Chapter 5: Enter the Pooh Bear

Our experience at the “friends” was all the motivation we needed to get the ball rolling in that next chapter of our life. Casey was offered a job as a receptionist at a monthly rate that was barely more then the cost of placing Alexes in childcare for the month.  She elected not to take the job and instead opted to work at a childcare place that, as an added benefit, allowed Alexes’ presence in the appropriate age group at no additional cost.

After my experience in California, I was committed to NOT returning to the slog of a grocery store. I vowed, if only to myself, that I would never return to that industry.  Instead, I put on my best suit, went to a fancy employment agency in downtown Seattle, and eventually landed a job on par with my qualifications: shoe salesman at the mall.  I took the job to meet our immediate needs and quickly realized it would not be enough.  In a few short months, I managed to find a better job as an Inventory Clerk at an aerospace company.

We quickly found a two-bedroom apartment in Redmond, WA, across Lake Washington from downtown Seattle, due east of Bellevue.  All our furniture was in a storage unit in Southern California, but we did not have the money to have it sent. In Alexes’ room, there was only the toy box that fit in the backseat of our Daihatsu Charade. We lived on the floor of that two-bedroom apartment for three months before a friend paid to have the furniture sent.

Alexes had toys and books so for her, the empty space was her personal track & field, her gymnasium to do tumbling, and her library where she laid out her books in the order she wanted them read to her.  We all slept in the middle of the living room on sleeping bags so the two bedrooms echoed at night in the emptiness.  It was very difficult to live with such limited means at this time.  The apartment we left in California was beautiful; Mike made good money; the refrigerator was always full of food; I never worried about how to buy diapers.  But, in those early months in Seattle, there were times we had to borrow milk from the neighbors just to feed Alexes.  On Easter that year, I remember wondering if Mike and I would eat at all.

Elmo

Alexes didn’t know any different. She was happy and loved having the three of us “camp” out together.  One day I heard growling coming from her room. The emptiness of the apartment only amplified the growling. It was loud.  I stood in the doorway to Alexes’ room and watched my one and half year old baby wrestling with her stuffed Big Bird.  She pinned him down, growled at him, directly in his face, and then flipped around with him on top.  She had a fierce look in her eyes.  They tumbled around as though it was the World Wrestling Federation.  I kept wondering where had she seen wrestling since we didn’t have a TV.  But there she was in a death match against Big Bird.  I secretly worried if she was going to be a serial killer because she seemed to enjoy bringing pain on poor Big Bird.

It felt like a victory when the furniture did arrive.  We had successfully relocated from Los Angeles, CA, to Seattle, WA.  We survived the chaos of the road trip.  We both had jobs and Alexes would be close to Casey on a day-to-day basis.  We got ourselves into an apartment, and, with help, our apartment was finally furnished.  We got out, away from the family turmoil, the feeling of constant judgment for our choices.  We eliminated as much of the background noise, the interference, associated with raising children in close proximity to family as 1200 miles could offer.  We were ready for life to settle, for things to become easier.

They did not.

Week in and week out we were faced with the reality of trying to make ends meet with crappy jobs. Casey was being mistreated and disrespected at her childcare job, and I did not make enough money at my job to make ends meet (not even close). I took a second job waiting tables on the graveyard shift at Denny’s to try and make ends meet.  Amidst it all, Casey and I held tightly to our dreams of finishing college.  There was a growing sense of futility in our lives, in our lack of direction, which manifested in constant fighting.

We were lost.

Casey’s Journal entry dated: August 15, 1993

Long time no write.  Well, I really can’t recap everything that has happened since I wrote last, let’s just say a lot.  My little girl is huge and a little person. When she wants something, she asks for it.  Even though her vocabulary is limited, she tries.  She knows the important things like Mommy, Daddy, Barney (the purple dinosaur), and pizza.  Seattle has been difficult to master, but we are trying.  Alexes has been in day care for six months and even though I miss her, she learns a lot. As for Michael and I, well, as always, it takes a lot of energy to make a marriage work.  We often get impatient too quickly and end up fighting too easily.  But, I figure that as things start to happen for us in Seattle, we will cool out.  For now, we are surviving by making the best of it.  My family helps me through it as always.  There has been one major change.  Alexes is now a 100% “Daddy’s little Girl”.  Since he has spent more time with her, she is more attached.  We are all a lot closer. 

An idea precipitated out of a mixture of frustrating circumstances.  Our creative solution was “Raindrop Kids”, our own in-house daycare. We charged headfirst into the idea with all the gusto and naiveté that we charged into every other harebrained, “I Love Lucy” idea.  We found the perfect location in a house in the same community with a detached mother-in-law house in the back that we converted to a daycare. To help meet the high cost of rent in the house, we took on two roommates.  One of the girls that worked with Casey at the daycare moved in and became her partner in Raindrop Kids.  trifectaAnthony Jones, aka AJ, also moved in.  AJ and I met in our sophomore year at the University of Oregon, and, along with a third friend, Gene Shafer, we became a “tri-fecta” of best friends.  Gene and AJ held that rarest of titles: my only remaining pre-Casey friends.

Raindrop Kids was a great idea.  It initiated when a small group of parents, disgruntled with the ownership where Casey was working, began to search for a reliable alternative.  They trusted Casey and her friend with their children and a daycare of our own was a logical next step.  Casey could continue to work in the presence of Alexes but with greater earning potential.

The idea was sound; the early forecasts for success were promising.  There were enough initial clients to meet minimum costs.  All Casey need do was to advertise and recruit 2-4 more families.  If they could increase their clients even this small amount, they would be operating in the black.

As it turns out, a childcare in the state of Washington must be officially licensed and certified to advertise.  There was no craigslist at the time and no other affordable means of soliciting business.   The only way to overcome the setback was to meet the requirements for state certification, a commitment of at least two years in a vocational school.

The partner refused, placing the burden of the state mandate squarely on the Casey’s shoulders.  The choice to pursue the certification was a definitive moment in our lives, a reminder of my fathers’ “bird in the hand, two in the bush” dilemma.  A two-year academic tangent into childcare administration from a childhood dream of being a lawyer was tantamount to failure.  Casey flat out refused.  I agreed with her.

Our enthusiasm for Raindrop Kids stalled while we struggled to nail down next steps.  Month after month, we struggled to pay rent, keep the power turned on, and even have enough food around. We knew that our next steps would define our future path and we refused to settle on a future in childcare. Even then we knew that we would not, could not, be content if we did not pursue an academic path.  We knew what we wanted. College was a distant thing, an unreachable goal, a path with no beginning, yet individually, and as a couple, we clung to the idea of getting an education as if our lives depended on it. We had no concept of how to make it happen.  We were lost and without any clue how not to be.

AJ was a wonderful friend and a great roommate, but he drove me crazy.  He used to sit and watch Jerry Springer all-day, sprawled out on the couch. He would ask Mike to bring home snacks like Pistachios that we could not afford.  Our other roommate was a single female so despite our rule of her and Anthony not hooking up, they did, all over the place, even the kitchen. Yuck!  To escape the awkward home dynamic, Mike would go out a lot with Anthony and Selwyn, a new friend we met shortly after we settled in Redmond.  I stayed home resenting them all.  My “partner” was a dumb girl that loved the kids and was an amazing caregiver, but lacked the intellectual depth to share my feelings about the business, let alone trust her to challenge Alexes in her developmental growth.  It’s kind of funny but as a toddler, Alexes was sometimes the most mature person in the house. 

Frustration grew and we fought, a lot. Despite our best efforts we could not overcome the advertisement/certification issue and as a function, we could not grow the business.  It was clear Raindrop Kids would never operate in the black. We would talk about it, come up with another idea to pursue, make up, and try out the new idea.  Months passed and we found ourselves in an endless cycle: not enough money, fight, fight, fight, talk about it, make-up, try an idea, not have enough money, fight, fight, fight, talk about it, make-up…

Pregnant.

Wait.  What?

Casey was three months pregnant and there was a moment of clarity. It was AJ that convinced her to investigate whether or not the University of Washington had student family housing available.  It was AJ that encouraged Casey and I to apply for admission as a returning student to the UW.  And finally, it was AJ that clued us into a little known resource known simply as: “the Financial Aid Department”.

Many times in our struggle, people or obstacles presented themselves that, at the time, seemed to be an endless source of frustration.  We learned quickly that those people and moments were sent to either teach us something or to challenge us to be better.  AJ turned out to be an angel in our story. His constant nagging me to look into school forced me to go to UW and see if I could apply.  I truly only went to make him shut up. Mike and I went to Schmidt Hall, which housed the admissions and financial aid offices, and gathered all the papers to apply.  I sat there with a pregnant belly thinking how long is this going to take?  Knowing it was useless.  But during our talks with UW personnel, it became evident it was entirely possible.  Not easy, but doable. 

We would eventually learn to recognize angels more quickly.  (Thanks AJ) 

This was in the winter of 1994. I was 24.  Casey was 27. To date, all of our time and energy was spent in survival mode, trying (and mostly failing) to make ends meet. We spoke often of a future when we might overcome our self-imposed “education reject” labels and redeem our individual academic humiliations. Our sense of personal failure was like a festering, open sore, causing chronic pain. The hurt feelings would not heal. They would not go away. But, in the 2½ years since we were married, never once could we conceive of an actual path back to college, until now.

We were found.

It was decision-making time.  Who would go back to college first?  It was never a question of “either…or”.  More simply, this choice was a question of who would be the “bird in the hand” and who would be the “two in the bush”? I imagined so many scenarios where the choice marked a milestone in our relationship. Down one path lay the status quo, forever reminding us of our failure; promising a resentful future trapped in the ever-present despair found in unfulfilled dreams. Down the other path lay redemption, a hope for a brighter future.

Needless to say, we took the matter very seriously. Our decision was based on the following information:

  • I was still shaken from failing out of the University of Oregon, and I harbored a fear of repeating that failure with me. I was crippled by my experience, by my fear, incapable of visualizing myself succeeding in college and this time there was too much at stake. I questioned my ability to finish undergraduate, let alone pursue my ultimate academic goal of becoming a doctor like my father. Assuming I was capable of successfully finishing my BS, applying to, and getting accepted to medical school, the time it took to start and finish law school was considerably less.  The thought of my family putting all the “eggs in my basket” was too much pressure.

MikeyjpgCasey was always more sure of what she wanted to do.  She never waivered from her childhood dream of becoming a lawyer, and she never doubted, even for a second, her ability to achieve that goal.  Her self-confidence and energy meant she was better equipped to handle the pressure.

  • At 27, Casey was older. She had successfully completed a couple of years of community college before her Missouri debacle and as such, needed less time to complete her degree.  On the other hand, my academic progress was a little less clear.  By our estimation, Casey needed only two more years to complete her B.A., and three years of law school.  She could conceivably be graduating from law school in 5 years, making her 32 and I would still only be 29.
  • I needed at least 3 more years to complete my undergraduate degree. Accepting that it might take at least two attempts at the application process to gain acceptance to medical school, plus the four years of general medicine classes, followed by the 1-5 years of residency, I was looking at another 8-10 years of education before my career would begin.  By that plan, I would finish at age 33, and Casey would be 36 and not through law school (assuming there was some overlap in our education).
  • I was making more money then Casey at the time. Despite all my efforts to avoid the grocery industry, I found myself again working full time at a grocery store.  I really tried to make it work at the aerospace company.  I even applied for a promotion at the suggestion of my manager who was responsible for the hiring, but was not offered the job.  Meanwhile, a brand new grocery store was opening a few blocks from the house and I could not bring myself to pass up the placards looking for experienced graveyard workers.  I applied and was hired immediately.  So soon in fact, that I did not have time to inform the current employer.  I reduced my hours to 32 hours per week at the aerospace company during the day, and returned to stocking shelves on the graveyard shift at the store.  We were under the illusion that my two jobs could support her return to academia.
  • My mother never graduated from college. In one of those rare moments in childhood when a parent shares an unexpected sentiment, my father confided in me that one of his greatest regrets was that my mother never got to graduate from college.  They were both enjoying success in college classes while my father was in the Marine Corps.  He told me once that he believed my mother would have made a terrific lawyer some day, but she set aside her goals for his.  They came to a shared belief in a collaborative push to get him through school. So with four children, they put all their eggs in his basket.  Granted, it was the late sixties when the idea of a single-family income was still possible, if not the norm. Regardless of the circumstances, my father carried some regret that my mother was denied the opportunity to finish college.  I carried that sentiment with me as well.

I took his fears to heart, committed to learning from his mistakes.  I believed that Casey had to go first.  I would never, ever lose my drive to finish college.  Never.  But, I could not shake an innate fear that if I went first, Casey might get pigeonholed into being a “stay-at-home” mom.

Casey, too, would never give up her dream. In my mind, Casey could not be happy if she did not become a lawyer.  She would never accept the preconceptions assigned to her by her uncle, her aunts, or her guidance counselor.  She would never be the cosmetologist.  Any path that ended otherwise was a path to resentment.

Mike has always been the knight, fighting for the honor of the kingdom…our kingdom.  The entire time we debated who would go first I just wanted the answer to be me.  It wasn’t that I did not care about his needs.  I wanted him to overcome the feelings of failure he had from University of Oregon.  But, I was just about to have another baby and I felt a pressing urgency. 

I was starting to lose myself.  I was a good mom.  Alexes was a little fireball, and every day I watched her grow and my efforts grow with her. With my next baby, I was ready, prepared, knew what to do.  This time around I would be super mom.  But, did I want to be supermom?  How does one be a supermom?  What does that look like? Can you be a supermom without having your own identity?  Did being a lawyer mean I had an identity? Can you be a supermom and a lawyer?   I had no clue how to be a lawyer so the balance of the two seemed unlikely.  All I could think of was either one of my children asking me, “Mom, what did you want to be when you grew up?”

We agreed.  Casey would return first.

By the time Casey was six months pregnant, she had been accepted to the UW Undergraduate Program, established residency in the State of Washington, been awarded financial aid, and designated as a resident in UW Student Family Housing.

Goal: Pre-Law then Law school.

Start Date: October 1994.

Delivery Date: July 1994

In an all-too-familiar moment of insanity, Casey and I had a brilliant idea about how best to transition from Raindrop Kids to the University of Washington. In the 3 months before she gave birth, Casey and Alexes would return to SoCal to live with her mother and deliver the baby at a hospital in Temecula.  Meanwhile, I would remain in Seattle and continue to work at the aerospace company in the day and at the grocery store on the graveyard shift.  My mission was to move us out of the house, consolidate our stuff to simplify the transition to UW in the fall, and try to get ahead on our bills.  The seventy-hour workweek seemed plausible because it was, after all, fewer hours then I spent working for the store in SoCal.

Enter our Pooh Bear. Michael Anthony Lopez de Arriaga-Shaw was born on July 28, 1994.  Mike arranged to take some time off at both jobs in order to make the trip back to SoCal. At birth, the nurse rolled little Michael Anthony into a ball (literally) and handed him off to Mike like a lateral pass with a football.  Mike lay down on the bed next to me and tucked Mikey under his arm like the Heisman Trophy pose and the two slept.  I watched them thinking that while I loved AJ for his support and encouragement, naming this beautiful boy after his amazing father seemed more appropriate. Initially, we chose the name, Antonio Miguel, two years earlier, when I was pregnant with Alexes, because I refused to have two Michaels under the same roof.  I imagined yelling across the house, “Michael” and either both, or neither, responding to my calls.  As I watched the two peas sleep I decided to name my baby after his father, the best man I knew.  I told the nurse and had his name placed on the birth certificate.  When Mike woke up and found out I changed the name, he looked at me like giving him Michael was the best thing I had ever done.  (BTW, neither responds to my calls as predicted.)

Mike and I attended Mikey’s 1-week checkup to make sure he was ok to travel.  Our biggest concern was Mikey’s eye color.  At birth his eyes were greyish but cloudy.  I found it disconcerting since, from the first minute we held Alexes, her eyes were clearly a deep brown.  A few days later, Mikey’s eyes appeared blue one day then green the next, reflecting the particular color he was wearing on a given day.  Mike kept making jokes about Mikey being the mailman’s baby cause both of us had brown eyes.  It didn’t seem odd for me cause my grandfather’s eyes were the same beautiful green color on the day Mikey’s eyes appeared green.  Mike, like a moron, forgot his grandfather had blue eyes.  The doctor outlined a quick genetics lesson, explaining that both our families had recessive genes for light colored eyes and we both carried the trait. Mystery solved.

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