03.21.20 – In the Midst of the Mess

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

It is a frightening and uncertain time. We are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, with cities and even entire countries shutting down. And all of us are watching the headlines and wondering, “What is going to happen next?” For many people, the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 is the hardest thing to handle. We don’t know exactly how we will be impacted or how bad things might get.

This widespread uncertainty is partly rooted in the realization that our cultural clock has been reset, if not broken. To curtail COVID-19’s spread, our government and institutions are calling off the community activities by which we measure time. It is as if the month of March – and, so far, a good part of April – has been canceled or at least postponed.

As an employee of our local school district and with our schools being closed, I am home with Caroline. Our routines have changed. I am telecommuting and she is engaged in digital learning. Her recreational soccer season is on hold and the pool I swim in several times a week is closed. However, we both continue to exercise. She is riding her bike, jumping on the neighbor’s trampoline, and walking Skye. I, on the other hand, have returned to my first love – running. I run every day which means I listen to music everyday as well. I have created a new playlist called Palm Sunday/Easter. I listen to it on every single run each and every day. As a result, I quickly developed a favorite song on my self-created playlist.

The song is entitled, “The God Who Sees” and is a modern-day oratorio written by Kathie Lee Gifford and Nicole C. Mullens. The oratorio tells the stories of Hagar, Ruth, David, and Mary Magdalene. As the lyrics of this song convey through each of their stories, God is always there – in the desert, in the wilderness, and even in the garden. This song reminds me that God is always watching and forever present whether we are afraid, uncertain, or worried.

This aspect of God’s nature may not be as important on a day when our banners are waving and the crowds are cheering and life is going as we had planned. In the seasons when we feel secure and celebrated and surrounded, God can easily become just another set of eyes in the bleachers. But when we’re running for our lives or wandering through the wilderness of isolation, fear, or despair – the discovery that God is always watching is worth everything. Trust me, there is a God who sees us amidst the messiness of life – whether we are in the middle of a pandemic, dealing with the death of a loved one, confronted by a dreaded medical diagnosis, dealing with loss of a job, or struggling with worry and uncertainty.

This past week while running and listening to my most favorite song on my current playlist, “The God Who Sees,” I was reminded of something that happened in mid-January of 2018 as we left the hospital for what I thought was the last time as we thought we were going to be able to manage Grace’s end-of-life care at our home. In the lobby of Grace’s treating hospital is a player piano. As my mom and Grace and I walked past that player piano toward the parking garage, I heard a familiar song. It was familiar because it happened to be the song that I softly played on a CD player in the girls’ nursery as I rocked them back to sleep after they woke up in the middle of the night. The song is a classic so I am certain most of you are familiar with it – the song is “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

What is the life lesson here? I guess for me the lesson to remember is that even when you are walking through a children’s hospital lobby with your terminally ill child, even when you are in the midst of unspeakable sorrow, even when you are afraid and feel alone, and even when you are in the middle of a pandemic, God is always with you. You always have someone watching over you.

We may not know what awaits us tomorrow as it relates to this pandemic. But this is what I do know:

God is bigger than this.
God is intimately aware of all of this.
God is more than prepared to love all of us throughout this.
God will use us if we let Him.
Our country is uniquely and masterfully set up to survive and withstand this.
In tough times like these we have a great opportunity to love others so let’s focus on that.

Many people have asked me this week what will become of The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour 2020. I have simply told them to stay tuned. You might be able to cancel school, prom, graduations, parades, golf tournaments, and basketball seasons. But there is one thing that you can never cancel and that is hope. Hope has no finish line.

I will be the Rock of your salvation
I’ll hold you up by the strength of My right hand
And the power of My Spirit
Will free you from all fear
In the hour of your deepest need
You’ll find that I am near
I am here

And I will be a ring of fire around you
And I will be the glory in your midst
And the power of My presence
Will bring you to your knees
Then I will lift you up again
For I’m the God who sees
(The God Who Sees)

PS – Every time I listen to this song – which is every day, I hear it as if the Mt Bethel UMC choir is singing it in my air pods as I run down Sandy Plains Road. Hint hint…wouldn’t this be a perfect anthem for them to sing when we all gather back together in the sanctuary?

Here is the video of the song: The God Who Sees

03.04.20 – Hard

Journal entry by Vicki Bunke 

Last week, following Ash Wednesday, Caroline and I were discussing our personal plans for this Lenten season. Caroline loves sweets, chocolate in particular. So that’s what she chose to give up for the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Sweets. During our conversation we talked about how Lent gives us 40 days to make a personal sacrifice and open our eyes to what remains when certain treasured comforts are gone. Forty days to remember what it is like to live by the grace of God and not by what we can provide for ourselves. Sounds like a great idea, right? We think so, but we also acknowledge that Lent is not easy. Don’t believe me, then ask Caroline. In fact, after we talked about the importance and reasons behind Lent, Caroline said to me, “Then why is it so hard?”

Why is it so hard?

Caroline’s words and question resonated with me. Mainly because that’s not the first time I have heard one of my children utter those words during this time of year. The first time I heard those words and question was in March 2018.

After Grace’s first relapse in October 2016 and while sitting together with Kerry Jones, one of Grace’s most incredible helicopter teachers, in her hospital room post-lung-surgery, Grace jokingly asked us, “Does this mean I get a second Make-A-Wish?”

I laughed and said, “Sure, why not?!? What would you wish for?”

Grace replied, “I would wish to hang out with Todd Chrisley.”

For those unfamiliar with Todd Chrisley, he is the patriarch of the Chrisley family who are featured in a reality TV show called, “Chrisley Knows Best.” Both Grace and Caroline enjoyed watching this television show during overnight hospital stays when it first aired in 2014 during Grace’s initial cancer treatment.

Knowing this, when Ms. Jones heard Grace proclaim what her second Make-A-Wish would be, she pulled some strings and surprised Grace with a video of Todd Chrisley wishing her a speedy recovery from her lung surgery.

Fast forward to March 2018 when Grace was back in the hospital, but this time there would be no speedy recovery. This time there would be no hospital discharge. As a result, this time instead of sending a video, Todd Chrisley decided to come to the hospital to see Grace. While he was there, Grace told him, “You know that I’m dying.”

Todd replied, “I know Grace. But God has a plan for you. Your journey’s just beginning.”

Grace responded, “Then why is it so hard?”

Why is it so hard?

This time of year serves as an annual reminder to me that things can be hard. Life can be hard. Interestingly, however, that is kind of the point. Even though Lent is somber and repentant, it is a beautiful time. During Lent, we learn not to rely upon ourselves. When we are weak and tired or just sad, God tells us to lift our eyes and have hope.

As I have mentioned a few times recently (smile), soon I will embark on The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour 2020 where I will participate in 14 open water events with others to raise money to fund cancer research.

This week as I thought about Lent, Grace and Caroline’s question of “Why is it so hard?” and the first stop on the tour – Houston – I was reminded of President Kennedy’s 1962 speech in that same city about going to the moon. In his speech, President Kennedy stated, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” 

Those first attempts at moon exploration did not go well, but scientists and astronauts never gave up. They kept trying. Why? Because hope had become part of the collective American mindset. The willingness to pursue the unimaginable and achieve the impossible was far more powerful than scientific discoveries that were not quite ready and ultimately unsuccessful. And that is because when choice becomes a decision and a decision becomes a challenge, that challenge gives us hope.

Hope. That is what Lenten season and this swim tour is all about.

I encourage you to choose the difficult, make the decision, and take the challenge to join us on this swim tour of hope. First stop is in Houston on April 18th: The Amazing Grace Tour

Wishing everyone a very special Lenten season.

‘Nothing great is ever achieved without much enduring.’ (Catherine of Siena)

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)