05.22.21 – Knocking on Heaven’s Door(s)

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

On Mother’s Day weekend, I had the chance to swim in the first of my 14-city Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour 2021 open water events. It took place at Northshore Park in St Petersburg where we all swam together in the Tampa Bay to raise money for cancer research.

Many people have asked me how the weekend went. I told them that it was incredible and far exceeded what I anticipated or expected. In other words, I felt bizarrely blessed.

Others have asked how I felt before and during the swim. I admitted that I felt emotional and humbled. And thankful that I had physically prepared as it was more challenging than I had estimated given the ocean’s current and waves.

And some have asked what I was thinking about while I was swimming. I shared that I was thinking about doors. Two different doors to be exact.

What? I was thinking about doors? Two doors while swimming a mile in the Tampa Bay? Yes, I was absolutely thinking about two doors.

Let me explain.

As you may recall, toward the end of Grace’s life and while she was still feeling ok (ok by Grace’s standards, not the world’s), we had a little fun with the designated name on her hospital room door. We changed it each day to something that made her laugh and we thought might entertain her medical team. Her room label was G. Trump, G. Chrisley, G. Saban, and G. Spears to name a few. But then things got a little more serious for Grace and we decided that the fun-with-the-name-on-the door had run its course. So, we changed it to G. Winns and it remained that way until we left on March 25th.

You may also remember that Grace’s room number was Room 575. Guess what number symbolizes God’s grace and goodness and is mentioned 318 times in the Bible? The number 5. And guess which number is used 735 times and is the number of completeness and perfection (both physical and spiritual)? The number 7. Which meant one thing…Grace’s hospital room number could be represented by the following:

Grace. Perfect. Grace.

One of the Aflac nurse practitioners was even kind enough to write out these numbers in Hebrew and we placed it under her room door plaque.

But that just explains Door #1. And I claimed that I was thinking about two doors.

The weekend prior to leaving for the Tampa Swim Across America Tour, I repainted Caroline’s room. As I was painting the door to her room, I saw something I had never noticed before. Prior to Grace’s last departure from our home, she not only decorated the slats below Caroline’s bunk bed, but she also drew a name plate for Caroline’s bedroom door. It is small and simple and includes Caroline’s name above some water waves. That’s all.

Or so I thought. As I was painting Caroline’s bedroom door, I noticed an important detail that I had never seen before. Underneath each wave, Grace drew a cross.

A cross.

As I was reminded last week in church by Kelly Brumbeloe, “Storms are inevitable in life.” I agree. Grace would certainly agree. But what holds you up? What or Who holds you up and above each wave? Who holds you up and above each wave in the storms of life?

Grace knew Who held her up over each crescendo and crash of life’s waves. But more importantly, she wanted to remind her younger sister in her absence about what she knew. And how did she remind Caroline of this important fact? Did she lecture her? No. Did she preach to her? No. Did she write out scripture? No.

Rather, Grace made Caroline a simple name tag from paper and markers to hang on her door. A door that Caroline has entered and exited every day since March 25, 2018. And every time she walks through her bedroom door, Caroline is reminded of how much her older sister loved her. But more importantly, she is reminded of Who she needs to have in her life to endure and overcome the waves and storms in life.

That is what I was thinking about while swimming a mile in the Tampa Bay on Mother’s Day weekend. And quite honestly, I can’t imagine that I will experience a more meaningful Mother’s Day for the rest of my life. Maybe not until I walk through Heaven’s Door.

Here is glimpse of the weekend: Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour 2021 – Tampa

I’m reaching out, 
I’ll chase you down
I dare you to believe how much
I love you now
Don’t be afraid, I am your strength
We’ll be walking on the water, dancing on the waves

(We The Kingdom)

Tour Update: The next stop on The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour is July 9th in Detroit. Our team has raised over $37,000 thus far! Thank you for your generosity and support! But we still have a lot of swimming to do and a lot of money to raise for cancer research!

05.04.21 – Just Keep Breathing

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

Yesterday evening on the way to the gym with Caroline, we were listening to MercyMe’s new album. The first song on the album is called, “Inhale” and the last song is called, “Exhale.”

Inhale. Exhale.

Sounds so simple, right?

Yet sometimes, things in life happen that make the mere act of breathing seem impossible. Haven’t most of us had the air knocked out of us? Perhaps while playing a sport or rough housing with our siblings or friends when we were younger? It is the most terrifying second in our lives…not being able to catch our breath. In that moment of frightening disbelief, air and life become one and the same. We would do anything just to get our breath back again, to feel life one more time.

Many of us have also experienced moments when life knocks the wind out of us. Moments where you think this isn’t how life was supposed to go. Moments where our breathing changes without our consent.

I have experienced a few of those moments. I have also witnessed my children experience a few of those moments. Moments where I watched the blood drain from their faces as they processed the bad news that I had just shared with them. Bad news that literally took their breath away. Trust me, you don’t realize how important it is to ‘just breath’ until you feel as though you can’t.

Yes, ‘just breathing’ is important.

Grace’s own reactions to her various surgeries emphasized the very importance of breathing. I remember her being far more concerned about her multiple lung surgeries than her leg amputation surgery. Imagine that? Worrying more about a surgery that would take a fraction of the time and didn’t involve surgical instruments that looked like they belonged in a carpenter’s woodworking shop rather than in a sterile surgical room. Why would someone feel that way?

The way Grace explained it, “I can walk without a leg, but I can’t breathe without my lungs.”

Yes, breathing represents life.

Which would explain why one of Grace’s primary concerns related to her end of life experience was breathing. At one clinic appointment, she shared with myself and her nurse practitioner, “Please don’t let me feel like I can’t breathe.”

As I prepare to swim a mile in the Tampa Bay at the first of my 14 Swim Across America open water events that are part of The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour 2021, I can’t help but think of the importance of breathing. I am also reminded that we are all born into this life on an inhale, and we will die to this body on an exhale. And in between all of those inhales and exhales, life is available for each of us to experience to the fullest, if we so choose. We have a choice – we can choose to live contracted, turning to dying a little in each moment or we can choose to breathe and live deeply while extending and stretching ourselves to the very limit of living. The choice is ours.

With each inhale and exhale in the water on May 8th and with conscious intention on my part, I will do my best to make the right choice and “just keep breathing” as we make waves to fight cancer.

This video represents Why I Swim: 

Why I Swim – Amazing Grace Tour 2021

Inhale, exhale
It’s always darkest just before the light
Inhale and now exhale
Where there’s broken hope’s not far behind

(MercyMe)

Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour 2021 Update:

Thank you to everyone for all of your support. I am beyond excited to travel to Tampa later this week with friends. My mom will meet us there. Originally, Caroline was going to join us, but she has a soccer tournament this weekend. As I told Caroline who was disappointed that it’s humanly impossible to be in two places at one time, “Moms are only as happy as their saddest child.” Since she will be in her happy place (the soccer field) and I will be in Grace’s happy place (the water), this means that I will be very happy this Mother’s Day weekend. Happy Mother’s Day to all of you!

Also, I wanted to let you know that in anticipation of this first open water event of The Amazing Grace Tour, Swim Across America has released an Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour t-shirt! You can’t have a tour without a tour t-shirt, right?

With a donation of $30, individuals are able to obtain a t-shirt.

Here is the link to the t-shirt page so that you can see what they look like:

swimacrossamerica.org/graceshirt

04.09.21 – Embrace the Unknown

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

Back in the spring of 2020, we all got a front-row seat to the limits of the human capacity to cope with uncertainty. In fact, pandemics seem almost perfectly catered to prey on humanity’s greatest psychological weakness: fear of the unknown.

Many of us value control above all our other capacities. We admire others who are in control, and we congratulate ourselves when we think we have control over our own circumstances. In fact, researchers at University College London found that uncertainty is even more stressful than knowing something bad is definitely going to happen. Wait, what? Is it really more stressful wondering whether you’ll make it to your meeting on time than knowing you will definitely be late? Is it more stressful wondering if you’re about to get pummeled than being absolutely sure of it? According to psychological research, the answer is a resounding “yes.” But why might this be so?

The fear of the unknown is possibly the most fundamental fear of human beings. Events that are outside of our control have a way of playing with our minds and causing us to become filled with dread, uncertainty, and doubt. Which is why something like a pandemic has the ability to cause many people to become unhinged.

Guess what else can do this? A cancer diagnosis. Every 15 minutes, 50 Americans are confronted with this news and the uncertainties and unknowns that arise from this diagnosis. But as our family intimately knows, the unknowns and uncertainty do not end when someone’s cancer treatment ends. There are follow-up appointments and regular tests to detect whether or not your cancer has returned. As one author described it, “Scans are like revolving doors, emotional roulette wheels that spin us around for a few days and spit us out the other side.”

Knowing and accepting that uncertainty is the only certainty that there is, following Grace’s diagnosis and throughout her treatment, our family decided to commit ourselves to embracing the unknown. We tried every day to accept that certainty is an illusion as we never know for sure how things will unfold. We worked hard at accepting that life will never be perfect. We tried to embrace the fact that we will gain and lose, grow and regress, smile and cry, learn and forget; and in the process, we were better able to experience and enjoy the present moment.

We were confident that we had this whole “embrace the unknown” thing down. And then we learned that Grace was going to die from her disease. Most likely, at the age of 14. More unknowns to face. More uncertainties to fight.

One evening in mid-March 2018 after Grace was able to fall asleep, I walked to the hospital cafeteria to get something to eat. While standing in line, I received a phone call from “Unknown.” Typically, I might have answered the call despite not knowing who was on the other end. But not that night.

“I am dealing with enough unknowns right now,” I thought to myself.

I let the call go to voicemail and ordered my food. While walking back to Grace’s room, I decided to listen to the voicemail. To my surprise, the caller was far from being “Unknown.” Rather, the caller was the very-well-known Nick Saban, head coach of The University of Alabama football team. Grace’s favorite team. He was calling to speak with Grace.

Having no means to return his call, I felt disappointed in my decision to not face the “Unknown.”  While sharing the story with Grace’s nurse, my phone rang. Again, the “Unknown” was calling. Learning my lesson from the cafeteria, I immediately answered the call. Grace’s nurse captured what happened next on her own phone. I have decided to share it here:

Grace and Coach Saban

What is the lesson that I learned from this story? This experience reminded me to never fear the unknown. And that the thing about the unknown is anything can happen, which means anything can happen. More importantly, it taught me that when the unknown in life comes calling, you better answer the phone. Why? Because Nick Saban just might be on the other end. 

­­­Grace loved Alabama football and Coach Saban. It is my understanding that Alabama has won 18 National Championships. If you are touched by the fact that someone as busy as Coach Saban would take time out of his evening to call a young girl in the hospital, then I encourage you to find 18 Alabama (or non-Alabama) fans to join one of our open water events or find 18 Alabama (or non-Alabama) fans and ask them to donate $18 to The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour 2021. Or better yet, do both!

Why? Because you never know when someone you love might be faced with the unknowns that accompany a cancer diagnosis. Help us make (Crimson) waves against cancer as we give hope to others one open water event at a time. 

Even Coach Saban wants you to support our tour:

Coach Nick Saban Supports Team Amazing Grace

“I want everybody here to know, this is not the end. This is the beginning.” (Nick Saban)

03.24.21 – Imperfect Palms

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

When it came to her illness, Grace drew the short straw. But when it came to those chosen to treat her illness, she hit the jackpot. Toward the end of her life, it proved to be more than challenging to make her comfortable and address her pain. At some point, it was decided that only those who knew Grace best would be in charge of her care. What did this mean? This meant that I saw either Melissa (her nurse practitioner) or Dr. Wasilewski every single day. Including weekends. And often, more than once a day. Including weekends.

On March 24th, Melissa and Dr. Wasilewski visited Grace. They determined it was unlikely for her to live to see her 15th birthday (March 26). As such, Kelly Brumbeloe graciously spent the night with us in Grace’s hospital room. March 25th happened to be Palm Sunday. Knowing that Grace was likely to die that day and that it would be meaningful to us as a family, Dr. Wasilewski stopped by a church on the way to the hospital early that morning. As I understand the story, Dr. Wasilewski entered the church and was greeted by a church employee. She explained why she was there so early. She shared that she was on the way to the hospital where she was caring for a young girl who was likely to die that day. She stated that she was hoping to bring this girl’s family a palm. The following exchange ensued:

Church employee: “You will have to come back. We haven’t had a chance to bless the palms.”

Dr. Wasilewski: “But, I don’t think you understand. I am on the way to the hospital. My patient is dying. I can’t come back later.”

Church employee: “I am sorry, but I can’t give you a palm. They haven’t been blessed yet.”

They haven’t been blessed yet.

In other words, they aren’t perfect enough to give to you.

How many of us are guilty of this type of thinking and behavior? Hands up if you have ever fallen into this trap of waiting for life or things or situations or people to be perfect before living or doing or giving or acting in some manner? How many of us won’t pass out the palms until they are blessed?

Too often, we wait for the perfect time, the perfect situation, the perfect weather, when things “settle down,” when “I have time,” or when it’s convenient. But guess what? The time is never going to perfect, neither is the weather or your situation or your circumstances. And you will never have the time, nor will it ever be convenient.

I have learned that life must be lived under imperfect conditions and during imperfect situations. In fact, I am convinced that this is exactly how life is meant to be experienced. Throughout the Bible, God used imperfect people and imperfect circumstances. Why? Because no other kind are available.

So…

Don’t wait to travel until the journey seems possible.

Don’t wait to love until others seem loveable.

Don’t wait to forgive until others seem forgivable.

Don’t wait to climb until the mountain seems surmountable.

Don’t wait to dream until it seems plausible.

Don’t wait to achieve until it seems attainable.

And don’t wait to get a new puppy until it seems manageable (well maybe wait on this one – kidding – we love you, Raye!).

And always pass out the palms, even when they haven’t been blessed. I happen to think the act of passing out an unblessed palm blesses everyone, including the palm.

Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap. (Ecclesiastes 11:4)

03.19.21 – Singing in Prison

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

Most of us have heard the saying, “The teacher learns more than the student.” How true.

Last month, I, along with Caroline, Dr. Wasilewski and several others, participated in an interview. One question I was asked was, “What is the greatest lesson you learned from Grace?” I drew a blank. I wasn’t sure how to answer or how to choose or which lesson learned was worthy of being deemed “the greatest,” so I said something like, “There are so many. Let me think about that.”

Not surprising to those who know her, although Caroline woke up early, took the day off from school, and drove with me to the hotel, she was not able to participate in the interviews. It was just too upsetting. Too difficult. Too painful to share her stories and memories of Grace.

Not surprising to those who know her, Dr. Wasilewski immediately volunteered to drive Caroline home while I was being interviewed.

Not surprising to those who know of Caroline and Dr. Wasilewski’s special friendship, the two of them had a great time on the drive home discussing their plans to go parasailing (without me) after our open water Swim Across America event in Kiawah Island later this summer.

And not surprising to those who know me, on my drive home from the interview I was consumed by thoughts of Caroline and feelings of regret that she must experience life as an unintended only child. I also thought about how proud I am of Caroline’s strength and resolve and willingness to continue to pursue life and seek joy despite her personal pain. And I was reminded of the words she spoke at Grace’s funeral, and it was at that moment that I realized what my greatest lesson learned has been.

I’ve had two teachers – Grace and Caroline – and the greatest lesson they both taught me is how to sing in prison.

I first learned of this idea – singing in prison – as a child attending Vacation Bible School where we sang the song, “Paul and Silas Bound in Jail.” It tells the story of Acts 16 when Paul and Silas  were thrown into prison for preaching the gospel. Their backs had been ripped open with a whip, and at midnight, in the most unsanitary of conditions, in a filthy environment, with their legs stretched apart in shackles causing excruciating pain, Paul and Silas held a worship service.

Fortunately, most of us will not face the extreme circumstances encountered by Paul and Silas or be confronted by a terminal cancer prognosis at the age of 14 or deliver a tribute for your older sister and best friend at the age of 13. But every single one of us will face hardship and experience pressure of some kind. When life’s pressures were applied, prayer and praise is what came out of Paul and Silas. When life’s pressures were applied, I watched Grace and continue to watch Caroline sing through the darkness. Grace’s prison was her illness while Caroline’s is her grief. Yet, since they were and are willing to sing after midnight, just like Paul and Silas, Grace and Caroline were and are able to break free of their own life shackles.

And although Caroline might not have been capable of sharing her thoughts and memories of Grace in the form of an interview last month, she is able and excited to grab her swimsuit and wonderful friends and join me on The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour 2021.

The first stop of the tour is Tampa on May 8th which happens to be Mother’s Day weekend. I honestly can’t think of a better way to spend Mother’s Day weekend than by swimming a mile in the Tampa Bay alongside Dr. Wasilewski and many others. This event and day will provide me with a perfect opportunity to remember Grace and honor Caroline, my greatest life teachers. I am uncertain what the other Swim Across America swimmers will be thinking that day, but I know what I will be thinking. With each stroke through the water, I will be thinking how grateful I am to Grace and Caroline for teaching and showing me how to live out that Bible story I sang about as a child and reminding me that it is only by consciously choosing to sing and praise through the darkness that we can truly be set free.

Caroline’s tribute to Grace was very special and beautiful and can be viewed here: Caroline’s Tribute to Grace

If you feel led to help improve treatments and outcomes for others who are trying to sing through their darkness, please consider supporting and/or joining our Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour/Team. You won’t regret it.

Here is the link: The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour 2021

“While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.” (Angela Schwindt)

01.31.21 – Think Old Testament

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

I know a very special carpenter. Well in fact, I know two, but only one of them was Grace and Caroline’s Dodgen Middle School’s chorus teacher. The girls call him Mr. Whit. I call him Chris. Our family owns two of his woodworking creations. One was commissioned by Grace and the other one by Caroline. The first piece resides on a bookshelf in the sitting room adjacent to our master bedroom, the second one rotates between our backyard and garage depending on the weather. Both of them are beautiful and bring me joy every time I walk by them; and collectively, they inspired this post.

At some point in January 2018, Grace began planning her funeral. As you will recall, she chose to be cremated and for her ashes to be spread in the Sea of Galilee. When you decide on cremation, you also must select some form of urn or container. Grace googled different types of urns but was dissatisfied with her search. That’s when she remembered that she knew a special carpenter – Mr. Whit.

One late afternoon she said to me, “I know that Mr. Whit makes the best cornhole boards. Do you think he would make my urn?”

“I’m not sure,” I responded, “but I am more than happy to ask him for you.”

She replied, “Tell him that I don’t want anything fancy. I don’t want it to look shiny. I want it to look like it’s been around for a long time.”

“Ok,” I answered.

To which Grace responded, “Tell him to think Old Testament.”

“I will reach out to him tonight,” I replied.

And I did. And Mr. Whit made an urn just as Grace described.

Fast forward to 2020 and the pandemic. Just like everyone else in the world, beginning in March, our family spent a great deal of time at home in need of things to do. Remembering Grace’s assertion about this special carpenter’s cornhole-board-making talents, Caroline asked if I could order a set for our family.

And I did. And Mr. Whit made us a beautiful set of cornhole boards just as Caroline described.

This past month, I decided to do two things: register for a class on Bibliology (thank you Jennifer Bell) and finalize plans regarding The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour. In my Bibliology class, the instructor referred to the Old Testament as Act 1 and reminded us that following Act 1 (or the Old Testament) there was a 400-year intermission. 400 years of silence. 400 years without a prophetic word.

Last week as I walked past the cornhole boards in our garage on my way to go swimming, I could almost hear Grace utter those words from January 2018: Think Old Testament. And it reminded me of other words spoken by Grace and why I decided to follow through with my commitment to complete The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour this year. These other words were shared by Grace in her Rally Foundation speech in November 2017 and they go like this: 

“So, here is the part where my story doesn’t wrap up in a pretty bow. Just as doctors predicted, in July, my cancer came back. Again. Relapse #2. But this time, the cancer invaded my spine – not good. The goal of my treatment switched from being curative to being focused on my quality of life. Correction, the quality of my end-of-life. Because guess what? I am going to die. I am going to die because of osteosarcoma. I am going to die of a disease whose treatment has not changed in three decades. Three decades.”

Grace reminded us that if you want to know about the current state of standard treatment for osteosarcoma: think Old Testament. If you are unsure if that is true, I have a closet full of prosthetic legs to present as evidence. But even worse, the current state of treatment for relapsed osteosarcoma is similar to that long intermission or silent period. As Grace also shared in her Rally speech:

“There currently is NO standard treatment for RELAPSED osteosarcoma.”

In other words, the medical world has been silent on this issue. Nothing. Not a single standard treatment has been developed for relapsed osteosarcoma even though it is the oldest form of cancer ever documented. And if you are unsure of the truth of that statement, I have an empty bedroom in our home to present as evidence.

But as Grace also shared in her speech, “Although none of this sounds very hopeful, I still am.”

Which is why I am happy to share with you that yes – yes, I am planning on completing The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour 2021. I plan to swim in 14! open water events, and I encourage you to join me in some form or fashion. Here is a link that outlines the AG Tour:

The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour

So why do I swim? I swim with the hope that one day in the future when another young person who believes like Grace that the Sea of Galilee is the most sacred body of water on the planet, that they can travel to Israel with their family and stand along the shoreline as a tourist rather than as a heap of ashes in a wooden box made for them by their middle school chorus teacher. That is why I swim. Like Grace, I swim for hope. I hope you will consider doing so as well.

“The teacher is always silent during the test.” (Unknown)

12.06.20 – Say I Won’t

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

We have all experienced being underestimated in this life. In today’s broken world, there are hundreds or even thousands of reasons why this might have happened. Maybe it was because of your age. Your gender. Your race or your religion. How you look or where you went to school. Maybe it was because of your background or accent or dialect. Maybe it was because you still believe that a hug and a bit of hope can change us all.

I was thinking about the idea of being underestimated last night while running on the treadmill and listening to MercyMe’s new song called “Say I Won’t.” This song was inspired by the band’s longtime friend Gary Miracle, who worked with the band for many years on the road. Gary lost both arms and legs in January of 2020 after falling into septic shock. His story and the inspired song is one of strength and profound faith (see attached video – trust me, you will not regret watching it).

Listening to this song reminded me of occasions over the past handful of years where I witnessed or experienced moments of being underestimated.

I recall the evening of October 20, 2014 when we sat in the post-surgical room and listened to Dr. Fabregas describe to us how Grace’s rotationplasty surgery went and asking him: “How do most of your patients respond after waking up from this surgery?”

He replied: “Most patients don’t want to look at their leg and often they are depressed.”

After he left the room, my mom and I looked at each other and said, “Well, he doesn’t know Grace.”

Sure enough and true to form, when we greeted Grace for the first time in the hallway on our way to the ICU, she proclaimed, “I saw my leg and it’s awesome!”

The underestimation continued into the next day. Fearing that Grace would not be strong enough to eat, her surgical team decided to put in an NJ feeding tube. Early the next morning and to the surprise of her ICU nurse, Grace asked for pancakes. While trying to eat them, she said, “It would be a lot easier to eat these if you would take out this tube.” Which the nurse promptly did.

This type of event and exchanges continued throughout Grace’s illness, treatment, recovery and rehabilitation, relapse, and death. I recall hearing things like:

She won’t be strong enough.
She won’t be able to do that.
That’s too much for Grace.
Caroline isn’t old enough to hear that. Or do that.
Their marriage won’t make it.
They will lose faith.
Nobody has ever done that before.
It won’t work.
That’s not the way we normally do things.
You can’t keep this up.
You need a break.
She needs a break.
They will lose faith.

Those closest to me know this but I have never shared this more broadly – sadly and unfortunately, we did not have a good experience with Hospice. In fact, it was a very difficult and painful experience and we met and walked away from 3 different Hospice providers. Why? Because they were the most profound and talented underestimators I have ever encountered in my life.

It has taken me a long time to figure out what the breakdown was in our relationship.

But, I finally figured it out while running on the treadmill this weekend listening to MercyMe’s song.

They were right. We were not capable of doing all of the hard things that we said to them that we could do.

They simply failed to understand something vital that our family knew and understood.

We were never acting alone. There was always another One in the fire.

They underestimated us because we were playing out of very different playbooks. They were were operating out of their Hospice provider handbooks, and we were operating out of the Book of Philippians.

As MercyMe’s inspirational song reminded me this week on the treadmill, whether we are in a season of blessing or a season of trial, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. He gives us the strength to walk faithfully no matter what we face.

He allows us to proclaim the following when confronted with life’s underestimators:

Say I Won’t… and then we get to fill in the blank and prove them wrong. Over and over and over again.

I guess knowing and believing in this promise, underestimation can be our greatest weapon. Period. Amen. Let this be our New Year’s Resolution for 2021.

Say I Won’t…[fill in the blank]

Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Happy New Year, and much love to all of you. 

I can do all things
Through Christ who gives me strength
So keep on saying I won’t
And I’ll keep proving you wrong

I’m gonna run
No I’m gonna fly
I’m gonna know what it means to live
And not just be alive
This world’s gonna hear
Cause I’m gonna shout
And I will be dancing when circumstances drown the music out
Say I won’t
(MercyMe)

08.27.20 – Put Me In Coach

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

What more could we ask for from life than to have opportunities?

Opportunities to love. To help. To learn. To work. Connect. Engage. Contribute. Provide. And to compete. To play.

I believe opportunities – even, or maybe especially, during a pandemic – are everywhere.

Sure, finding them might require effort. A little discernment. Good timing, sincere people, determination, and a little bit of luck. But the world isn’t hiding them from you. It’s the opposite. It wants to hand them out. Sometimes, it might appear as though the doors are closed, but I promise you, they are certainly not locked.

Caroline recently learned and experienced this wonderful fact.

This summer, she tried out for a competitive soccer team. Caroline is athletic and coordinated and loves playing soccer. But the reality is when it comes to competitive youth soccer, there is a certain window of opportunity – or so I thought.

We happen to live near a YMCA, which means that we drive by soccer fields every single day. Even from her backward-facing-car-seat vantage point, Grace was always intrigued by the children running across those fields. Once she was old enough to formally participate, we let her play on one of those soccer teams. I think she was 3. Although she liked playing soccer, what she really loved about playing soccer was all of the running.

And that is how it began for the girls. Grace played soccer which meant that so did Caroline. Later, Grace joined the Walton Youth Cross Country/Track Program which meant that so did Caroline.

Since Grace and Caroline enjoyed both sports, they split their time between both – which was so wonderful for us as parents because they had a shared love and common experience – plus we only had one place each season in which to drive both girls.

But then August 2014 arrived. And everything changed. Everything.

Ultimately, Grace changed her focus from running to swimming. Caroline tried over the years to continue with organized running and even experienced success, yet something was missing. And that something was Grace. Caroline continued playing soccer but never made the commitment to a more competitive experience because she ultimately just loved spending time with Grace. She would rather be cheering Grace on at a swim meet than competing in a weekend soccer tournament. When it came to Caroline, spending time with Grace always came first. Always.

Fast forward to June 2020. Caroline was offered an opportunity to try out for a competitive soccer team. Up until that point, Caroline had only played on what we suburbanites call a “recreational soccer team.”

And guess what? She didn’t make the team. But that’s not how the story ends. Because guess what? As our family knows, hope has no finish line.

Following try-outs, I received a phone call from the coach. By his tone, I knew what he was about to tell me, so I interrupted him and said, “Listen, I want to make this easy for you. It’s ok. This is not going to be the worst phone call I have ever received.” He replied with, “But I’m not finished.”

The coach went on to say that he saw potential, but that Caroline had a great deal of work to do if she wanted to make his team. But this coach offered Caroline something. He offered her a chance. He offered her an extended try-out. He offered her an opportunity. He outlined what she needed to do if she wanted a chance at making the team.

And guess what? She did all of the things he asked her to do. All of them.

And guess what? She made the team.

Although I firmly believe that opportunities come from above, I don’t think that they just land in our laps. Rather, I think they arrive through a combination of divine intervention, strong relationships, hard work, and the correct attitude that puts you in the right place, at the right time, with the right set of skills.

To say that I am happy for Caroline just might be equivalent to me saying that I miss Grace. 

But if you think this story is about soccer, you are missing the point. It is not about soccer for Caroline. Just like swimming was never what it was about for Grace. It is about something far greater. Soccer and swimming are just the backdrops for the stories.

As Prince Harry states in the recently released Netflix documentary about the Paralympics entitled “Rising Phoenix,” ‘There isn’t anything else in the world that can bring you back from the darkest places than sport.’

Amen.

PS – Kate T. Parker’s latest book called ‘Play Like a Girl” was released last week. She photographed Caroline for the book. You can see her on Page 90. Guess where that photograph was taken? At the same soccer field that Caroline now calls her home field – The Roswell Santos. Thank you Kate.

“Stretching yourself hurts, it’s supposed to.”  (Caroline Bunke)

07.01.20 – I Love To Tell The Story

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

Many people consider Ernest Hemingway to be the gold standard for fiction. One of the distinctives of his writing is simple and clear prose. Legend has it that friends, who knew how much he despised flabby and florid writing, once challenged him to write a story using only six words. He accepted the challenge and wrote: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”

If you have a pulse, those six words probably stopped you in your tracks. And that’s because stories, even if comprised of only 6 words, are powerful. They are like seeds carrying within them something mysterious, compelling, and potent. That might explain why we love hearing and telling certain stories over and over again.

I was recently asked to share a story. A story I know well – so well that I know each and every single part by heart. But if I am being honest, some parts of the story I don’t really like. In fact and had it been up to me, I would have written some of it differently. Very differently.

Which reminded me of an old church hymn I also know very well. The hymn is “I Love To Tell The Story” which is based on a poem written by Kate Hankey. The poem that inspired this hymn actually had two parts. The first part was entitled “The Story Wanted” and the second part which inspired the hymn I mentioned was called, “The Story Told.”

I find those titles interesting…The Story Wanted and The Story Told. Why? Mainly because in my experience those two things don’t always match up. In other words, the story wanted is not always the story told.

That is certainly true of the story that I was asked to share more than a few months ago at the Swim Across America Summit in Nashville. Along with Dr. Wasilewski, I had the opportunity to share Grace’s story. It was called: The Story of Amazing Grace Bunke. Swim Across America was kind enough to record it and with the assistance of many professionals including one of Grace’s friends, Hannah Aspden, our presentation was put together and can be seen here:

The Story of Amazing Grace Bunke

If you watch the video you will see that Grace’s story is not a story about cancer or illness, but rather a story about love and faith and hope. Regardless and despite how much I love to tell her story, it was not the story I wanted. It most certainly didn’t end the way I wanted it to end. No, the story I wanted was not the story told.

At the end of my presentation, I formally announced my plan to honor Grace’s life and memory by swimming in 14 of the Swim Across America open water events in 2020. We even gave my plan a name. We branded it: The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour 2020. However, due to COVID-19, the plan and tour is officially being postponed until 2021. Again, the story wanted will not be the story told.

I think this year – the year of 2020 – everybody can relate to this idea. The story most people wanted for 2020 is not the story that is being told. The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour is definitely not the only event or experience that has been postponed or changed. But what if we were able to change our perspective on this year and our experiences thus far?

As I watched the on-line Mt Bethel UMC service this past Sunday in my living room with friends, I was struck by Gaylyn Kelly’s sermon and her questions posed at the end. She asked:

What if 2020 is exactly the way it’s supposed to be? What if it’s supposed to be hard and difficult, scary, raw, challenging? What if it’s exactly what it’s supposed to be?

In other words, what if we embrace the story being told and let go of the story we wanted? What if we rely on God’s faithfulness as we remember the promise of Romans 8:28: “For those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

Trust me, I get it. I will be the first to confess that God’s providence can, at times, read like a mystery novel that doesn’t make sense this side of heaven; but in the end, His story line for those who trust Him is always wise, specific, and good. What if we believe this to be true – even when the story we want does not match the story that is told? In my experience, that’s what trusting God is all about. And that is a story I will always love to tell.

“When we leave the pen in His hands we will never be disappointed with the story of our lives.” (Eric Ludy)

05.21.20 – More Hope, Less Dread

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

During this shelter in place period, I started what I have affectionately called COVID projects. Things I have wanted to do for years but never seemed to have the time. Until now. One of the projects on my list included printing out photos and putting them in albums. It has been ages since I have done that so the project was equally tedious as it was rewarding. As the photos began to arrive in boxes on our doorstep, I began sorting them into piles on the kitchen counter. One afternoon, Caroline and our neighbor Cooper were looking through the photos.

Caroline was excited when she came across pictures from a trip we were generously gifted a handful of months before Grace died. Grace loved many things, but at the top of her list were water, swimming, and pigs. Yes, pigs. Knowing this, two families planned and funded a trip of a lifetime for our family to a private island in the Bahamas where we were able to swim in the ocean with pigs.

As Caroline and Cooper sifted through the photos from that trip, Caroline said, ‘That was the best trip of my life. I will never forget it. I just wish I could go back and do it over again, but this time without the dread of what I knew was coming.’

Her comment stopped me in my tracks.

but this time without the dread…

Without the dread. Living without dread.

Is that even possible? I think so. In fact, I know so. But how?

I think it is possible by choosing faith over fear and hope over dread.

If faith is the substance of our hope, then fear is the substance of our dread. Basically, dread is fear on steroids – an extreme uneasiness in the face of pain and uncertainty. It is like an armed robber, forcing us to empty our emotional bank accounts while staring down the barrel of what we view as impending doom.

As we live through this current pandemic together, I don’t think it has ever been more universally clear that life can be difficult and that not every day is going to be filled with good news or enjoyable tasks. But God never intended for us to be miserable or live with dread even when things are not going our way. Instead, He wants us to expect good things and remain hopeful, regardless of our circumstances. And here are two thoughts that help me do that: Stay hopeful and don’t dread.

When you dread something, it simply means you’re expecting to have an unpleasant experience, which is the exact opposite of hope. Without even realizing it, I think a lot of people dread their way through the day. Prior to this pandemic, I think we were guilty of dreading things like rush-hour traffic, doing the dishes, doing laundry, paying the bills, cutting the grass, grocery shopping, cooking dinner, etc. Since the pandemic, it seems that we are more likely to experience dread by worrying about things that might happen or things we can’t control or change.

Rather than giving into feelings and thoughts of dread, I suggest that we have an attitude that proclaims, “I’m not going to lose hope regardless of what is happening in my life. I may not have planned for or wanted this to happen, but I know God can work everything out, even this, for my good.”

We need to remember that regardless of what life brings our way, God has a plan to make it better – a plan filled with hope and good things.

We need to remember that hope is stronger than dread.

The way I look at it, if Grace could face death without dread, then our family can certainly face life without it too. Ironically and ultimately, the only way I believe we can live our lives without dread is to live our lives with hope and grace. God’ grace.

I hope all of you and your families are doing way better than well!

Do not be afraid of the terrors of the night,
nor the arrow that flies in the day.
Do not dread the disease that stalks in darkness,
nor the disaster that strikes at midday.
Though a thousand fall at your side,
though ten thousand are dying around you,
these evils will not touch you.
(Psalm 91: 5-7)