Chapter 8: What about me?

Cassandra’s Journal Entry: August 11, 1997

Today was my first official day of law school.  The speakers were as inspirational as to be expected.  One of them said, “There are a lot of lawyers, but not enough damn good lawyers.”  I plan to do all in my power to be a damn good lawyer.  As I sat back and listened to numerous welcomes from professors, I had to hold back the tears of joy.  I finally made it to law school! Everything from here on is a piece of cake!

OMG I cannot believe I thought the rest would be easy.  Insert hilarious cackle laugh at my 1997-self.

The dream of going to law school faded all too soon into the dark reality of getting through law school.  It became clear before the end of the first semester that there were some serious shortcomings in our fiscal plan.  The high cost of private law school tuition would consume our financial aid package leaving too few options to bridge the gap, and, contrary to our initial expectations, Loyola lacked the depth of resources we enjoyed at Washington.

If we didn’t make some drastic changes, our budget crisis would soon prove insurmountable, stopping us in year one of the 3-year mission.  Fortunately, we were way past “young and stoopid” and lessons learned both at UW undergrad and from law school admissions remained fresh in our memories. We wasted no time in setting up a meeting with the financial aid office to nail down our options and were devastated to realize that the well of resources had dried up…and we had not even managed to cover the cost of the first semesters’ tuition.

That old familiar feeling of impending failure rooted in the law school admissions process, crept back into our minds. This time seemed different.  This time we had the experience of the second application process, the one that ended in several admissions and brought us back to SoCal. Success was not the accidental accumulation of fortunate occurrences; rather, it was the result of honest considerations of not only our assets, but also of our constraints.  Cassandra was not accepted in her first attempt because we blindly submitted packages to the same tiered schools as her first.  On the contrary, we scoured the books and identified places where we were willing to relocate and where she was more competitive.

So we quickly pushed aside the feelings of impending failure and pressed the financial aid representative to find some way to make it work.  The solution offered was the Evening Degree Program, and we accepted immediately.  Under normal circumstances, law school is a full-time 3-year process, and an all-consuming one, where One L’s were not allowed to work in the first year and heavily discouraged from work in the second and third years.  The Evening Degree Program was established to make law school available to students already in the workplace.  As such, it would allow Cassandra to complete the program in 4 years of evening classes and simultaneously allow her work during the day to offset costs.  Cassandra was understandably concerned that the time she would need to stay competitive in law school was already stretched by her commitment to our young family, but the added stress of working might have been more then she could handle.  The plan was not ideal, but at least it kept the dream alive.

Cassandra’s Journal Entry: October 21, 1997

Tap, tap, tap…that’s all I hear while sitting in class…tap, tap, tap.  The tapping is a constant reminder of my financial and class status in life.  The laptops keep growing in number.  Two more people in my row got laptops over the weekend in order to aid their legal writing assignments.  To make it worse, the administration gave us our applications for the bar.  The deadline is Nov. 14 and of course there is a $55 fee.  I don’t have it.  I only have 50 other financial obligations currently and no form of income.  Mike wants to get back to school so his hours will be dropping. 

Maybe the reason why I have a problem focusing is because I fear I won’t be able to take my midterms, so if I don’t study, I can’t be disappointed for not being able to take them.  I’m tired, lost, old, and lazy.  Boy, if that’s not a recipe for success?  I don’t know.  All I do know is I love being with Mike, I love being with my kids, and I love law school.  How to balance them I do not know. I guess in that context, not having a laptop is meaningless.

It was time to get back to school myself.  I was excited as I drove down to the local Cal State School to register for classes.  My application was complete, my financial aid package was in place, and I was ready to start getting my five remaining quarters of work done.  Was I ready to get back in the medical school pipeline?

Those five quarters of classes weighed heavily on my mind.  Cassandra was in law school, showing her grit and proving her willingness to do the work.  Her goals were well within her reach.  I, on the other hand, doubted I was capable of the same, still paralyzed by a fear of failing, branded into my eternal psyche by my Oregon debacle.  Deep down in my soul, in the darkest regions of my being, I could not visualize myself graduating from college, ever.  I would interpret any minute setback in my path as just the next sign that graduating was a fantasy.

I was devastated when the Cal State advisor told me graduating required an extra year of classes, crushed by the mere thought of the two and a half more years required to finish, and frustrated at the reality that graduating from either UW, Washington or Wisconsin, likely made me more competitive in my pursuit of medical school.  I enrolled anyway, and my lack of enthusiasm was reflected in my lackluster grades.  I figured that at least I was still in school.

We sat out back on my parents’ porch on a warm Southern Californian evening.  I was there, Cassandra was there, my mother was there, and my father was there.  The children were there too, but they were well distracted, exploring the far corners of my parents’ huge back yard.  There I sat, fighting back the tears that were rooted in memories of conversations with my parents when the University of Oregon disqualified me years before.  It was déjà vu.

My father was pragmatic about our situation.  Options that included my education should be taken off the table.  Cassandra and I should move in to their house so they could help us watch the children.  Cassandra should attend the evening degree program at Loyola and look for a part-time job that paid reasonably well.  I should work full-time.

I made a painfully weak and final appeal for my education, “What about me?” to which he replied as plain as could be, “What about you?”

Cassandra’s Journal: October 30, 1997

What a miserable day? First, Mike and I had to go to Garbage State University, which was no help, as expected.  Second, Mike’s father and mother told him they would not support his returning to UW.  God Almighty also mentioned how Mike was lazy and couldn’t get A’s, and that I should come first. 

In one fell swoop, he erased all the work I’ve done to boost Mike’s self-esteem.  Mike has supported us for 7 years and sacrificed himself and his body and all his dad could say was “suck it up”.  What a jerk? No wonder Mike came looking for me.  He needed someone to give him unconditional love.  Of course now I have even more severe pressure to be successful in law school since Michael has had to sacrifice his education for mine.  So from now on, I need to get serious.  If not, Michael’s sacrifice was all in vain.  I could never do that to him.

Cassandra and I agreed on every count, even the last one, and that one hurt the most. Initially, we fought it, still believed in the possibility that we could finish at the same time.  I registered for the second quarter and borrowed financial aid money to enroll in another round of classes that had nothing to do with Cell Biology Major (e.g. Criminal Justice) to meet requirements that were non-existent in Washington, and brought me no closer to a graduation.

Our feeble effort to hold back reality broke quickly, like a sand castle that erodes into the ocean  as soon the tide rises.  We fought with all the emotion we could muster, all the drive we thought we had, against the truth.  In return, Truth made a more obvious appeal.

Our two-bedroom apartment on the second floor of the two-storied building in Highland Park never was supposed to be fancy.  Utilitarian was the intent.  It was close to my parents’ house, close to Alexes’ school, and boasted quick access to the freeway, promising an easy commute to Loyola Law School in downtown L.A.  We thought little of it when the L.A.P.D. showed up at the apartment downstairs those first couple of times to quiet Friday night gatherings that were getting a bit too loud.  We embraced our ever-increasingly optimistic view of “neighborly neighbors”, a residue of our time in the Pacific Northwest.

It was the regular visits by the parole officers that signaled the change in tides.  Two or three times a week the unmarked car would roll through, park in the space in front of the apartment downstairs, directly beneath our living room window, and question any one of the gang members that congregated there as to the current whereabouts of relatives also listed in residence.

It wasn’t completely terrifying.  They were genuinely nice, and they gave Cassandra props, proud that Sus Raza was going to law school to represent.  Nevertheless, we gave up all thoughts of politely asking them to keep the noise levels down at their late night parties.  Just to be safe, we spent most of our time in the same small space; the four of us snuggled onto the full-size bed, watching TV in the dark of the master bedroom.

So it does not seem like over romanticizing the situation we lived over gang members, the real deal, the ones you see on tv show “Lockup.”  We tried to keep it on the DL because our parents would kill us if they actually knew what went on in that apartment.  

On some random evening, the four of us in our regular space, watched TV in the dark.

“Dad, I think something just moved across the floor over there.” Mikey said matter-of-factly.

“I didn’t see anything” I replied nonchalantly.

More panicked now, “Wait.  I just saw something move over here”, Alexes chimed in.

“Mike, get up and turn on the light!” Cassandra anxiously recommended.

“And put my feet on the ground with it?  Are you crazy?” I asked, trying to sound like I was only joking, but just as creeped out as the rest of them.

“WAIT! THERE! IT JUST WENT OVER THERE, BEHIND THE TV! GET UP, TURN ON THE LIGHT!” Cassandra was done asking, now she demanded.

I was up, at the light, turning it on when the 3-inch brown mouse rushed me from behind the TV and took off through the bedroom door.  I dodged the obvious attack with a deft skip to one side of the doorway, before turning into the kitchen, just quick enough to watch the mouse squeeze its nasty little mousy body through a small crack in the floorboards underneath the kitchen cabinet.  I attempted pursuit, but was put back by the cabinet separations deep in the counter.  The mouse was gone, but the “Mouse House” was firmly etched in our history.

Alexes’ teacher contacted us.  She very politely asked if everything was ok at home and wanted to share a story Alexes wrote entitled “The Mouse House”.  Alexes recounted every detail perfectly. As I heard the teacher respectfully reading the story, I about died.  A week later we moved into my in-laws’ house.  Mike and I would sleep in his room where he grew up as a child.  It was all so humiliating.

The tide had risen. I had to return to work, again postponing my education.  We had to face the real possibility that the Cosby Show might depict a gross oversimplification of what it meant to marry early, to have children, to complete law school and medical school at the same time, and all the while, to stay married, let alone happily married.  Reality bites.

The demands of getting through law school were tangible.  10 and 12-hour study days were the norm for Cassandra.  My inability to meet our fiscal responsibilities was also real. I went back to work at the grocery store, if only because it was the easiest choice.  I quickly put together an exit strategy, and applied as a Direct Sales Rep for a nationwide potato chip company.   When I got the job, I was excited about this new possibility to permanently leave the grocery store.  I was responsible for delivering, selling, and merchandising potato chips to several grocery stores, and while I tried to convince myself I was done with the industry, in truth, direct sales was just a different iteration of the same “suck”, complete with the same long hours, the same unattainable growth incentives, the same overbearing, inhumane management style that showed no respect for the workers that made it all possible, let alone appreciation for them.

I knew I would have to work my way through law school. Half way through my first year I got a banquet server job at The Ritz Carlton Huntington Hotel and Spa in Pasadena, CA.  The hotel hosted all the Rose Parade events, UCLA football team home games, and tons of political, and business events attended by US Presidents, dignitaries, and foreign leaders like the Dalai Lama. 

The mostly Hispanic wait staff were “honor in tuxedos”; a team that worked with a level of professionalism that was often so seamless it was stealthy.  They served people with so much pride that regulars who stayed at the hotel, especially for business, knew all of the waiter’s names and they bantered with one another as though they were friends shooting a round of golf. 

The hotel taught me valuable lessons in service and dedication as the supportive staff would often cover me, serving coffee and clearing tables, while I studied in the backrooms. Although I was exhausted all the time, stressing about the notoriously difficult first year exams, the gentlemen I worked with encouraged me and held me up, proudly looking forward to my graduation and a time when they would have an attorney in the family.

Two steps forward, one step back.  Two steps forward, one step back. This was how we saw Cassandra’s first year at Loyola.  Those early financial setbacks rattled us to our core but after some difficult decisions, our young family was moving forward.  Cassandra was making law school happen literally by the sweat of her brow and in the same time frame, Alexes expanded learning to love school.  Each day she would come home thrilled to share her day with Mikey, who stayed home with my mom, happy to assume her role as the adoring grandmother. Mikey could hardly wait to start school himself. Weekends were filled with youth sports. Initially, Alexes signed up for a boy’s coach-pitch baseball team while Mikey played T-ball.

tball MLSThe little coed tots had no clue what to do, but they loved the energy and the eternal idealism of the coaches, the cheering of the crowd, and especially the ability to get dirty on the field.   Mikey loved t-ball, he loved getting into his uniform, hanging out with his buddies, and of course the traditional after game snack.  Mikey made everything look easy.  He would get one star after another for each hit and run he earned, by end of the season his little NY Yankee hat was covered with stars. 

There was one play I will never forget. One of Mikey’s little girl buddies on the team had yet to make a catch all season.  In the last game, they played her on first base. When the batter hit the ball to Mikey, he fielded the ball and didn’t hesitate to throw heat at the little girl to make the play at first.  She held up her glove, closed her eyes, and made the catch. The stands erupted in cheers as she gracefully held the ball in one hand and, like Tinker Bell laying a spell on the highest part of the Disney Castle, tapped the runner out at first. 

Yup, Mikey’s t-ball games were hilarious, a much needed mental break from the insanity of law school. 

Baseball ALSBefore long, it became apparent that Alexes’ coach was neither the fan favorite Mikey enjoyed, nor the biggest supporter of gender equality as he repeatedly assigned Alexes to right field even though she was clearly one of the better athletes on the team.  She was ready to quit by the third week and we accepted that baseball, in any form, was about to go the way of her ballet and gymnastics career. Bye-bye.  She played just the single season to support our “see it through to the end” mantra.  Perhaps it was time to try the next possibility?

Feelings of progress coexisted with those of stagnation.  I looked outward and saw my young family moving two steps forward even in the midst of the occasional step back.  I looked within and saw only stagnation.  When we left Los Angeles the first time, I was committed to escaping what I saw as the oppression of the grocery store.  In a moment of need, I had returned to the business in Seattle with no change in my view of the industry.  But, I managed to escape to the University of Washington in what I believed would be the final chapter in the story of my exodus.  Yet here I was, back in a different form of the same game.  Once again, I was moving away from my education, away from my “list”, and towards the gut-wrenching frustration of opportunities lost.

I visualized our future, Cassandra finishing law school and becoming the successful lawyer and in that same future, I saw myself, still anchored to some store and trying to find meaning in a job, still investing time in an industry I despised.  In the vision, I spend my lifetime afraid that I have been left behind…

The vision terrified me, weighing heavily on my “ism”, my idea of what I was capable of doing, of what my potential might be.  I came to grips with the reality that I would never, could never, be truly happy without finishing college.  And while I accepted that truth, it raised another interesting question: Did I need to finish medical school to be happy?

Going to medical school and becoming a doctor was on my list of “Things to Do”.  There were a series of events that caused me to question whether it was even necessary for me to be happy in life.  Cassandra and I saw firsthand how the strain of law school and medical school ended the marriage of our friends at the UW.  It scared us even then, but now we knew what it actually meant to be a One-L.  Graduate school can be a selfish mistress, requiring students to be absolutely committed to finishing.  It was true when my father was in medical school, almost flunked out, and lived for a year in an apartment away from the family to focus on his studies.  It was true for Cassandra, too.  Her progress came at a stiff price, a relentless commitment of time and energy that regularly pulled her away from the family.

The question of the ability of our marriage, or any marriage for that matter, to survive concurrent professional degree programs was a serious consideration.  But, we also thought about the logistics of the medical school application process.   Based on our experience with law school, any serious graduate school attempt must also include a willingness to relocate throughout the country, unless of course the candidate was at the top of the applicant pool (no need to worry about that in my case.

I took the Medical College Aptitude Test (MCAT) and did well enough to be competitive at a few schools on the east coast even though most of the schools in SoCal were little more than a pipe dream. Cassandra had three more years at Loyola and the thought of me leaving the family in L.A. for two to three years, while Cassandra tried to manage law school and two young children was inconceivable.  The separation did not seem like a recipe for a successful marriage.

He did more than “did well.”  If you knew his score you would wonder why we bet on me and not him.

The logistics of attending medical school were complicated; a strain on our family, but ultimately possible.   Cassandra was supportive and entirely willing to take on any hardship to meet my long-term goals.  But, there was still the lingering question of my personal motivation, my inner drive to do the work required to get through a program.  Cassandra had that inner drive, the grit and the grind (grind = grit over time).  Becoming a lawyer was a central theme to her entire existence, not something to be surrendered lightly.  When law school got tough, it was her grit that made all the difference.  On some level, I believe it was the same grit that got my father through the tough times. I could not necessarily say the same thing.  I was not so sure of my commitment to medicine, not confident that I might fold under pressure.  The risk to the stability of the four of us might not be worth the reward.  These thoughts became my obsession even though I felt compelled to put an end to my sense of stagnation in the presence of Cassandra’s progress.

Or, was I just desperate for a hint of success?

My transfer to a local college was a complete disaster.  My relegation to Second-Class citizenship by my father’s “What about you?” comment was crushing.  My return to the grocery industry was certainly no victory.  Early pregnancy with secret wedding, 100-mile one-way commute to work, relocation to a distant city without jobs or a place to live, a childcare business in the back of the house…clearly, the time had come for another crazy idea so, I scheduled an appointment with the Marine Corps Recruiter.

“What a great idea!” I argued to Cassandra.  If I enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves, there were education benefits, VA loan possibilities, and the opportunity for an immediate sense of accomplishment, as graduation from boot camp would take just 13 weeks of the summer. (Of, course, I would also have to go to Missouri for several weeks of training over the next couple of summers as well, but no need to dwell on that detail.) I could use the time in boot camp to reflect on the question of whether or not I could truly be happy without medical school.  I would make a decision one way or the other.  If upon completing boot camp, I had come to the conclusion that medical school was a necessary piece of “me”, then the struggle the discipline I learned could be applied to my medical school education.  Boot camp might teach me the inner drive that I felt I lacked.  But, if at the end of that time, I decided that medical school was not necessary, then so be it, “Goodbye, Doctor Shaw”, for good.

What a great plan?  It was 1998. Clinton was in office. What could possibly go wrong?

I had to sign off before Mike was allowed to enter the Marine Corps.  I was in law school for Pete’s sake, and I would not blindly sign his life away without reading the contract!  It was essentially a “pre-nup”.  Mike was now married to the Corps and I would accept sole responsibility for the kids while he was away.  Sadly, that wasn’t the most troubling part. 

The rest of the contract expressly stated that despite the fact that he was joining the Reserves, he was eligible to be activated at any time.  I turned to Mike and said, “You could go to war”.  To which he flippantly responded, “Clinton is not going to war”.  He could not imagine a scenario arising in the next eight years that would necessitate military action.  It occurred to me in that moment that he was not interested in reality.  He needed this. I could either be the type of wife that supports her husband 100% or I could be the wife that makes “pragmatic” decisions that require his, and only his, regular sacrifices.  I bit the bullet and knew in the pit of my stomach this decision would haunt me. 

Cassandra’s Journal entry dated: February 18, 1998

So now it is a definite done deal.  Michael enlisted in the Marine Corps today.  I just barely started working and he has already told them he will enter boot camp in May (1998).  Boy! I’m not under any pressure.  He wonders why I’m not doing backflips.   I know it is exciting for him, but for me, it sucks.  Not only do I get to live alone, but also I am also responsible for the kids. The worst part is I also get to go through my first year law finals without his support, while juggling kids and work. Mike could care less that we will be apart.  He does not even understand why I am upset.  All I hope is that he gets out of it what he wants because making us be apart for so long better be worth it.

All day, all I could think of is how this is what it will be like for 3 months: Me, all day, alone.  All I can do is hope I get into a routine with the kids and without him.  I have no one else to talk to, no one who cares.  My sister doesn’t care about what job I have because she is so used to shitty jobs, she just thinks it’s normal.  I know that Mike’s parents are dreading having to deal with us, and my mom only wants to bitch about how hard it will be, like I need anyone to remind me. 

 So, that leaves me alone.  Law school seems like a box of chocolates that have been sitting out for a year.  They are all hard, no matter what you get.  I guess there is no time to whine.  If I want to do well in school, then I better catch up and concentrate.

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