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