Chapter 6: The Huxtable Delusion

 

As soon as Casey was healthy enough to make the trip, we packed up the car and made our way back to the Pacific Northwest.  Our return had an almost triumphant vibe about it.  This time we had some direction, a plan.  It was a far cry from our departure 2 ½ years earlier.  We returned to the small apartment I had rented for the transition and waited out the few remaining weeks before we could move into student family housing.

In the short time we spent at the transitional apartment, Mikey slept in one of those travel cribs and Alexes was in a toddler bed, both in the same room as our bed.  Bedtime was a breeze with Mikey, but Alexes was mobile and headstrong, always eager to extend her day if only for a few minutes.  One evening, I was in the living room watching TV as Mike slept before he had to get up to go to work. I could hear Alexes talking to Mikey, who had been asleep for some time.  Mike awoke, sat up in bed to quiet Alexes, and then yelped in pain.  I heard a massive “thump” as he fell to the floor.

I ran into the room and he laid out on the floor holding his palm over his eye.  He was bleeding from a cut over his eye brow.  “What happened?” I asked.  Alexes happened to throw a little egg-shaped plastic toy towards the bed where he slept.  As he sat up, the toy cracked him straight in the forehead. He said he felt like he was hit by a baseball thrown by Mariner pitcher, Randy Johnson.  The girl was strong!!!

In the interim, Casey set about to find a reliable childcare facility for Alexes and Mikey.  This time we were well versed in what to look for and what to avoid in choosing childcare.  It definitely was not a search for all the “bells and whistles”.  In fact, from our knowledge gained from our two plus years in the industry, we knew that childcare should be judged by meeting the actual people that will be caring for the children.  It is the people, not the place that makes a quality childcare.  We were fortunate to step into La Escuelita, an unassuming place beneath a Jiffy Lube, conveniently located close to the UW.  Carmen, the owner, introduced us to the wonderfully kind women that would assume care for our children.  They were all experienced child caregivers, each one with their own state certification (the very one that prevented us from expanding Raindrop Kids).  There was no better choice.  The children started on Casey’s first day at the UW.

Mikey was six weeks old.  How could I leave my precious angel with someone else?  It was easy. The La Escuelita baby room where Mikey would spend his days had a group of older Latina women that reminded me of a team of grandmothers.  They loved Mikey.  They wanted to hold him the second I arrived and immediately dismissed my presence as they talked to him in Spanish and walked around the room with him in their arms.  It made me feel oddly confident that they just wanted me to leave so they could have him for the day.  It was literally like leaving him with a large Latina family.

La Escuelita was something different for Alexes.  Amelia, her teacher, was getting her degree in early childhood education so she quickly recognized that Alexes craved constant intellectual challenges.  The teacher was up to the task, keeping up with Alexes’ need for fast paced learning and encouraging her to love reading for the rest of her life.

It was not easy leaving the children in another person’s care.  Casey spent the better part of every day with Alexes since she was born and Mikey was just so young.  But, Casey saw the UW for what it was, an opportunity to finish what she started.  She dove into her studies head first, with a renewed energy. She was absolutely focused on the task at hand and set her sights on law school.  I used to threaten her, only half-jokingly, that if she did not make college work this time, then she would finally get her chance to pursue cosmetology school.  She never was a huge fan of my empty threats.

As Casey started school, I continued to work at both the aerospace company and the grocery store.  The six-day workweek began to take its toll, reminiscent of earlier times.  I was always exhausted.   The two paychecks and Casey’s financial aid package were enough to keep our heads above water, barely.  I pressed on despite the fact that now we had relocated to the University District in Seattle and I was commuting across the bridge to work in Redmond.   On the way home one morning, I sat in traffic daydreaming about the future.

Actually, I wasn’t daydreaming at all.  I was asleep at the wheel, which I only became aware of as I slammed into the back of the car in front of me.  Casey and I got the message.  It was time to let the aerospace job go.

This happened on Alexes’ 3rd birthday.  I remember because Alexes waited for her daddy to come home so she could open her two presents.  She sat with her little birthday hat on her head and kept checking out the window.  There were no cell phones at this time. Mikey just smiled at me, trying to calm me down as hour after hour passed and no word came from Mike. Several hours later he arrived, climbing out of a tow truck that pulled the wreck behind it.  I could not escape the feelings of panic for Mike’s safety, as he was always too quick to dismiss his comatose state.

 Somewhere at my parents’ house, buried at the bottom of a box, there is a note written on a yellow sheet from a legal pad.  It is written from me; to me.  It is less of a note, more of a list, written when I was in the sixth grade.  It reads simply:

  • Graduate from high school
  • Graduate from college
  • Go to medical school
  • Become a Doctor
  • Get married
  • Have a family
  • Live happily ever after

Yet, here I was again (but, I had a list), trying to get promoted at the grocery store and succeeding.  In my ignorance, I considered it a total victory when I was promoted off the graveyard crew to the position of Fourth Man, which amounted to nothing more than a glorified night manager.

The academic year began and Casey was up each day by 6:30 am to get to her early classes. She spent the afternoon at the library until it was time to walk down the hill from campus to La Escuelita.  She would pick up the children, return home and read to them, play games, make dinner, and then settle them on the couch next to her in front of the TV before returning to her studies.

I regularly returned from the grocery store after midnight, and every night, Casey was there, studying when I came in, both children knocked out on the couch next to her.  On many occasions, I would put Alexes and Mikey to bed upstairs and knock out myself, leaving Casey to her studies, spread all about the living room floor.  The next morning, she would be up and at it again, with the same energy, the same focus, day in and day out. No longer did she passively wait for some external source to anticipate her needs, trusting teachers to educate her.  Instead, she actively pursued knowledge.  She made time for countless meetings during professor’s office hours, her tenacity demanding they educate her.  The same tenacity was applied to her pursuit of the most direct route to law school.

Mikey sat on my lap in our rocking chair.  He snuggled in his space; knowing I would take a book out and read to him about whatever subject I had homework in that night.  Alexes grew up with fairytales; Mikey grew up with politics and countless books about race and the civil rights movement.  He didn’t care, he just smiled up at me, pleased this time belonged to just the two of us before he drifted off to sleep.

Like I said before, many times people and obstacles were sent to challenge us.  God gave us Mikey as our inspiration.  From birth, Mikey was a gentle child, giving love and strength to us all, even to his sister, at our most trying times. He possessed the Pooh Bear-like demeanor that was exactly what our family needed. Alexes always seemed like my mirror, revealing to me my strengths and weaknesses.  I was raising her to be only the best of me and never to know the worst in me.

 Mikey was different. 

Mikey was sent to help me, to be my cheerleader.  He smiled when I needed encouragement, hugged me when I needed love.  He sat on my lap as I studied and looked up at me with his gorgeous eyes as if to say, “Mommy, you can do it”. 

 Every correct answer in a classroom, every graded assignment, every paper and exam returned with a high grade on it confirmed what Casey already suspected:  she could do this.  She could do this well.  Her confidence gained momentum from quarter to quarter. Casey “the cheerleader” faded away as Casey “the Academic” emerged, found its stride and blossomed.  She consumed her course work with the voracious appetite of a person that had been without progress for too many years, a person that can see their dreams coming true like a faint light at the end of a long dark tunnel, and with the passion of someone that knows this might be their last chance to chase a lifelong dream.

Professor Andrea Simpson would teach me the most important lesson I learned while at the University of Washington.  She was an impressive black women that taught political science to hundreds of white males, all denying her expertise and knowledge, her credentials and her research , even her primary sources (including Census statistics), as if they knew any better at 18 or 19 years old.  Early in the quarter, I wrote a paper that I thought was quality, but the grade did not reflect my opinion. I spoke to her about it and she explained that while it was a good paper it wasn’t good enough.  She told me, “We have to be above reproach”.  Her meaning was crystal clear: being minorities, people of color, we have to be better, worlds better, and sadly, only to be regarded as equals.  At the time I thought she was being mean.  But, her comments were supported by what I saw in her classrooms. I was no idiot. I accepted her words without question, as did Mike. We added her mantra to our “by any means necessary” parenting style and our family philosophy grew.  We would try to raise Alexes and Mikey to be above reproach in every way possible.

Those late nights next to her mother made an impression on Alexes as well. Her curiosity was insatiable and La Escuelita was up to the challenge.  The teachers there spent hours each day engaging the children in all the basics like numbers, colors, and ABCs.  Alexes consumed them all, just like her mother.  She was ready to start reading by age three.

In those same years, Nike was airing the following commercial:

It opens with little girls on a swing before showing several girls from diverse backgrounds playing different sports.  It continues…

If you let me play…
If you let me play sports, I will like myself more.
I will have more self-confidence.

 If you let me play sports,
I will be 60% less likely to get Breast Cancer.
I will suffer less depression.

 If you let me play sports,
I will be more likely to leave a man that beats me.
I will be less likely to get pregnant before I want to.

 I will learn what it means to be strong,
What it means to be strong.
If you let me play sports…

 (NIKE commercial {1995}, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQ_XSHpIbZE)

More self-confidence? Less Breast Cancer? Less Depression? Less domestic violence?  Less likely to GET PREGNANT BEFORE PLANNED?  Sign us up.

00000022.JPGWe found time to enroll Alexes in her first ballet class.  She was entranced by the older ballerina’s dancing delicately about the studio, but could not make the connection between the older students and the redundancy of Beginning Ballet.  She was bored with it before she performed her first recital.  It was time to move on to something a little more adventurous.  Why not gymnastics?

When Alexes was just a bit older, the gymnastics teacher held her little body up to the top uneven bar to let her feel how it felt to be so high.  Alexes always watched what the older kids were doing so she knew what to do on the even bars.  The teacher held her tiny waist and as Alexes gripped the bar in her hands she started to swing back and forth.  The teacher freaked out yelling at Alexes to stop, trying to capture her from the rogue uneven bar routine she was attempting.  Needless to say, the teachers kept a close eye on her from then on and never put her on an apparatus until she was old enough to handle it.

Every now and then they would let her go for it on the cheese pit.  My then-3 year old would pull herself 9 or 10 feet up a rope, higher then most 5 year olds would climb, swing her feet to get the rope moving before letting go, launching herself into the cheese pit.  She would laugh and giggle as she crawled out of the pit, excited to go even higher next time.  I was relegated to the parent observation seats and could only watch in utter fear.

Even in the beginning, Alexes had a single weakness, a soft spot in her developing suit of armor, Mikey.  In one of the earliest pictures of the two of them, her little arms are wrapped protectively around Mikey’s head, absolutely delighted by her baby brother.  In turn, she is hugging him with all her might, a big smile on her face. Over the course of that first year, Mikey’s personality revealed itself.  The quiet, inquisitive baby became the soft, gentle soul, the “Pooh” bear in the family, and considering the size of his huge head it was easy to see him that way.  Even at six weeks old, Mikey’s soft blue-grey eyes mesmerized the women at La Escuelita.

But, none could compete with Alexes’ affection for him. They were everywhere together.  They played all day together. They wrestled.  She kept a watchful eye on him at all times, and paid extra careful attention to his safety whenever they played in the front yard. But she was also proud of him and was proud to be his older sister.

Alexes and Mikey were two peas in a pod.  Although Mikey was a baby, he looked for her from the moment he woke up to the moment he fell asleep.  It wasn’t long before they developed a “team” mentality.  One morning, Mike and I slept in.  When we woke we were stressed because the house was quiet, too quiet.  We went into Alexes’ room where she and Mikey played quietly with toys.  On the floor next to them was a gallon of milk, two toddler cups, and empty string cheese wrappers.  Mike and I could not believe that Alexes carried a gallon of milk up a flight of stairs, served her brother and her, without spilling a drop of milk anywhere.

Alexes fawned over Mikey, and Mikey matched her affection stride for stride. He was just as proud of her strength, just as proud of how Alexes’ empowered personality commanded the attention of all in her vicinity.

If we were stopped a lot by people wanting to touch Alexes, curls or comment on her modeling potential, it did not compare with how often we were bombarded about Mikey.  I was literally given cards by agents all the way through high school.  Apparently, mixed babies were still all the rage.  He was born with a big bobble head, but it was tough to keep him humble about his looks.

So many things were going well for Casey, Alexes, and Mikey that first year at UW. Meanwhile, my upward mobility at the store began to stall.  Opportunities to continue being promoted disappeared as the industry faced yet another fiscal crisis, met with cuts in hours and reductions in personnel.   I recognized the shift in the stability of the business and again grew frustrated by my career path…in truth, my lack of a career path.  After all, I had a list somewhere at my parents’ house and nowhere on it was Grocery Store Management.  I struggled, but failed to internalize my true feelings.  I could not shake the parallel to my SoCal grocery career that ultimately ended in a thankless layoff.

This time was different.  Casey met my frustration head-on with a simple question:  Why not return immediately to the UW rather then waiting until she was done with law school?

Intriguing.

In the short time she was at the UW, she mastered the bureaucracy of college financial aid.  There were tuition reductions based on her GPA.  There were special resources to help subsidize childcare for students with children. There were grants, there were loans, and there were more loans.  Each time we faced a fiscal crisis, she would swallow her pride, march over to the financial aid office with the kids in tow, share our story, describe what we had overcome to get this far, and stress our duty to our children’s future. (“These two children you see right in front of you.  That’s right! They are real.  I am real.  And, I am real serious about getting this degree.”) Each time, with the support of some dedicated staff member committed to meeting students’ needs, she would return home with some guidance on how to address our financial short comings.

My early return to the UW was, in fact, possible.

I applied for admission as a Returning Student and was accepted to begin in the fall of 1995, seven years after I graduated from high school.  I almost skipped into work to let them know I was leaving and half giggled as we nailed down a date of resignation.  I never enjoyed work more, felt more liberated then I did those last few months. Even though I returned to the graveyard crew to finish out my time, I had an exit strategy.  It was all-good.

I have a list.  It is a little out of sorts, a bit convoluted, but it is finally time to get back to the list. My father did it with four children and finished medical school when he was 35 years old.  “Looks like now you’ll have to do it the hard way”.  My fathers’ words from that dreadful conversation on the day I was kicked out of the University of Oregon drove me to crunch the numbers. I was 24, plenty of time to graduate from college, apply to medical school, even twice if necessary, and still graduate before I turned 33, beating him by a few years.

It is springtime in Seattle, sunny and warm.  The cherry blossoms are in full bloom across the UW campus, especially lining Rainier Vista.  This showcase of the UW is a thoroughfare that opens up southward towards Mt Rainier, revealing the 14,409-foot peak in all its snow-covered glory.  In the background is Drumheller Fountain flanked to one side by Bagley Hall and the Chemistry building.  Alexes and Mikey are perched in one of those blooming cherry trees wearing UW t-shirts, posing for a picture. Alexes sits comfortably but Mikey is a bit more precarious. They both have a huge smile on their face.

If there were a movie version of this story, this scene would show the passage of time, in each frame, the children getting older, a different UW t-shirt in each, a different precarious perch, but the same wide smile on each of their faces.

Those pictures exist.

We were never more broke then when we both attended the UW.  And arguably, we were never happier.  Casey was a year from graduating with her BA, planning to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), and working hard to maintain her almost perfect GPA.  I had enrolled in the general chemistry classes I had bombed back at Oregon and also began to find my stride, though I never was the A student Casey was.   With graduated success in chemistry and biology classes, my belief in my ability improved, but I still had my doubts.

I changed my major to American Ethnic Studies soon after my experience with the political science classes.  I loved those classes, but hearing so many students say the middle class income started at $135,000 enraged me.  I had nothing in common with those kids.  I was struggling to buy clothes for the kids as they quickly grew.  Those students’ image of “reality” was so far from mine.  American Ethnic Studies sparked my interest because I thought it might make me a better mom. I could learn about the history of Black Americans thereby paving my children’s’ future with knowledge and understanding about who they were.

Alexes sat with me one day in my “Blacks in the Law’ class.  Professor Walters was teaching a small group of future lawyers about the likes of Thurgood Marshall, Medgar Evers, and the NAACP. She was very taken by the professor, his Jamaican accent, the cadence of his lecture, and wrote notes the entire time he spoke.  Professor Walters abruptly yelled, stopped the class, walked over to Alexes, and politely commandeered her notebook.  He walked the notebook over to a male student and interrogated the student as to why his notes were so inferior to Alexes’.  Alexes smiled and sat up tall in her chair.  The Warrior Princess sat smiling at the male student, as though to say “What?  You don’t know me.  I do what I want”. kids with mike

We spent weekends in the fall going to football and soccer games.  When it snowed in the winter, we would trek down to campus and sled down the steepest parking lot driveways in the shadow of Pedalford Hall. It was the first time in my adult life that I did not have to work during the holidays. We fought less, enjoyed the holidays more.

Poem written to Casey to celebrate Valentines’ Day, 1996

For this Valentine’s you’ll never believe,
What I, with work, wish to achieve.
We’ve celebrated in various amounts,
And you often say, “It’s the thought that counts”.

But, this is odd.  Could there be a Chance,
That Mike, your husband, has a hint of Romance?
Maybe I might, now try as I may,
To put into words what I think every day.

What do I think of when I think of you?
“Roses are Red, Violets are blue?”
No way! A simple poem can’t hope to state,
For the things I think are Lofty and Great.

Roses and violets can never know
How your strength and love help me to grow.
Two pretty flowers can’t possibly see
How my heart beats when you smile at me.

A poem for you must not omit
Important things I never forget.
How you love my children so very much,
And how lucky they are to know your touch.

But most of all, when I think of my wife,
I’ll have a best friend for the rest of my life.
How can I say that I love you a Lot?
Infinity! I’ll end with that thought.

Love, Mike

All of a sudden we had adult friends, people who shared our dreams and travelled paths that paralleled our own. We met others that were also making student-family housing work, enjoying the safety and security of raising children on a university campus. The same year, AJ, our former roommate, left Seattle to attend law school at the University of Oregon.  Gene, the third in our “tri-fecta”, began law school at the University of Washington, where he would babysit Mikey and Alexes by taking them with him to the law school and enjoying the added attention from his female peers.

Casey and I both came to meet a couple many years before we were married, even before I dated her kid sister. Our UW friends met them, too.   The young black couple met in college and fell in love.  Both finished undergraduate school and they were married.  Their first child followed a short time later.  They pressed on, together. Graduate school saw the birth of a second child, and still they pressed on.  They both finished graduate school: the husband becoming a very successful obstetrician and the wife a notable attorney.   27 years later they remained happily married and quite wealthy.  They had five children.

We each in our own way internalized the couples’ experiences such that by the time we were married, had children, and were enrolled in the University of Washington, we individually were programmed to emulate the couples’ triumphant, romantic path to live happily-ever-after.

It is too bad the Cosby Show couple was not real.

Even so, Casey and I, and all our friends, pressed on towards our own Huxtable delusion.

4 Comments

  1. Anna G

    Your writing is warm and heartfelt, and incredibly engaging. Reading your family story is truly inspiring. Can’t wait to read more! Sharing your story with family and friends.

    Liked by 1 person

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