My grandfather was born on June 6, 1927. He was in the Navy during World War II and he served on a submarine and was stranded for weeks with only coconuts for sustenance. We celebrated his 92nd birthday early this summer, and he remarked, for the second year in a row, how much this celebration meant to him and how he couldn’t wait to eat lemon cake again with us the next time around. He wanted to live to 100 and well past that.
I am lucky to have lived close to my family while growing up. We scattered ourselves around a little lake in southern Michigan, where my dad was raised. My little sister and I would run around the neighborhood during the summer playing spy games, building forts, collecting plants and rocks. We would ding-dong ditch neighbors and run into the woods, make trails along the lakefront and commit our fair share of trespassing over soggy lawns and piers.
My grandparents had a beautiful garden with wild raspberries and strawberries that we would sneakily harvest and bring home. The past few summers, we spent hours picking wild blackberries from their prickly bushes, avoiding mosquitoes and spider webs before stopping by our grandfather’s house to share. My grandmother used to layer up in the heat of July with socks pulled over long jeans and sweatshirts tucked into waistbands to evade thorns and biting mites, but more importantly, to reach the back of the berry bushes and avoid letting a single berry go to waste. Their garden—now overgrown with grasses and dandelions—no longer produces the delicate fruit it once did.
As summers passed and high school drew to a close, family members were increasingly curious as to where I planned to continue my education. Not many people in my family, aside from my older cousins, attended college, and their expectations for me were high. I had college applications over halfway done for all sorts of out-of-state schools in October and I planned on having an additional two weeks to complete them with proper edits and teacher revisions.
I received a concussion that day and was diagnosed with Post Concussive Syndrome after a month or two of symptoms not letting up. I was recommended for medical leave and was placed under a Section 504 plan which allowed me to be a part-time high school student and miss a significant number of school days. This arrangement allowed me to still graduate with my class.
My grandfather wanted to check in and see how I was doing. We connected quickly over our shared head knocks; he had fallen his fair share of times with old age. We discussed mutual symptoms and how these injuries made us feel different, even if we didn’t look different. We talked about how I didn’t know if I would get into any of the schools I applied to because I wasn’t able to finish my college applications. He promised me I would be fine, and I ended up only submitting to in-state schools.
Once I got into Michigan, it was hard for me to talk to him as his hearing had started to decline. His stubbornness demanded I shout to convey a message. So, I reverted to writing him letters and sitting with him while he read them and smiled back up at me. I wrote to him about my new research position, my volunteering at the hospital, the classes I was taking and how much I loved it here at Michigan. He was so enthused when he found out I wanted to be a doctor — it’d be the first in our family and he immediately began calling me Dr. Bowman when I visited. He liked the ring of it and how much responsibility it carried. I could never express enough how his his nearly one hundred years of hard work granted me the opportunity to be in the position I am and be a student at the University of Michigan.
Between bonding over mutual head traumas, intently listening to classic American stories from decades prior or shouting “I love you” from three feet away because he was too stubborn to use his hearing aids, my grandfather made everything possible and achievable for my family. Especially as a first-generation college student, the feat of attending a prestigious school is rarely possible without the hard work and sacrifice of respected family members that work to instill in you a drive for integrity and success.
I recently got accepted for a position at The Michigan Daily as a columnist and he was so thrilled to read the University’s newspaper and see our last name printed in it. For fall break, I brought home four copies of each paper I was in so far this school year to show him. But on the morning of Oct. 14, my grandfather passed, and I wasn’t able to show him in person. This date was once so important for me as it marked a change in my life post-concussion. Now it signifies another major change and life without my grandfather. This date now holds intrinsic importance and sadness for me in so many interwoven and complex ways, and I know I will be unraveling it for a long time.