02.24.20 – Grow

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

We outgrow many things in life. As children, we outgrow the stuffed animals we loved so much and place them high on a shelf. We untangle and outgrow the myth of the tooth fairy and Santa Claus. Our backyards look different as we long for the swing set and Slip ‘n Slide that have also been outgrown.

But there are some things in life that we never outgrow. I was reminded of this when helping Caroline register for the Atlanta – Swim Across America open water event. After reading what she wrote for her personal fundraising page (Caroline’s SAA Page), I was reminded that we never outgrow our grief. But not outgrowing grief does not doom us to a life of despair. Let me reassure you, it is possible to live a happy and full and purposeful life while also experiencing ongoing grief. All the things you may have heard about outgrowing grief is a misrepresentation of what it means to love someone who has died. I know us human folks appreciate things like closure and resolution, but that is not how grief works. At least not by my observations and experiences. Rather, the loss, the person who died, and our grief all get integrated into our lives and they profoundly change how we live and experience the world.

The important thing I have learned is that although we may never outgrow our grief, it doesn’t stop us from growing because of it. I certainly am very proud of how Caroline has grown over these past 2 years. And I am thrilled that she has decided to join The Amazing Grace Swim Across America 2020 Tour. I can’t wait to swim with her in Atlanta at my 14th and final swim of the tour on September 26th.

Although I completely agree with what Caroline wrote (see below or click here: Caroline’s SAA Page) in that I also will never ever outgrow missing Grace, there is one thing I have grown used to…Caroline beating me in the Swim Across America open water event in Atlanta at Lake Lanier. She swims way faster than me, just like Grace.

Don’t believe me? Well then come and watch for yourself: Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour 2020.

‘God doesn’t expect you to be happy about what has been torn from your hands – whether it’s a marriage, your health, a job, or someone you love – but if you are willing to trust Him, He can turn trash into triumph.’ (Levi Lusko)

If you want to know why Caroline swims, I have copied her Swim Across America page below:

My sister Grace died of cancer on March 25, 2018.

I wasn’t at the hospital that afternoon and although my parents told me that Grace was not in pain when she died, her death was the most painful thing I think I will ever experience in my life. I sure hope so anyway.

She was my very best friend and I miss her every minute of every day.

And now, she’s gone.

But I have learned some things since Grace left me.

I have learned that her death will never feel less unfair and wrong, but it has stopped feeling so unbelievable.

I have learned how to stop imagining Grace getting older. She died when she was 14, the day before her 15th birthday. Last week, I turned 15. Now I am officially older than my older sister.

I have learned that I don’t think my brain or heart will ever get used to that fact.

I have participated in the Atlanta Swim Across America open water event for the past 2 years. Each year, I have worn one of Grace’s favorite swimsuits. In fact, it is the exact suit that she chose to wear when she was cremated. But this year, I will need to buy a new swimsuit. That swimsuit of Grace’s is now too small for me. I outgrew it. That’s what happens, I guess, when you outlive your older sister.

I might have outgrown her favorite swimsuit, but I will never outgrow my love for Grace.

I will never outgrow missing her.

I will never outgrow all of my memories of us together.

I will never outgrow how much I admired her.

I will never outgrow our secret stories and inside jokes.

I will never outgrow wishing we were still a family of four.

I will never outgrow the closeness I feel to her when I swim in Lake Lanier at the Swim Across America event.

And that’s why I am swimming again this year.

Why do I swim?

It’s simple really. I swim because I miss and love Grace. I will never outgrow that.

02.14.20 – Plans

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

During Grace’s first hospitalization for her cancer treatment in August 2014, I remember standing in the hallway outside of her room talking to my friend Andrea. During this conversation, I shared with Andrea all of my plans. How I planned to get our family through Grace’s treatment. How I planned to manage my professional work during Grace’s treatment. How I planned to help Grace and Caroline and our family keep a normal schedule despite Grace’s treatments and illness. How I planned to do this, that, and the other. I was full of plans. I also shared with her how what seemed like a dozen different services and groups had stopped by Grace’s room with information that day. I recall laughing as I borrowed a popular phrase from The Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise as I said to Andrea, “I’m not here to make friends.”

I had plans. But God had other plans.

In August 2014, my plans certainly had no room or line item for an unlikely future friendship that I personally treasure with Grace’s treating oncologist.

I had plans. But God had other plans.

In August 2014, my plans were devoid of open water charity swims, 5 AM swim practices, and a Swim Across America Tour in which I would travel to 14 different cities to swim in lakes and oceans and rivers to raise money to find better treatments for a disease that ended my child’s life.

I had plans. But God had other plans.

In August 2014, my plans lacked any mention of the fact that Grace’s oncologist would join me in 7 of the 14 open water Swim Across America events because that is just the type of person and friend she is.

I had plans. But God had other plans.

I continue to remind myself that God’s plans are always better than mine. Believe me, I know there are situations in life when it is difficult to trust and follow His direction and plans. But as Proverbs 16:9 tells us, ‘We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.’

I will forever be thankful that our steps and God’s plan led us to Dr. Karen Wasilewski, Grace’s former oncologist and my friend, swimming partner, and soon to be Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour companion.

I have already shared with you why I swim. But why does Dr. Wasilewski swim? I’ll let her tell you why:

Many of you know why I started swimming…GRACE BUNKE.

In 2017, Grace swam 1 mile at the Open Water Atlanta Swim for Swim Across America, despite having metastatic osteosarcoma in her spine and lungs. Following her swim she shared with us why she swam. Following her speech I gave her a huge hug and was forever inspired by the words she spoke.

In 2018 Grace’s mother and my friend, Vicki, swam a mile in Lake Lanier along with Grace’s sister (Caroline), friends, and over 1000 other swimmers while Grace looked down on us from heaven and a red umbrella guided us along the way. We swam for hope, and to honor Grace, and to fulfill her wish to become the top national fundraiser. We finished (in about double the time it took Grace the prior year) and Grace was, in fact, the top national fundraiser!

In 2019 a mile was not enough. Grace had not wanted to swim the 1 mile event the year she died…but the 5K. So, Vicki convinced me to do what we absolutely needed to do – swim the 5K. Why? Because “Hope has no finish line.” And although hope has no finish line – the course at Lake Lanier does…and we were able to cross the line together – Vicki, Caroline, and some of Grace’s closet friends.

In 2020, Vicki had a calling – to swim 14 Swim Across America swims in honor of Grace – who died at age 14….after swimming in 14 competitive swim meets. And that is exactly what she is going to do. I will be joining my swim buddy for half of those this year in Tampa; Charleston; Larchmont; Denver; Charlotte; Baltimore; and of course…Atlanta!


I swim because Swim Across America is a first-rate philanthropic organization, run by goodhearted and smart people, that gives back locally to fund promising cancer research where funding gaps exist.

I swim to thank Swim Across America and continue the momentum for the over $2.25 million dollars they have donated to a place near and dear to both my heart and that of Grace, The Aflac Cancer Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

I swim to honor all of my patients – those who continue to inspire us here on earth, and those who inspire us through their memory and legacy.

But what really keeps me getting up at 4:15am and into the pool at 5am three times a week and traveling to 7 places across the country?

I swim, to not only honor and remember Grace, but to spend time with and support my friend, Vicki – a friendship that is a testament to the good that can come from bad; and the beauty that can come from tragedy. It is a testament of HOPE.


We encourage you to join us as we literally Swim Across America on ‘The Amazing Grace Tour!’

The Amazing Grace Tour

‘Authors don’t always choose their books. Their path, and more often their pain, do the picking.’ (Beth Moore)

02.10.20 – Finish What You Start

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

Many people, myself included, find enjoyment in starting new things. Why? I think it is because starting something new delivers a rush to our brains, and makes us feel energized. But what about finishing things? We get a new book with high hopes of reading it but don’t get beyond the first chapter. We sign up for a class but don’t attend it. We make plans for starting a new diet or food plan but never get beyond the first step. We join the gym but never go. The truth of the matter is that many of us never finish what we start.

But not Grace. She was born on March 26th and died on March 25th. I think she demonstrated ‘perfect grace’ in how she completed her very last year, her 14th to be exact, on this planet. Grace finished what she started. As Robin Sharma once wrote, “Starting strong is good. Finishing strong is epic.”  In her 14 years of life, Grace taught me so many things – including in the end – how to finish what you start.

Being with Grace when she died was simultaneously an unfathomable and pinnacle experience, something I wouldn’t trade for anything – except her life. On that Palm Sunday afternoon in March 2018, a few seconds after she stopped breathing, I held her in my arms and she was still there. A few seconds later, she was not. But she wasn’t taken. I am certain she had left, and seeing her go gave me the courage and strength to think that I could do this myself one day, without fear. Just like Grace.

For 14 years I thought I was the teacher. I thought I was the one who was preparing Grace. I imagine Grace now in Heaven, laughing and smiling at my erroneous thinking. I sure wish I could hear her laughing at me. I really do miss her laugh. But she knows now, as do I, that she was always the teacher and I was just the student. Who am I kidding? We were all students at the feet, one of which was perfectly rearranged, of this very young and humble and unknowing teacher.

Although it’s been almost two years since we said ‘see you later’ to Grace, it feels as if it was just yesterday and many years ago all at the same time. I will forever be thankful for the gift of this incredible young person I was fortunate to call my child who did the miraculous – she journeyed deep into the waters of a terminal illness, shape-shifted magically before our eyes with a faithful spirit and hopeful heart, and swam off. When she left us almost two years ago, it was an innocent betrayal based on a simple misunderstanding on my part…I thought she would stay with us forever. I can’t wait to see her again. But until then, I will try my best to finish what I have started. Just like Grace.

As I have mentioned here several times, I am about to start something that we are calling The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour 2020. This tour consists of 14 of the Swim Across America open water events. The money raised by The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour will fund a cancer research project that will be granted in the name of Grace. 

Do you want to know why I am swimming? This is why I swim:

In September 2017, my 14-year-old daughter Grace swam the mile at the Atlanta – Swim Across America open water event. Afterward, she publicly shared her thoughts during the ‘Why I Swim’ portion of the awards ceremony. Her speech can be seen here:

Grace Bunke – Why I Swim

Grace had planned to swim the 5K at the 2018 Atlanta SAA event, but sadly that wasn’t possible. It wasn’t possible because she died 6 months earlier on March 25, 2018 after living with osteosarcoma for 4 years. In 2018, a group of us swam the mile in Grace’s honor. The following year, we swam the 5K. This year, however, I have ‘Grace-sized’ plans. This year, I plan to swim in 14 of the Swim Across America open water events.

Why am I swimming?

The answer lies somewhere within those moments on March 25, 2018 when Grace could no longer speak. When Grace could no longer tell her story. But the answer also lies somewhere in the moments on that same day when I had to tell Caroline, Grace’s younger sister, that Grace had died. In that moment, Caroline could no longer speak either. But not because she no longer had a voice. Caroline could no longer speak because the heart break was so thick you had to fan it away from your face just in order to see.

I am swimming in 14 Swim Across America open water events not only to honor the life of Grace who lived for 14 years and swam in 14 swim meets during that time, but also to honor the loss experienced by Caroline. I am swimming because my daughters taught me that the bonds of love are much thicker than the shadows of death.

I am swimming for a better future in which mothers like myself no longer have to say goodbye to one daughter at the hospital only to drive home to break the heart of their other daughter.

I am swimming to honor Grace and Caroline’s beautiful friendship and the lessons that they have both taught me in life and death.

I am swimming because something happens deep inside of you, when in the middle of the night your daughter whispers to you, ‘Mom, will you please pray for me?’

I am swimming with the hope that there will be fewer occasions for younger sisters to speak at their older sister’s funeral because the treatment that they received for their cancer has not changed in over 4 decades.

I am swimming because I want to be like Grace and Caroline. I want to hold firm to faith, love, courage, selflessness, and above all, hope. Swimming helps me to continue to choose hope over despair. And if I continue to choose hope then Grace will never be gone. And that’s because as Grace taught us all…Hope Has No Finish Line.

I will start The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour 2020 in Houston on April 18th and will finish the tour on September 26th in Atlanta. Please join me on this tour so we can continue to make waves to fight cancer one open water event at a time.

Here is our Tour Page:

Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour 2020

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. (2 Timothy 4:7)

01.20.20 – Pack Your Wetsuit…and Tambourine

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

‘When faith takes a journey, it packs a tambourine’ the speaker said. Once she explained the story and significance, I have never thought of tambourines the same. She is Gaylyn Kelly, one of the ministers at our church, and she was referring to the following verse from the Exodus story:

Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing.(Exodus 15:20)

Now for the context…Miriam, Moses, Aaron and all the Israelites were leaving Egypt. They had to pack in a hurry and so could only take a few precious possessions with them. Amid the chaos of a sudden escape and being chased by the Egyptian army, they headed to the Promised Land. Dusty bedlam, an unknown future, and fear also pursued them. God interceded and the waters crushed Pharaoh’s horses and chariots. They were safe on the other side of the Red Sea. This is when Miriam and the women brought out their tambourines.

Although I was previously familiar with this Exodus story, there is an important part that I had always missed. But thankfully, Gaylyn pointed it out in her 11.03.19 sermon called, ‘Who Is Like Our God?’ that I will never forget.

Miriam and the other women packed their tambourines before they left. Before they knew what would happen. Before they took even the first step towards their destiny. They had not already read the Exodus story when they were frantically gathering their belongings, yet they packed their tambourines anyway. They knew someday, somewhere they would have reason to celebrate. And they wanted to be ready when the invitation came.

Sometimes life takes us through difficult places and puts before us Red Sea obstacles. God certainly does not exempt us from coming right up to the tippy-toe edge where we have no idea how we are going to get through or how we are going to survive. He does not take us around our Red Sea obstacles. He does not help us avoid them. Rather, He takes us through those places and preserves us in the midst of them.

You know what the Miriam story says to me? It says to me what Gaylyn Kelly reminded us all about on that November morning…always bring your tambourine. Most of the time there may not seem to be any cause for singing or rejoicing or tambourine playing, but by faith you know that the time will come. And when that time comes, you will have your tambourine ready.

As I have briefly shared here recently, I plan to swim in 14 of the Swim Across America (SAA) open water events in 2020 in honor of Grace. In addition to having a chance to honor Grace, it is also an exquisite opportunity to raise awareness and help fund high-risk, high-reward cancer research through the SAA charity swims. Because guess what? Cancer impacts all of us. Everyone’s life has been touched by cancer. I can’t think of anyone I know that hasn’t hasn’t had a family member and/or friend experience a diagnosis of cancer or passed away from the disease. The intrusion of this disease into our lives leaves a trail of incomprehension.

But, if you have ever had the pleasure of attending an SAA charity swim, you may have heard Rob Butcher, the CEO of SAA, share this message:

The three words everyone wants to hear are, ‘I love you.’ The three words no one wants to hear are, ‘You have cancer.’ But if you do hear those words, you want to hear, ‘There is hope.’

Because guess what? There is hope. Always. Why? Because hope has no finish line, nor will it ever.

And that’s why I and others are embarking on ‘The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour – 2020.’

14 swims. 14 cities. 14 opportunities to pack our tambourines. 14 chances to be ready to celebrate. 14 possibilities to make a difference. And I hope you will join us on one or two or three or 14 of them!

Very soon I will share with you how you can join “The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour – 2020.” Until then, go ahead and pack your wetsuit…and tambourine.

Here is the calendar of my scheduled swims:

April 18 – Houston
May 9 – Tampa
June 13 – Charleston
June 27 – Fairfield County (Stamford, CT)
July 10 – Detroit
July 25 – Long Island Sound (Westchester County, NY)
August 1 – Richmond
August 8 – Chicago
August 23 – Denver
August 29 – St. Louis
September 12 – Seattle
September 19 – Charlotte
September 20 – Baltimore
September 26 – Atlanta

So we will sing to our souls
We won’t bury our hope
Where He leads us to go
There’s a red sea road
When we can’t see the way
He will part the waves
And we’ll never walk alone
Down a red sea road
(Eillie Holcomb, Red Sea Road)