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

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.’


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)

04.07.20 – Grace, We Want You Back!

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

Periodically I check Grace’s e-mail account. Why? I have no idea. But today when I checked her e-mail account, I was shocked to see that LA Fitness feels just as I do. They recently sent her an email with the subject line:

Grace, we want you back!

This shared sentiment reminds me of this upcoming Good Friday. On that very first Good Friday, I can only imagine that all of Jesus’ friends and family and followers must have thought the same thing as LA Fitness and myself. They must have thought, “We want you back!”

I think this is what makes Good Friday so hard. It is the day when all our easy answers fall flat. Death wins. Hope dies. Which explains why people might like to stay away or skip over Good Friday. Palm Sunday and Easter are celebrations; Good Friday interrupts their joy with the stark reality of life in all its awfulness. We don’t need church to remind us of that; it’s already all around us. Especially now with the current global pandemic.

Which reminds me of an interesting article that was written by Diane Cameron several years ago. In her article was the quote, “We live in a Good Friday world, but we are Easter people.” She goes on to describe a time in her life that was her “lowest point,” a time of crushing depression when everything seemed to be lost. It was her own personal Good Friday.

A lot of people reading this might be in the middle of what seems to be an interminable Friday. It is hard to accept suffering and illness and disappointment and uncertainty. These experiences and feelings can make Friday seem like it will never end. I think that is because if every Sunday is “a little bit Easter,” that leaves six remaining days each week to be “a little bit Good Friday.” To feel wronged. To feel forgotten. To feel God’s presence suddenly vanish, leaving you to wishfully plead, as those first Easter disciples did, “We want you back!” Or maybe for many people under the present circumstances, “We want our lives back!”

Our own family’s experiences have taught me what I think many people are feeling right now: that life is incredibly beautiful and terrifically hard. Sometimes simultaneously, though more often, these opposite features of life are proximate and subsequent to one another. I know what it’s like to feel humbled and fortunate for casseroles and cards dropped off at one’s door, while at the same time feeling incredibly alone, scratching your head and wondering, how is it possible to go on in the middle of a personal Good Friday?

I think that’s where faith comes in. I have found that the persistence of faith hinges on my ability to feel comfortable in the not knowing. I have found that the more I can incorporate mystery and contradiction into my understanding of God, the easier it is to believe even amidst personal pain and Good Fridays. In fact, faith is what allows me to believe that the story did not end on Friday. Faith is what permits me to accept that although we might live in a Good Friday world where we yearn for things to be different, where I and the folks at LA Fitness can’t help but place this wishful thought in our daily subject line: Grace, we want you back!; at the very core of it all, we remain an Easter people full of hope.

Thankfully, this week is not just about Good Friday. The hope of this season and our lives is all about Sunday. It’s all about Easter Sunday. It’s all about Easter Sunday when Jesus triumphantly told the world: I am back!

‘It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Comin’!’ (Tony Campolo)

PS – This week, several families from our wonderful middle school life Group delivered wooden crosses to our home as well as to the Hillis’ to remind us to choose faith over fear. After Caroline and our neighbors decorate it, we plan to place it in our backyard underneath Grace’s birthday/baptism tree. It will serve as reminder to me that as much as I would love to see and hug Grace right now, I should not want Grace to come back. Why? Because she is already home.

03.29.20 – Do Not Be Afraid

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

Like many of you, today our family spent part of this morning watching our church service on-line. On-line church is clearly not everyone’s favorite manner in which to ‘attend’ church, but for now it is the best we can do. And although I would much rather be sitting in a pew in the sanctuary rather than a chair in my family room, watching sermons on-line and through my air pods is not an unfamiliar means of worship for me. Although I love listening to music when I run or take Skye for walks, I also enjoy listening to on-line sermons. I even have some favorites. Several of which I have memorized since I have listened to them so many times.

One of them that came to mind today was a sermon delivered by Dr. Randy Mickler, a friend of Grace’s and of our family, at Mt Bethel UMC on the morning before Grace’s rotationplasty surgery in October 2014. It is called: Heroes of the Faith: The Man Who Succeded Moses.

You might assume I had church and Randy on my mind this afternoon because today is Sunday. But you would be wrong. I was thinking about Randy because I was cleaning out Daisy’s cage. Who is Daisy? Daisy is Grace’s guinea pig. Why does Daisy remind me of Randy? Let me tell you why…

As I have shared here before, during Grace’s last hospital admission that lasted 4 weeks, Randy visited Grace every day, each time bringing her a milkshake as she told him how much she enjoyed them. After one of his visits, I stepped out into the hallway to tell him goodbye.

Before he left, Randy said, “Is there anything else we can do for you? Is there anything else you need? We are here to help your family in any way possible.”

I looked at him and jokingly said, “Yes, you can go to our house and clean out Daisy’s cage.”

Without missing a beat, Randy said, “Sure, no problem. I’ll send Diane.”

Since that day, it has become an ongoing joke between myself, Randy, and Diane. I keep waiting for them to come over and clean out Daisy’s cage, and they keep providing me with an excuse why they can’t make it. Their latest excuse is – you guessed it – social distancing. They wouldn’t want to take a chance of getting Daisy sick. That is just like Randy and Diane, always thinking of other people first, even guinea pigs.

So why did this particular sermon come to mind? It is because the sermon was based on the following scripture from Joshua 1:9: This is my command – be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

Back in October 2014, I thought the purpose of Randy’s inspired words were so that Grace would feel safe and secure as she prepared for her partial leg amputation surgery the next morning. But now I think those words and sermon were spoken to remind me and anyone else who recalls that sermon of something very important. As Randy told everyone in his sermon that happened to be delivered during the Ebola outbreak of 2014:

“Don’t fear the things that can harm the body, only fear that which can harm the soul.”

Randy also referenced the fear that people experienced during the polio epidemic in the 1950s. Interestingly, my mother was one of those children affected by the polio virus. As a result, when she was only 4-years-old, she was quarantined in the hospital for 3 months from her family and later endured multiple surgeries and hospitalizations due to this disease. My mom and Grace used to sometimes joke around with each other about who had experienced the most surgeries and hospitalizations due to their different diseases. I can’t remember now who won those debates, maybe they both did?

The important thing to remember, however, is that just like Randy stated in October 19, 2014, viruses and pandemics and leg amputations and cancer might be able to harm the body, but they are not capable of harming the soul. Not when you have the right perspective and remember the promise that God has made to us all: I am with you always.

Tonight I plan to re-watch Randy’s October 19, 2014 sermon. And before I go to bed tonight, I will recite the prayer that he spoke at the end of that sermon.

I also want to point out that although that sermon and prayer will bring me comfort, guess what else would? Randy and Diane cleaning out Daisy’s cage. Perhaps they will finally make it over to visit with Daisy once we can all get together in person again. Until then, I will just hold tight to the closing prayer that Randy gave in his October 2014 sermon:

Father God, we give you thanks for heroes of the faith. Help us as we consider those that have truly never lost a sense of your presence, never forgotten the purpose or the promise, and have the finest perspectives. Help us to emulate their lives, not just for our own but for those who are coming up so that they won’t be afraid when challenging, difficult times come their way. May they be secure in your love and in your presence and in your promise and in your purpose. May their perspective reflect that security. In Christ’s name. Amen.

PS – If you do watch the sermon, you just might get a glimpse of another Hero of the Faith and friend to Grace, Robert McMichael.

03.26.20 – Broken?

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

Sometimes life hits us, and it hits us hard. So hard in fact that it breaks us: the loss of a job, a cancer diagnosis, divorce, the death of a child or spouse or parent or any loved one for that matter, or in this current time, a global pandemic.

Things like this can take anyone, no matter how strong they are, and shatter them on the floor like a vase. Brokenness is not beyond anyone. The right circumstances, at the wrong time can break the best of us, but the Japanese art of Kintsugi shows us there is beauty and value in brokenness.

What is Kintsugi?

The word Kintsugi is the combination of two words: Kin = Golden and tsugi = Joinery. It is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed or dusted with gold. But it really is more than just repair. This method brings new life to pottery pieces by highlighting their brokenness. It reminds us that breakage is not the end – cracks are not flaws but are natural elements that happen in life – proving flexibility of use and embracing change and brokenness as inevitable.

Kintsugi provides us with a framework to consider our own lives – its ups and downs, fragility and sensitivity, brittleness and toughness, trauma and reparation. It reminds us that repaired things can be more beautiful and of greater value than unbroken things.

Yesterday marked 2 years since Grace left this world. Today would have been her 17th year on this planet. Our family had anticipated celebrating these past few days differently. In preparation of these celebratory plans, I had purchased etched wine glasses that mimic Kintsugi pottery to give to these friends so we could properly toast and recognize both days. However, given our current state of social distancing, those plans changed.

But that is ok. Why? Because as the Kintsugi tradition reminds us, wounds and hurt and disappointment become the places where we are the strongest; the place where the pain does the holding together. It is the profound understanding that the more broken, cracked, or chipped an object is, the more precious it becomes. In other words, the breakage and mending are an important part of the story. And, most painfully but crucially, the shattered object surrendered itself to allow Another’s hands to fix and heal and glue it back together.

That’s how I see our family. Broken but beautiful. And that is also how I see our world right now. Every time the global map of the pandemic is displayed across our television screen, all I see is a Kintsugi portrait of brokenness. I see waves of gold traveling across the broken map of sickness. I know without a doubt that our country and world will survive this pandemic. And just like our broken family, this broken world will be way more beautiful once He puts it all back together.

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” (Ernest Hemingway)

03.24.20 – Ellipsis of Life

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

The ellipsis, a row of 3 dots, stands for an omitted section of text. It can also be used to represent an unfinished thought or simply a pause. I think we can all agree that we are currently living in an ellipsis. An ellipsis of life. The dizzying number of closures, cancellations, postponements, and ordered restrictions on our lives prompted by the COVD-19 pandemic just keeps growing. America, as we know it, is on pause. We are in an ellipsis of life.

As our family approaches two years living on this planet without Grace, I am reminded how familiar we are with the feeling and experience that is touching our entire globe. The experience of living in an ellipsis – the feeling of not knowing what might come next. The feeling of having one’s life placed on pause or hold because of an unwanted medical diagnosis.

Without question, a new life started for me on the day of Grace’s diagnosis and again several years later on the day of her death. I wish I could have learned these important life lessons taking a class or studying a book; but instead, I learned the painful and inspiring lessons firsthand.

I learned to be more accepting, tolerant, and inclusive, preferring to err on the side of grace and forgiveness than righteous indignation. I learned about context and perspective. I learned a new definition of community. And, I learned about random acts of generosity and kindness in the most unexpected places from the most unexpected people. I think perhaps that is what the rest of the world is beginning to learn as they confront on a global level what our family has confronted and experienced on a personal level.

Interestingly, over a month ago I redesigned the pictures and artwork on one of our family room walls. As can be seen by the accompanying photo, I placed a tambourine (inspired by Gaylyn Kelly’s sermon at Mt Bethel UMC from November 2019) in a shadow box. I planned to take this tambourine with me on each of the 14 stops of The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour 2020. I wasn’t quite sure what I would do with the tambourine, but I knew for certain that it would be worthy of displaying in a shadow box in the middle of our family room following this swim tour.

Look at what I wrote over a month ago on a yellow post-it note and placed on this un-used tambourine?

I wrote: Stay tuned…

Stay tuned…

Although it is difficult to know that an idea that was truly inspired – the idea of The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour 2020 – is on ‘Stay tuned…’ status, I know without a doubt that it will all work out. How do I know this? I know this because it wasn’t my idea in the first place. It was His.

I also know that each year almost 10 million people across the world die from cancer, of which 80,000 are children. As I type this, it is my understanding that 17,000 people across the globe have died from COVID-19. What is my point? It is definitely not to suggest that the COVD-19 pandemic is not important or life-changing.

I suppose on the almost-2-year anniversary of Grace’s death, I just want to remind everyone that many things are not placed on pause despite the mandated closures and restrictions due to COVID-19. And one of those things is cancer.

Telecommuting, distance learning, shelter-in-place orders, and social distancing might place a pause or hold on the spread of COVID-19, but it does not do a single thing to stop the fact that adults and children will continue to hear these 3 words even in the middle of this pandemic: You have cancer…

I used to think the punctuation of life begins and ends with an exclamation point. But what I have learned over the past handful of years is that the punctuation of life is more like the ellipsis. And during this particularly difficult Lenten Season for the world, I am reminded that the most important ellipsis occurred on Good Friday.

On Good Friday, death thought it had won. But instead, God said stay tuned…

Stay tuned…Easter is coming…the story never ends.

Knowing this gives me hope, as it should all of you.

Please stay healthy and inspired and don’t lose hope. Remember, there is always hope. Always. Hope has no finish line.

“When faith takes a journey, it packs a tambourine.” (Gaylyn Kelly)