Always smiling

Jean and Walt Bowyer step away from an evening party to pose for a photo.  Jean and Walt are the parents of 1st Lt. Christopher Bowyer-Meeder, 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs officer. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

Jean and Walt Bowyer step away from an evening party to pose for a photo. Jean and Walt are the parents of 1st Lt. Christopher Bowyer-Meeder, 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs officer. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

Yvonne Meeder, Christopher Bowyer-Meeder and Bruce Meeder, enjoy popcorn under a home-built blanket fort while watching a movie. Bruce and Yvonne became Chris's legal guardians when he was just five-years-old. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

Yvonne Meeder, Christopher Bowyer-Meeder and Bruce Meeder, enjoy popcorn under a home-built blanket fort while watching a movie. Bruce and Yvonne became Chris's legal guardians when he was just five-years-old. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- I sometimes have to struggle to bring it out, but I do whatever I can to start the day on a positive note. Don't get me wrong. I'm still human. Just like every other person in the world, I have days where I wake up feeling so-so. I even have days that I wake up feeling less than "so-so." But early in life I learned things could always be worse. Armed with that simple concept, I decided to live my life with a type of mantra my mother once told me, "Bad things happen in life, but you choose how to respond to them. You can get bitter or you can get better. Which will you choose?"

That's a decision I've been facing most of my life.

See, this story starts 23 years ago. That's when you would have found the 5-year-old me living with my dad, Walt Bowyer, my mom, Jean Bowyer, and my two brothers, Michael and Marques Bowyer, the twins. We lived on a street that was almost like a television show. Everyone knew everyone, and you can believe if you did something wrong on one end of the street, your parents would already know about it when you got back home. Unfortunately, my "television show life" took a turn around this time.

It's a scenario in my head I'll never forget. I was sitting on the couch with my mother, while the twins were playing nearby. Mom had a sudden and severe headache. It seemed to come about as quickly as a bolt of lightning flashes across the night sky during a summer thunderstorm. She asked my brother, Marques, to go grab her a glass of water. Then, the scary part for a five-year-old: she suddenly started complaining that she couldn't hear anything. As a toddler, you're parents are supposed to be the ones to protect you from anything. What do you do when your mother can't even hear you?

Michael and Marques ran to the neighbor's house for help, and ultimately ended up calling 9-1-1. If I live to be 100 years old, I'll never forget trying to tell my mother I loved her, and having absolutely no response because she couldn't hear me. However, one of the traditions we used to have was signing, "I love you," using American Sign Language. As the emergency responders took my mom out to the ambulance on the stretcher, I gave her one last sign of, "I love you," and she gave me one back to try to give me some form of comfort. Even looking back on it now, I'm amazed at the strength she showed by giving me a simple sign, trying to comfort me when she was going through something so severe.

I still find myself looking over the doctor's report occasionally:
"Ms. Bowyer is a 38-year-old woman who presented with a sudden onset of headache followed by a loss of consciousness. On route to the hospital, she had a ventricular fibrillation arrest followed by asystole. She was successfully resuscitated on route, and arrived in a stable rhythm. Her neurological exam disclosed only pupillary reaction bilaterally. A CT scan showed a large right cerebellar hemorrhage. She was taken emergently to the Operating Room for evacuation."

My mother had suffered a brain aneurism.

Although she fought hard to survive this terrible experience, she was left a mere shell of her former self. She had to eat through a feeding tube, communicate with a voice program on a laptop, and had to be pushed everywhere in a wheel chair.

Through all of it, my father did what any good father would do. He did his best.

Walt worked at the Allegheny County Jail. He recognized it would be hard for him to raise me as a single parent.  Looking to give me the best opportunity at a successful life, he displayed the biggest show of strength I've ever seen from a man: He asked another couple to become my legal guardians and raise me.

So with a trip to the courthouse and the stroke of a pen, I went from living in the inner city with my black biological family, to living in the country with my new, white, Jewish family.

Bruce and Yvonne Meeder were a young, relatively newlywed couple at the time. While Walt Bowyer showed the greatest strength I've ever seen, Bruce and Yvonne displayed the greatest love I've ever felt by accepting me in to their new family. With no blood relation whatsoever, they raised me as their own.

It wasn't long before I started referring to Bruce and Yvonne as "Mom and Dad." Walt and Jean expressed gratitude to Bruce and Yvonne for filling the void of mother and father in my life. Now secure in my new family, Walt continued to stay highly involved in my life. He supported me at everything from football games to Boy Scout meetings, and even equestrian competitions.

As an adult, I'm incredibly humbled by how much both families sacrificed to raise me. I'm also grateful to Bruce and Yvonne for filling that role in my life.

Seven years after the brain aneurism, Jean passed away. A few short years later, Walt died from lung cancer. He enjoyed smoking Newports. It ultimately cost him his life.

I consider myself lucky to have gotten to know him for my first 21 years on this earth. There are many days I wish he was still around to speak with him and tell him of my adventures. He was also in the Air Force. But I'm fortunate to still have Bruce and Yvonne around any time I need mom and dad.

In my short time on this planet, I've seen life and death, joy and pain -- and I've decided to be thankful for all of it. So, yes, I'm still human. And I still have bad days. But when people ask me why I always seem to be so happy, it's because I've seen how bad things can truly be.

So tomorrow I'll wake up, smile, and prepare to face the world. It's a lot like what we learn during those Comprehensive Airmen Fitness days. It's about finding a spiritual peace, and knowing there's more to life than the current task at hand.

I hope sharing my story will inspire you to count your blessings and greet the challenges of Air Force life with a smile.