Law school was completed in December of 2001. The tragic attack on the Two Towers decimated the American economy and solidified our plan to return to the security of the University of Washington and the stability of Student-Family Housing. Cassandra would sit for the Washington State Bar, a decision that became an admission of sorts, acknowledging our commitment to make the Pacific Northwest our permanent home.
Surely, I had dodged the “Activation bullet” by January of 2002 when I transferred to a Marine Reserve Unit in Washington State. I was registered in classes again, finally getting back to my education though this time without the dark, all-consuming stress of the medical school cloud hanging over my head. I was truly free of that notion, content to focus on alternative opportunities in medicine. I considered all the options before settling on Pharmacy School. Cassandra made other suggestions, such as teaching, that piqued my interest though they seemed less plausible in light of our financial shortcomings. I still shouldered the burden of meeting our family’s fiscal responsibilities and still felt compelled to pursue a profession that I perceived could meet those needs.
Cassandra graduated from law school but never walked in the ceremony. Her inability to do so was one of the more significant cons in our plan for the return to Seattle. We were in a hurry to get north, to get me registered for classes, to get Alexes and Mikey enrolled in school. Unfortunately, the law school graduation became a casualty of the bigger plan. Our extended families still longed to see her in the cap and gown so we rationalized that we would simply fly the whole family back to SoCal so she could walk in the ceremony.
The burden of transporting the four of us back to SoCal was too expensive to manage. Several talks brought to light Cassandra’s perspective of walking in the ceremony. Graduations, caps, and gowns were the uniform of her achievement, a symbol that new heights were achieved. But, like so many times before, this success only brought to light the next mountain to climb, the Washington State Bar Exam. Cassandra felt emptiness in the ceremony that stemmed from memories of her undergraduate ceremony.
She had walked at that UW graduation, sporting the golden rope tassel that signified she had finished with honors. We planned and paid for a small reception and bought Alexes and Mikey gorgeous outfits. Our parents even flew in for the 3-½ hour ceremony. Yet, Cassandra could only dwell on the fact that even though she was technically done with undergrad, she had not been accepted to a single law school. It was a reality hardly worth celebrating. In her mind, her accomplishments had no substance. Graduations are wrought with the promise of a brighter future, yet hers only served as a stark reminder of a task unfinished, a dream unfulfilled. The goal was attorney, not law school graduate.
The cap and gown of law school again became the uniform of a dream unfulfilled. Again, why celebrate it? It was too easy to reject the idea of returning for graduation, even easier to inform the family; we simply could not manage the cost of the trip. Instead, Cassandra spent her energy experiencing the true misery of preparing to take the WA BAR exam.
Months later, I was struggling to get the kids into the apartment as it poured rain on an especially grey Seattle day. Mike was not around. I had groceries in one hand and Mikey’s school backpack in the other. Both kids were squirrely, tired from the day. As I opened the door and entered, something crunched under my foot. I felt like I had stepped onto something hard.
My full attention was caught up in the chore of getting us out of the rain. I settled the kids into the house and put everything away before I noticed the house key was still hanging in the door. I went to take the key out and saw a FedEx envelope on the ground. There was a muddy print from where my wet shoe had stepped on the envelope and it was a little bent. I had no idea what it was. Feeling completely beaten by the day, I opened it and saw my Law School Diploma inside. I guess that was my version of “walking” for graduation; no fanfare, no celebration, no tassel, just a piece of paper.
A state bar exam is a licensing assessment. In Washington, it consists of a two-part written test that takes place over the course of three days. Day one and two are referred to as the “Substantive” portion, covering extensively almost every class taught in law school from a Washington State perspective. It is easily regarded as the more difficult section of the exam. The second portion, the Ethics portion, occurs on the third day. (The thought that lawyers are required to pass an “ethical exam” still makes me giggle.) Successful passage of both sections elevates law school graduates to the rank of attorney, separate of course from the ultimate prize, “practicing attorney”.
So many things were revealed to us while Cassandra was prepping. I was back in school with a path in mind. Alexes, old enough to take soccer to the next level, tried out for a club team that catered to urban Seattleites. Mikey could not read.
Mikey did well in school back in SoCal even though he seemed behind relative to Alexes when she was in his grade. I explained it away thinking it was because he was a boy and/or he started school a year earlier then she did. But at the end of the 1st grade year, the principal called us to a meeting in her office. She told us that test scores came back for some standardized test and Mikey, along with a group of classmates, showed the exact same deficiencies in reading. In essence, she was telling us that our son could not read.
“But wait a minute” I thought to myself, “he reads to me every night.” It wasn’t until we thought about it that it occurred to us that Mikey read the same books to us. Apparently, he had memorized the words to mask his poor reading skills.
The principal explained that the area of deficiency was in his inability to sound out consonants. It wasn’t exactly clear what that meant since I learned to read in Mexico. But what was clear was that while I was getting a professional degree, my child was missing the basic skills he needs to read. Enter mommy guilt…
Mike and I went immediately to discuss the problem with his teacher and found we were knee deep in a first lesson about our role in their education. The teacher went on for 40 minutes, telling us how hard her job was and that a couple of very difficult children in her class demanded most of her attention and without the support of the administration, she could not deal with the problem and perhaps some of the other children may have been overlooked. She spent just 5 minutes depicting Mikey as a lovely student who sits quietly and helps others while she is dealing with those issues.
When we arrived in Seattle, we immediately brought up the reading issue to his school, View Ridge Elementary. To their credit, they jumped on the issue, getting Mikey a specialist (a retired teacher) to sit with him in the hallway for a portion of the class to address his shortcomings. I came to his school once to drop off a lunch left at home and saw him in the hallway with this woman. He was so focused with her. Less than a month later, he was reading effortlessly. He never looked back.
Mikey was so eager to start school back in SoCal that we registered him for kindergarten a year early. At View Ridge Elementary, Mikey was obsessed with the chance to become a Crossing Guard. When he was finally selected to share that duty, he wore the orange vested uniform of the position with all the pride of a Marine in dress blues or a goalkeeper with a brand new, and completely unique, keepers’ kit. He took his responsibility seriously, committed to the safety of his schoolmates while emanating a sincere empathy for others.
The first time he was awarded the “Citizen of the Month” award in his class we figured it must be his turn. The second time he won it in the same year, we assumed it was an oversight on the teachers’ part. He would win it a third time before being declared the “Citizen of the Year” for the entire school. He would go on to win the “Citizen of the Year” award 3 more consecutive years and still managed to squeeze a “Humanitarian of the Year Award” for being the most giving kid in his school somewhere in there as well.
Alexes found comfort in solitude, in her own strength, and filled her time reading anything and everything, intent to teach herself whatever did not come up in school. But, Mikey was at his best when he was meeting people, mesmerizing them with his beautiful light eyes while chatting them up, eager to share any recent happening in his young life with an enthusiasm seldom seen in children his age, and far less common in the techno-dependent children of today. Even as a second-grader, he could carry on intelligent conversations with anyone he came across, no matter the demographic, and with the confidence and intelligence of a seasoned adult. On the sidelines of Alexes’ soccer games, Mikey would sit and maintain a 30-45 minute conversation with anyone that happened to share his immediate space. Adults were fascinated by his willingness to just sit and talk and even more so with his ability to listen.
Mikey didn’t just talk to people; he could see people too. I often watched him on sidelines talking to parents of daughters that were not playing much or were obviously playing poorly. He seemed to see their pain and talked to them about things that would make them feel better. He was gentle, kind, and warm. I often try to remember the fussy days most school age kids have, but I cannot ever remember any of those days for Mikey. He saw we had our plates full just trying to stay afloat and tried, as best as he could, to put his needs second. From birth, he has valiantly played that role in our lives, content to try and bring as much joy and love as he could.
There is a picture floating around where Mikey is dressed as Winnie the Pooh for Halloween. He was 2 or 3 years old at the time. But, even before then, from the moment he was born, we all saw him as the Pooh Bear, full of innocent wisdom. In the era of Mikey’s triumphant selection to “Crossing Guard”, my brother died. The events that lead to Norman’s death left me to redirect the trajectory of my parenting.
There were four children born to Ernest and Bernice Shaw, three boys and a girl. They both spent their entire careers at my father’s modest practice and managed to put the four of us through private school with the expectation that we each, in our own time, would also go on to graduate from college. In turn, we grew up believing that anything less was a letdown in their eyes and showed a blatant lack of appreciation for their sacrifices. My oldest two siblings had done just that, graduated from high school and been accepted to four-year universities. What’s more, both had finished with advanced degrees.
Third in line was Norman, just 14 months older than I. Norman never did do well in school. He was always that brother that I would watch piss off my Dad, get spanked, and push the boundaries again the very next chance he could, that brother that was just crazy enough to steal the family car, joy ride around the neighborhood at three in the morning, kill the engine a block from the house, coast the car down the steep hill leading around the blind corner of our narrow street, half a block further down, and then neatly maneuver the 90˚ turn into the open garage to avoid detection. You know, that brother that lives by their own set of rules.
My father was a Marine, and nearly a Drill Instructor, at that, and he took discipline seriously. Conflict was inevitable.
There was a particular teacher in his senior year that began to speak to Norman’s rebellious spirit. This teacher encouraged Norman to push back against the Shaw family disciplinary standards, encouraging him to fight for his independence.
My older brother and sister were already off to college leaving my mother and I alone to witness firsthand the civil war that erupted between Norman and my father. Neither of those two powerful personalities were equipped to surrender any prideful ground to the other, so the war raged on between them for Norman’s entire senior year.
The final battle took place on the evening after Norman graduated, barely. My mother and I had seen the very same fight so many times that it was becoming commonplace. Though truthfully, it was no easier to watch. Norman expressed his desire to go out to celebrate his accomplishment to which my father responded with his usual stipulation: a 12:30 am curfew. Norman was done with the on-going curfew conflict and flat out refused, arguing that at 18 years old, he was too old to for curfews.
The disciplinarian father was pushed into a corner from which he would never back down, nor would the empowered son.
“My house, my rules!” The parent drew the line in the sand.
“Fine!” The line was about to get deliberately crossed. “I guess I don’t live here anymore”.
The reply was inevitable, predictable even.
My mom registered her objections too late to affect the outcome. We both were shocked and overcome. Norman was gone. He had just graduated from high school and was kicked out, left to pursue his only housing option, the supportive teacher from high school.
The summer following my first year at the University of Oregon, Norman called me to tell me that he was HIV positive. I borrowed a friend’s car and drove around Eugene for hours, crying to myself. We never discussed how he might have come to be HIV positive, but we heard it through the grapevine that the “supportive” teacher ultimately died of AIDS a few years after Norman’s proclaimed his illness.
I only saw Norman sporadically over the next ten years as he moved around the country quite a bit, though there was a brief spell when he actually lived with Casey, Alexes, and I in L.A. just before the Rodney King Riots. My parents saw him even less.
Over those years, our conversations repeatedly deteriorated into our own battles as I, a married father of 2 young children trying to fend off my own insecurities about the future, tended to echo my fathers’ pragmatism. Norman, on the other hand, maintained his free spirit, often prone to lofty goals that seemed beyond his reach and unrealistic about his health condition. The conversations deteriorated over the years until one night we were talking ourselves into an argument over the phone, neither of us backing down, when Norman voiced his intent to cut me off, completely out of his life.
It hit me over the head like a ton of bricks. He was sick, incoherent at times, and no matter the cause, one thing was clear; he would never be healthy again. I was spending all my energy trying to convince him to do something. I have no idea what we were arguing about, but it occurred to me that none of it mattered. We would never see eye-to-eye. There was only one way for Norman and I to have any kind of a relationship. I surrendered to him, entirely and overtly. I gave in to all my beliefs on his issues, expressed my willingness to accept our relationship on the only terms he would accept: his. I fell just short of begging him to let me stay in his life. After so many failed attempts to connect, we finally did. We settled, agreeing to move past the anger that had accrued between us over the years. Before we got off the phone, I did something that never happened in the Shaw household, I told him out loud, “I love you”. He replied in turn, and we were at peace.
Less than a year later, I got the call that Norman died of complications due to AIDS. I flew home to the funeral alone (the only way we could afford the trip), thankful that Norman and I had made our peace. On the return flight, I relived over and over again our impromptu ceremony to commit his ashes to the depths of the ocean, mirroring the depth of my fathers’ pain as he stated to us through tears, “A father is not supposed to bury his son” before letting go of Norman’s ashes, dropping them into the Pacific. It is, thus far, the only time in my life that I have seen my father cry.
I had a young son and I was raising him in the same tradition of discipline as my father. Mikey was respectful and hardworking, with the gentle disposition of the Pooh. I was left to reflect on the reality that unlike Winnie the Pooh, Mikey was eventually going to grow up with his own opinion of the world. And, I was afraid that as he grew up, and Alexes too for that matter, that they would respect me, maybe fear me a little, but not really know me. I was deftly afraid that the hole in our relationship would manifest in their absence from my life when they were old enough to choose for themselves.
I wanted Mikey to personify the warrior in his grandfather, but I still wanted him to be the Pooh. I wanted him to have the power to fight through adversity, to be courageous, to be empowered. At the same time, I refused to deny his quiet nature, his ability to see people, or his gentle wisdom. The two parts of his personality must coexist. Maybe, in so doing, he would come to see me in a way I never saw my own father, as fallible, as a human being with shortcomings, as a dad that might not always be able to pay all the bills, that hadn’t quite figured out how to overcome his own insecurities, but a dad that loved his children unconditionally.
Even before Norman’s passing, I watched my father make a conscious effort to have a better relationship with Mikey and Alexes. My mother was always supportive and helpful with the kids. But when we lived with them, my Dad made it his job to walk them to school each morning and often took them bicycle riding in Griffith Park. Most importantly, at the end of the day, when he was most tired, he never tuned them out. I appreciated his efforts so that, through Mikey, I came to see my own father in a more human light, and we are closer as adults than we ever were growing up.
As a result of his early start in school, each year Mikey was likely to be one of the youngest in his class and constantly smaller than his classmates. To help compensate for what we feared might be the start of a complex, we enrolled him in Martial Arts to help boost his self-confidence.
If Brianna Scurry was the fertilizer that helped fuel the growth of Alexes’ personality, then Master Han did the same for Mikey. Master Han brought the principles of Tae Kwon Do to life for Mikey. There are Five Tenets of Tae Kwon Do that translate to courtesy (Ye-Ui), integrity (Yom-Chi), perseverance and patience (In-Nae), self-discipline (Guk-Gi), and invincibility of spirit (Beak-bool-gul), and Mikey took to Tae Kwon Do with the same tenacity that his older sister took to soccer and with the same level of focus his mother took to her studies. Each week at practice, he focused in the moment on doing the work. He was the epitome of “effort with intensity”, and he worked just as hard to apply the 5 Tenets at home and at school. Tae Kwon Do became a key ingredient in the forging of our Gentleman Warrior.
He stood waist high amidst his classmates in Tae Kwon Do. We had to wrap the little belt around his waist so many times it was comical and two boys his size could easily fit inside the gear bag that he carried back and forth to practice. For belt tests, our little three-foot guy had to stand up, alone in front of the class, and face Master Han, standing at attention. There I sat, 30 yards away, watching Mikey at attention before Master Han, as he was questioned about the history and tenets in Korean. (Yes, my little guy spoke Korean, and did so with authority.) I could hear him clearly from across the room.
I was deathly afraid of Master Han but Mikey stood before him without hesitation. Each belt test brought more difficulty, higher mastery of the art, and more growth in his self-confidence even though Mikey, the little kid, didn’t grow much at all. He struggled to break boards with his legs because he could barely reach. But for each test, he pushed himself to practice relentlessly at home, to perform each skill with distinction, and each time, he walked away exhausted, but with a new colored belt to wear proudly at the next practice, wrapped around his waist so many times it was comical.
Months later, Cassandra was traveling with Alexes’ club soccer team to Vancouver for a tournament. For some reason, I did not travel with the team, but instead, caught up with the family a day later. I carried an envelope for Cassandra, addressed from the State Bar. Her results had arrived, and I had the presence of mind to deliver it to her unopened.
It was over a pasta and salad party at a local restaurant that Cassandra opened her envelope to discover that SHE HAD PASSED THE WASHINGTON STATE BAR EXAM!!!! Well, actually, she had passed the Substantive portion, the longest most difficult part of the licensing test, but had not passed the Ethical portion. She claims it was because she did not study for that portion, focusing instead on the meatier substantive exam. I jokingly suggested that she failed because she is too ethical to be a lawyer (hehe). Either way, she need only pass the lessor portion and she would officially become a licensed attorney. She scheduled the make-up for the third week of February 2003.
Soccer families were again our extended family, just like in SoCal. So when I sat for the bar, one family in particular, the Harmon’s, volunteered to watch the kids so I could focus on the exam and not have to come home, worn out, and worry about being a decent mom. Nancy was a devoted, adopted mom and her two daughters, Laura and Olivia, cared for Alexes and Mikey during those days. They were with us at the soccer tournament; so to get the results with them present was extra special.
I attended my regularly scheduled warrior weekend that February. The Headquarters (HQ) section in Washington seemed more like a collection of “butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers” then a cohesive unit. It was a far cry from the clear “shoot & move” mission of my old artillery unit in SoCal. Unlike the constant field training I came to love about pulling guns, the HQ unit never went to the field and was often reluctant to even get equipment dirty. Warrior weekends were often spent milling around the drill center with nothing really to do.
The tedium changed the trajectory of my Reserve career. I was on track to pick up my Sergeant stripe in SoCal, motivated by the Marines and the mission, to commit to another 4 years of service. After just 3 months of drilling with the Washington HQ unit, I was ready to get out of the Marine Corps as soon as my contract was up. I did manage to befriend two other corporals, Eddie and Eric, each of us Motor T Operators and each with less than 18 months on our contract. All three of us were second generation Marines, we all came from other, more motivating units, and after our short time together, we were all looking forward to the end.
An Asshole Sergeant plagued the unit, embracing the cliché. There is always an asshole sergeant in war stories, not because it satisfies some need for a bad guy, but there just happen to be a ton of bad sergeants in the military. If a unit is lucky, there are numerically speaking, more good ones than bad ones in the immediate Chain of Command meaning the good literally outweighs the bad. The better ones will tend to outnumber and consequently, outrank the bad ones.
The more common trend is that good and bad ones alternate as individuals make rank and promote in and out of the service. If a unit is unlucky, a bad sergeant will hold command for an extended time, out of touch with better examples, only to reinforce bad habits. Experienced military personnel put up with the down times and hope for the inevitable influx of talent. If a unit is really unlucky, they are in the midst of a “Bad” sergeant cycle when a war is declared. The 3 of us were activated for Operation Iraqi Freedom a year before our contracts, in the middle of a bad sergeant cycle.
It happened a week before Cassandra was scheduled to sit for the Ethical portion of the BAR and two days before Valentines’ Day. As usual, I ironed my uniform, put my gear together, loaded up my car, and arrived at the Drill deck early on a Friday afternoon. We mustered and then stood at the position of attention by section while role was taken. Our First Sergeant completed his normal accountability duties before turning us over to the Commanding Officer (CO). This was unusual. Our CO never spoke to us at the beginning of drill beyond the usual formalities, and often times said little to nothing beyond, “have a safe month”, at the culmination of the drill weekend.
This evening was different. The CO stated bluntly that elements of our unit were being activated, effective immediately. He went on to clarify that not all the Marines from this unit were being activated, a fact that was received with mixed emotions. (I was hopeful.) Much to the relief of those passed over for activation, some volunteering would be allowed to fill slots in mandatory sections. Other sections, other jobs, had no choice, they were on the high needs list. Motor T was deemed high need. (My hope was gone.) Eric, Eddie, and I represented 75% of the trained Motor T operators. Our Bad Sergeant made up the other 25%. There was no choice in the matter. We were going to war.
At the conclusion of the formation, the First Sergeant released us with instructions to return on Sunday morning in order to receive our marching orders. We were scheduled to leave in one week, and had only that much time to get our affairs in order.
I could feel the, “Oh shit! Did that just happen?”, tightening like a knot in the pit of my stomach. I was definitely nauseous. Once again I was aware of the theoretical storm mounting in my surrounding environment. There was a sensation that reminded me of how I felt like when driving to work through the Rodney King Riots so many years before. On some level I was anxious to get into this “storm”, to again, know the experience first-hand. But, this was no transient civil unrest confined to the streets of Los Angeles. This storm was a real war and any enthusiasm to live this historical moment was quickly put aside by a simple truth: a lot can go wrong in a war.
Mike walked in the door during a drill weekend one day early and “oh shit” was my immediate thought. The kids ran to him as he walked through the door. He clung to them, one in each arm. The normal few seconds of a hug passed yet still Mike hugged them, almost with a sense of desperation. As he continued to tightly hold them in his arms, my heart fell to my stomach. I knew at that exact moment we were going to war. He finally looked up at me from kneeling, still holding both kids tightly. His eyes clouded up as he stated bluntly, “I’ve been activated, they are sending me to Iraq in six days.” FUCK!!!!!!!!!!!