When Dad Wants You Dead
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because forgiving doesn't mean forgetting.
I would think about it every day, playing the whole scene in my head. Over and over again.
I pulled up to the house in the car with my mom, my grandmother and my siblings. I saw my father on the porch, sitting there with a glass in his hand. I remember approaching the porch, trailing behind my mom. She was upset.
We walked through the house and saw broken glass and furniture turned over.
We were in the kitchen when the explosion happened, and then I was outside running toward the front of the house and seeing my brother at the edge of the field and asking him to let me come with him. He was going to get help. He told me to stay and take care of Mom. That’s the scene I play in my head. Over and over again.
My life changed in 1974. I was 5. I lived in Ridge Spring, a small town in South Carolina, with my mother, older brother, baby sister and grandmother.
My dad decided he would end my mom’s life, as well as ours and burn the family home down. With us in it.
My mom had just finished high school, and my dad was in his early 20s when they got married.
Leading up to that day, my dad and mom had had a domestic dispute. They’d been dealing with domestic issues coupled with my father’s rampant illicit drug use for a couple of years at that point, and it finally came to a head. So my dad decided he would end my mom’s life, as well as ours and burn the family home down. With us in it.
My mom received third-degree burns. My grandmother did too, and she died 30 days after the fire because of complications from diabetes. My brother received minor burns on his legs; my sister, who was in a crib, somehow escaped with no burns.
I received third-degree burns on my hands and arms, face, feet and thighs.
Everyone was able to get out of the house, with the exception of my baby sister. My mother was able to convince my father to go back in the house to get my sister out. So he went in and brought her out.
The house was burned to the ground. My father was charged and convicted. He received a sentence of life in prison.
My siblings and I all went to separate homes. My sister went to a cousin’s house. My brother stayed with a family from church, while I stayed with a distant relative nearby. We remained separated until our mother was released from the hospital. We moved into our great-grandfather’s house. And once Mom was strong enough to take care of us, we came home.
My mom is a fighter; it was because of her will to live that we made it. She’d been in the hospital for about seven months, but once she got back on her feet, she never treated us any differently than any other kid. I didn’t get a pass because of my burns. She punished me just like the rest of my siblings. She pushed me to be strong, confident. And even though I would go out and hear different remarks and teasing from kids, my mom always reinforced positivity.
Sports saved my life. I played football, basketball, softball and baseball. I was bigger than my peers, which gave me an edge. I felt I could always make things right through sports, and I was good too. I was an all-state linebacker at Ridge Spring-Monetta High School, and I had aspirations, just like a lot of kids, to make the pros one day. But I joined the National Guard — following my older brother, who had been in the military, and I went to college at South Carolina State University.
I visited my father in prison three different times — the first time as a preteen, with my mother and sister. The second time I was probably 24 years old, while I was stationed at Fort Jackson and the prison was probably about 10 miles down the road.
But the third and final visit happened about a year before I left for Korea, around 2010. His counselor reached out to me and said he was in pretty bad shape.
I never hated my father. He’d been dealing with mental issues, including schizophrenia, his entire life. He never knew who his father was. But I was angry and I wanted some answers. I wanted to know what happened; I wanted to know why he didn’t want us. I still saw him as my dad, so there was a little fear there, even though I was a grown man at the time.
I wanted to transfer some of that pain that I had been shouldering all my life onto him though, and I wanted him to feel the pain he had caused.
But once I saw him come from behind that metal door and he walked toward me, the anger and disappointment began to dissipate. He had gray-peppered hair and was a shell of the person that I remembered; I immediately began to feel sorry for him.
When we sat down together and began talking, I think the first words that I told him was that I loved him and that I forgave him.
I don’t remember him saying, “I love you too,” or “thank you.” I was so focused on telling him the way I felt, that I don’t remember what he said. He may have said, “I love you too, Son.” But I wasn’t focused on that.
I never did ask him why — even though that was my intention prior to visiting him. Once I saw him, I felt a sense of relief. We shook hands. I don’t remember embracing.
My father was a troubled man, but I think he loved us. I found out, through our conversations, that he’d been tracking my sports career in high school. We had that common affection for sports.
My dad died of a heart attack in August 2016. He was 67 years old.
James J. Scott, author of Changing Faces, told his story to Mark W. Wright.