07.20.21 – Be The Moon

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

Today I came across a picture of Grace that made me smile. During childhood many young people become fascinated with various things. Grace was no different. She was fascinated with the moon.

We have all seen a full moon. A full moon can make the landscape shine almost like daytime. As you walk around you can see great distances, and you can see things like trees and sidewalks and flowers…in the middle of the night by moonlight.

But did you know that there is no such thing as moonlight?

Moonlight doesn’t come from the moon. No, it comes from the sun. Moonlight is actually sunlight that bounces off of the moon and shines down onto the earth.

In a certain way, we are just like the moon. Just as the moon has no light of its own, neither do we. Just as the moon can only ‘shine’ by reflecting the light of the sun, the only way that we can do good and be good is by reflecting the goodness of God.

But some of us are better at it than others. Like my friend and colleague and one of Grace and Caroline’s middle school teachers, Kathleen Atkins.

Who is Mrs. Atkins? You have probably never heard of Mrs. Atkins. And that is the point.

Kathleen is like the moon.

Please do not misunderstand me. Please do not get me wrong. Mrs. Atkins is one of the most remarkable people you will ever meet. She is certainly capable of shining more brightly than the Sun, but she chose a different path. Mrs. Atkins understood something important. She understood that we have no light of our own, but rather we reflect a greater light, the light of God, when we interact with others and the world.

And guess what? Mrs. Atkins  illuminated Grace and Caroline’s middle school years at Dodgen Middle School during what could have easily been a very dark time in both of their lives. But, it was not. Rather, it was a very bright place and experience for both of them. And that is because Mrs. Atkins chose to be the moon for both Grace and Caroline.

In 3 days, I will travel to Swim Across America – Nantucket for the 3rd stop on The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour. And guess who will be there to greet me and cheer me on? Mrs. Atkins and family.

In honor of Mrs. Atkins who retired this year from a career she loved, let’s all spend the rest of this week being the moon. Let us be the moon – unable to shine by ourselves – but when in the right place – God’s light bounces off of us and onto others. Let’s be the moon for others.

I wanna be the moon, up among the stars
Fly around the world
Lighting up the dark at night
I’m nothing without the Son’s amazing grace
On everything I do
If You’re shining on me, I’m shining right back for You
I wanna be the moon
Lord, I wanna be the moon for You

(Chris Tomlin)

07.15.21 – What Is Your Purpose?

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

It can start as that small feeling inside, leading you toward a path you never thought to travel. Maybe it’s the small voice that whispers in your mind to think toward a different perspective than the one you have now. Or, it could be hearing a clear message from God that you think isn’t possible. It can be tempting to ignore messages we don’t want to hear. But it’s important to be open to God’s messages in their various forms. Sometimes the message is a warning – “Stop that.” Sometimes it’s an encouragement – “You’re on the right path.” And other times it’s a nudge – “Get ready” followed by a command. Whatever the message, our job is to listen.

In the spring of 2019, I experienced a nudging followed by a command. Nothing earth shattering. I wasn’t nudged to change careers or join the Peace Corps. No, rather while sitting in an Emory University auditorium listening to Swim Across America-funded physicians discuss their researchers, I was nudged and then commanded to dedicate myself to swimming in 14 open water Swim Across America events. Initially, I wasn’t even sure if there were 14 open water events or if it would be possible to attend 14 of them. I just knew deep inside, it would work out.

And it has.

Not only has it worked out, but it has a name…The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour.

Last week, myself and others completed the second stop on the tour while others were back in Atlanta at a John Driskell Hopkins concert listening to them perform “I’ll Take You Home”  live for the first time. As shared here before, this song was inspired by Grace and is now the theme song for the docu-series, WaveMakers, created by Discovery Life for Swim Across America. Tonight, Episode 2 will share the story behind the inspiration for the Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour and John’s song. It will air on Discovery Life at 8:00 PM. “I’ll Take You Home” is available on Spotify, Apple Music, SiriusXM, and other platforms with a portion of each download/purchase being donated to Swim Across America.

I’ve learned over the last handful of years and through this “tour,” that although most of us want to know what God is telling us, it’s not always easy hearing His voice or discerning the messages that may be right in front of us. Sometimes, we may even be anxious to discover His message or His purpose for our life. But let me assure you, God still speaks to us. It’s up to us to listen.

I made a video (shocker, I know) of our experience at the Swim Across America open water event in Detroit and the Friday night event in Atlanta. Here it is: What Is Your Purpose?

If you feel an underlying urge to do something bigger than yourself, to benefit the greater good without any need of reward, join us on The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour. Our next stop is July 24th in Nantucket.

“I believe that any kind of life that is worth living must have a purpose…and if your commitments are not larger than what you can do by yourself, than it is unworthy of making that the purpose of your life.” (Dr. Randy Mickler)

07.06.21 – I’ll Take You Home, Part 1

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

Grace: “But I won’t know anyone. I won’t know what to do or where to go.”

Me: “That’s only because you’ve never been there before. Kind of like when you were born. You didn’t know anyone, and you certainly didn’t know what to do or where to go. But you didn’t have to worry about those things because we were here to love you and guide you and show you what to do and where to go. You didn’t know us, but we had prayed for you. We loved you even before you got here. We had prepared your room with love and care and we were waiting for you to arrive. In fact, we couldn’t wait for you to get here. We wanted to welcome you home. That’s what Heaven is like, but so much better – 100 million times better – because it’s your forever home. Our home that we created for you and Caroline was only meant to be temporary. You will soon be in your forever home. And when we die, you will be there to welcome all of us.”

Grace: “I feel bad saying this because I don’t want you guys to die, but I can’t wait for all of you to get to Heaven. I will help get all of your rooms ready, just like you and dad did for me and Caroline.”

Heaven. I recently read an article that indicated that almost 80% of Americans believe in a place called Heaven. If that is true, why do we seem to only talk about Heaven at funerals? Why do we often focus all our attention on things that really aren’t that important? Why do we place our concerns on fleeting things, things that will fade as fast as a vapor, things that in five years will have little to no effect on our lives?

Following Grace’s second relapse and terminal prognosis, I watched her grow in the realization that there is so much more to life than our present circumstances. And I believe it was that strong sense inside of her that kept her moving forward. I think without knowing it, she began to feel homesick for Heaven. Like the homing instinct we witness in animals such as the salmon who make their way upstream with such determination or the barn swallows who return each year to their nest on our front porch, Grace began to understand that this same homing instinct resided within her and it was pulling her toward her forever home. She began to understand that regardless of the experiences she had, no matter how wonderful they were, they were just a glimpse of what was still ahead. Grace became homesick for a place she had never visited before, and that place was Heaven. She was wired that way. We all are. And that is because God put eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

This Thursday, July 8th, not only will “WaveMakers,” a docu-series about Swim Across America premiere on Discovery Life, but the theme song from the series entitled “I’ll Take You Home” written by 3-time Grammy winner John Driskell Hopkins of the Zac Brown Band will be available on Spotify, Apple Music, SiriusXM and other platforms. A portion of each download is donated to Swim Across America.

The song, “I’ll Take You Home” is beautifully and lovingly written from the perspective of God talking to Grace. I love every word and will share with you what each line means to me (hence the title to this post is Part 1 – smile). But for now, I think the title speaks for itself. I can’t wait for all of you to hear it.

As I prepare to leave for Detroit in 2 days for the second stop on The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour, I am reminded that although Grace is home, I am not. And until I am, I will continue to honor her life by doing whatever it is that I am called to do. And for the time being, I have been called to swim in 14 open water events for Swim Across America in order to raise money for cancer research and share with others Grace’s story of hope and faith and love. I consider this a mission trip. A mission trip to share hope through grace. God’s grace/Grace. I hope you will join me.

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.  2 Corinthians 4:18

07.01.21 – Get It Right

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

More than a few months ago, I shared that myself, Caroline, and Dr. Wasilewski were asked to participate in interview sessions in which we would share our testimonials regarding Grace and our different life experiences as her loved ones. Knowing how difficult it is for Caroline to speak publicly about her special relationship and love for Grace, I spent a great deal of time praying that Caroline would be able to speak about Grace without being overwhelmed by emotions. But I also prayed for myself. I prayed that I might share the right memories, the right stories (there are so many), and the right words that somebody else needed to hear.

I prayed that I would get it right.

Since learning that I was going to become a mom, I always had this part of me that just wanted to get it right. It was the one role in life that seemed the most important for me to actually get right. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to be a good daughter, sister, cousin, classmate, student, friend, teammate, neighbor, and of course, wife. But when I knew I was going to be a mom, I prayed and hoped that I would get it right.

Let me be clear, I didn’t want to be a perfect mom who recycled the popsicle sticks into finger puppets to entertain my children with stories about fairies and princesses or knew exactly what each cry meant or how to magically heal skinned knees or make the perfect snack or delicious meals. No, I knew I would get angry, frustrated or even anxious over the little things my children did. However, I hoped I would know what my children needed and never get that part wrong.

I prayed that I would get it right.

There were so many times during Grace’s cancer treatment and subsequent death that I felt ill equipped to support Grace and Caroline. So many times in which I feared I would say or do the wrong thing during all of our very difficult conversations.

I prayed that I would get it right.

Until the day that I realized that they were my children, and I was their mom, for a reason. I was meant to be their mom, nobody else. God entrusted me to represent His love in my relationship with His children. And guess what? He wasn’t about to let me screw it up. It was far too important. 

I would get it right.

With that in mind, I am so excited that I can now share with you what I was hoping to get right a few months ago. The interviews in which we were involved that I mentioned earlier will be a part of “WaveMakers”, a docu-series from Swim Across America. It will premiere July 8th on Discovery Life. “WaveMakers” will share the stories that have inspired the hope and movement of Swim Across America. Original music for “WaveMakers” is from Grammy Winner John Driskell Hopkins of the Zac Brown Band. Watch. Set your DVR. Share with your friends. Tune in on July 8th – learn more at wavemakerstv.

I think you will be inspired.

God’s plans for your life far exceeds the circumstances of your day. (Louis Giglio)

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)