenties. He was 6’1″, built like a brick house, with light skin, long locs and a salt and pepper goatee. His somewhat snaggletoothed smile beamed with a light that outshined its flaw. His favorite daily activities included lifting weights and doing push-ups, vibing out to hip-hop and house music, playing “Tekken” on PlayStation, basketball, puffin’ on the finest trees, and, occasionally, partying and hooking up with women half his age. With his vibrant youthfulness, it’s no wonder that he added riding a motorcycle to the list later in life.

On a Saturday afternoon I’d be playing the newest Spider-Man game in my room and he’d yell out, “Fresh! I’m ’bout to go on a ride, you comin’?” At that point, everything else became irrelevant; I would drop my controller and sprint like an Olympian to grab my oversized helmet and meet him on the front porch. He’d tighten my helmet to make sure it was secure around my neck, even though I still bounced around like a bobblehead on Baltimore’s uneven streets.

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Riding on my dad’s motorcycle was the closest thing on Earth to flying on a spaceship. Cutting through the city was fun, but the real adventure came once we hopped on the highway. Right on I-83, my dad and I would zip through traffic like the cars weren’t there. Leaning from side to side, astonished at how gravity hadn’t forced us to the ground yet. The longer the trip, the better. One time we drove to get lunch at a seafood restaurant, went to a bike shop somewhere in Baltimore County, then had to drive back in a rainstorm. Every drop felt like a bee sting on my ten-year-old legs. But even in a slippery situation like that, I had unwavering trust in my dad. I knew he’d never let me get hurt on his watch. Our bond was unbreakable.

In those moments, moving at what felt like a million miles an hour, with my stomach having a butterfly infestation, you couldn’t tell me that I wasn’t flying and that my dad wasn’t the coolest pilot in existence. I always thought that if I held on tight as he said, he’d never leave from my arms, and I could keep him there with me forever. Unfortunately, that forever was short-lived. My dad couldn’t outrace the reaper.

August 3, 2013: bookmarked in my brain as the worst day of my life.

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It started off as a normal Saturday morning. I was 11. My dad talked trash while inviting me and my big brother L.B. to play H.O.R.S.E. on the basketball hoop in the driveway. He won and proceeded to rub it in our faces in his usual boastful fashion. Big bro left and I washed up and got ready to go to a wedding with my mom. I didn’t want to go, but my mom insisted, and my dad didn’t try to stop her.

Mom was rushing me so we wouldn’t be late, so I hurried out the door with a quick, “see you later.” I can’t remember if my dad or I said “I love you.” I pray that at least one of us did. I wish I had taken a quick second to hug him.

After the wedding, I expected to see my dad at my performance. I was playing Father Wolf in the production of “Jungle Book the Musical” at the Arena Players theatre camp in West Baltimore — one of the leads — and at my first show that week I had seen a sea of family members in the crowd, thanks to my dad. I was his little star in the making and he thought it was vital that everyone see me shine. At this show, I didn’t see anybody in the audience for me, other than my mom and my Aunt Kelly.

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After the show, I took pictures with my camp friends and we said goodbye. My mom hugged me and told me what a great job I had done, but the whole time I could sense that her energy was off. Her excitement seemed muffled. I asked why she and my aunt were the only ones there and she told me everyone was at my grandmother’s house. I knew she was hiding something.

My mom got in the backseat with me as my aunt drove. Adults always ride in the front seat; I was smart enough to realize that my mom had something important to tell me. Without much of a preface, she grabbed me by my shoulders, looked me right in the eyes, and said, “Scott, Dad died.” 

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It’s crazy how your entire world can be shattered with three words. My body went into immediate shock. We played basketball that morning. I had just heard his voice. How could all that be gone with a few words? I felt an antarctic chill travel through my entire body, mixed with tears and a myriad of indescribable emotions. It felt like something just came down to Earth, ripped my heart out of my chest, then stepped on it for good measure. That thing was called trauma, and it didn’t stop after taking my heart. It took my innocence and ran off with that as well. 

I always knew that Baltimore was famous for its high crime rate, but I never expected those statistics to knock on my door and kick me out of my home. My father was shot several times in our driveway that afternoon, leaving a burgundy stain on the pavement we hooped on just hours before. 

Up to that point, my childhood had been damn near perfect. My dad gave me, the baby boy, everything I asked for: new video games on command, pretty much any Apple product you could think of, a fresh pair of KDs or Lebrons when I saw a new flavor I liked in Mondawmin Mall, you name it. But most importantly, he gave me double that in love. Though he and my mom were divorced, they had a healthy co-parenting relationship and always made sure whatever issues they had with each other never affected the way they raised me. My family was close, and we did all sorts of things together, giving me a strong sense of community and appreciation for family from an early age.

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I went to school in the hood in South Baltimore, and neither of my parents lived in the safest parts of the city, but I hadn’t had any bad experiences with inner-city issues. I say this to emphasize that nothing that I experienced in my life up to that point could have prepared me for the trauma I had to cope with in the years that followed. My father’s death taught me to never again think that I’m safe from the many illnesses that plague my city. Anyone can become a victim at any day, any moment, any age.

Over the next few years, my innocence slowly chipped away as I gradually learned the true repercussions murder forces families to face. My father was the glue of the family, and in the time since I’ve noticed how we have gradually become less connected. 

Now, we don’t communicate with my granny as much. After my father passed, I learned that my grandmother had some mental issues caused by past trauma from her childhood as well as her adult life. My father was the one who made sure that she took her medications and would be there for her when she’d go through her episodes, but once he was gone she sank more into depression, and her mood swings and outbursts became much more frequent and extreme. Some of my other relatives tried to take on the responsibility of taking care of her, but eventually they either gave up on her or were driven away.

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We used to take family pictures at Target every year. Picked a day when everyone was free, coordinated our colors, and took shots of different combinations of family members to frame and hang up at our separate homes. That tradition has slowly faded away, year after year; I almost forgot about it until I started writing this. 

Money began to slow up, so the whole spoiled thing went away. Thankfully, my mother has always been able to keep a good job so we have never been poor, but after, I had to spend more time alone because she had to work more. Even when she was there, she wasn’t always fully present. I learned later that my mother struggled with clinical depression and anxiety, and was on a personal journey to healing her mind from her own trauma that she experienced growing up in Baltimore. She never expected to be a single mother, and that transition ate away at her emotionally over the years.

Around this time, I slowly began to learn who depression was myself: quiet as a mouse, but cuts deep as a dagger. She started forcing her way into my room every night, seeping deeper and deeper into my psyche, steadily filling my brain with thoughts of pessimism, self-loathing and eventually suicide. 

I can’t say that I wanted to take my own life, or even attempted to, but once my dad passed away I started to contemplate if I wanted to occupy space in this world anymore. At certain points the pain was so deep I thought I might be happier in whatever afterlife he was in. I wasn’t good at sharing my troubles with other people because I didn’t want to be seen as a sob story. I never wanted to be pitied, and I convinced myself that I had to stay strong for my mom’s sake, so I attempted never to appear sad on the surface. I would try my best to suppress my broken spirit, occasionally crying alone in my room when the burden became too heavy to bear. “Traumatized” by Meek Mill, “Sing About Me” by Kendrick Lamar and “REMember” by Mac Miller felt like the only songs that understood what I was going through. Music was the only therapy I accepted at the time. At a certain point in the eleventh grade, I even started drinking from my mom’s liquor cabinet every night, first out of mild curiosity and gradually as a way for me to drown out the demons that liked to bother me in my bed. 

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Safe to say that for many years my coping mechanisms weren’t the healthiest. The crazy thing about trauma is that no one can truly tell you how to navigate through it. The most other people can do is let you know they’re there for you, but you can’t force anyone to talk about their problems until they’ve processed it themselves. Some people take a lot more time to grieve than others and everyone’s grieving process is different. Honestly, my most depressing moments weren’t when things were bad, but rather when they were good. The moments he should’ve been there for. 

At my twelfth birthday party, my mom and my brother made sure to do it big for me because my dad always loved to throw me huge parties. At one point my friends and I were in my room partying and suddenly my chest tightened and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I ran into the back of the basement and tears just started rushing down my cheeks. My friends couldn’t tell what was wrong because a couple of minutes before I had been as happy as could be, but I slowly realized that I felt this way because it was my first birthday without my dad there. That moment started the streak of a lot of “firsts” without him. I started crying at my first performance without him. I cried on my first Father’s Day without him. Over time these firsts became easier to cope with, but never easy to digest. Every big moment in my life will forever be bittersweet without him.

Stories like mine are quite common where I’m from. Not everyone has to live with their father being murdered when they’re 11, but most Black children from Baltimore have to deal with some form of trauma that stays with them through their adolescence and, if not dealt with, their adulthood as well. Violence and related issues have plagued the people of my city for generations, causing trauma to be perpetuated and passed down as family heirlooms, with children being forced to deal with the ugly parts of the world well before they should be exposed to anything in that vein, unconsciously becoming part of a list of unfortunate statistics.

The statistic that impacted me was Baltimore’s abnormal murder rate. In this year alone there have been 277 homicides — 252 of them caused by gun violence. 2019 ended with a whopping 348 homicide victims. That’s one murder for almost every day of the year. About a fourth of them were around my father’s age. If you grow up in Baltimore, you’ve lost someone to gun violence, or know someone who has. I have friends, mentors and relatives with more obituaries than books in their homes. Hearing someone got killed becomes as routine as brushing your teeth in the morning. Being affected so closely by gun violence has made me contemplate my own demise since it happened. I no longer wondered if I would die from a bullet, but rather, when

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After my father’s murder, I became part of another statistic — children growing up in single-parent households. According to the Baltimore City Health Department, 64.8% of children lived in single-parent households in 2017. Children growing up without both parental figures also causes trauma. We can lack role models to guide us through the hellish circumstances we’re forced to face outside, which causes us to grow up on our own while learning from our own mistakes in one of America’s most dangerous playgrounds. 

Another statistic stealing mothers and fathers alike is Baltimore’s incarceration rate. In 2015, about 15% of Baltimore’s children had a parent who was incarcerated or on probation — approximately 20,000 children. I have close friends and family who have dealt with this firsthand and can remember clearly how these events left them traumatized while growing up. 

The father of my godbrother and godsister, who are both around my age, spent about five years in and out of prison. We grew up together because our fathers had been best friends. While their father was locked up, the three of us tried our best to remain close, but with both fathers now absent from our lives, it was hard to stay connected while dealing with our respective pains. They dealt with their trauma in almost completely opposite ways. 

After losing my father to gun violence and then losing her father to the penitentiary, my godsister says she felt she didn’t have much to look up to. In middle school, she went through a phase where she didn’t want to listen to anyone because of the hurt she felt from her father not being there. She says going through this experience has made her stronger. Since she didn’t have her father there to give her certain things, she worked harder for everything she wanted and didn’t depend on anyone to give it to her. Through her trauma she learned independence and hustle, two qualities she’ll carry with her for the rest of her life.

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My godbrother strived to be independent and self-sufficient as well, but his methods weren’t as positive. We were both the only boys our age in our family, so for a long time we were inseparable, playing video games, riding skateboards, and watching YouTube videos on how to jailbreak our iPhone 5s. At 14, he could charge people to fix their broken iPhones. He excelled at pretty much everything he tried, and I looked up to him for it. After a certain point, though, I could see how his father’s absence impacted him. He began smoking weed more consistently and then later started selling it as well. He wanted to make his own money quickly and started getting accustomed to the lifestyle that came with that. 

Later he started carrying a pistol, and during our sophomore year in high school he got sent to juvie for a grand theft auto charge. I remember us kickin’ it the day he got out and he told me that he couldn’t stand how his father had tried to ridicule him for the things that he’d done when his father had spent a big chunk of his life in prison for doing criminal acts as well. And while I don’t condone all of his choices, I can understand where he’s coming from. Watching his father do the things he did made my godbrother attempt to discover his manhood in similar ways. With his father locked up he didn’t have another male figure helping him decide between right and wrong. If my big brother hadn’t stepped up as my male role model when my father died, I might have gotten into the same things.

All three of us started off as good kids, but trauma led us all down different paths in life. My godsister and I are both attending four-year universities on scholarship. She’s playing softball and working on her degree in biology, while I’m getting my bachelor’s in theatre at UCLA. My godbrother just got released from jail about a month ago — his second arrest since the first time he was locked up. I don’t look down on him in any way or see myself as better than him because of where we both are in life. I realize that having more guidance after suffering from harsh trauma helped me to make more beneficial decisions for my life. I hope that with his newfound freedom, he begins to take steps toward dealing with his own deep-rooted trauma, to grow into more of a light for the future while leaving behind the darkness of the past. I hope for that for all the kids like me whose childhoods were shaped by trauma. 

I lost my innocence before I finished playing with toys, and I’m not alone. When it comes to cities like mine, Black kids end up getting dealt a bad hand more often than not. These traumatic circumstances heavily impact our emotional and mental health, and without the proper guidance and care, many of us end up taking a lot of left turns trying to get on the right track. Our environments influence our composition without us having a say in it and that forces us to grow up before we get to fully experience being a kid. I was blessed enough to have people in my life who grabbed my hand and walked me through my dark times with a flashlight, but stories like mine are the exception, not the rule. People can be so quick to judge kids like my godbrother, but they wouldn’t know what to do if they had to face the same obstacles we did at such an early age.

At times I mourn the me who once was and fight to get back that inner child. But I know that my trauma has shaped me into who I am today and continues to teach me that life can be gone in the blink of an eye so I have to make an impact while I’m still here. I can’t heal the trauma of others or provide a one-size-fits-all solution for it. I just hope that me telling my story can help someone while they’re experiencing the pain within their own.

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