August 6, 2021
SWIMMING WITH GRACE
Orca ambassador, mom, and swimmer Vicki Bunke, shares her very personal story of why she is swimming in 14 open water events throughout the US this Summer. A story also being featured in Discovery Life’s WaveMakers Docuseries, airing on Tuesdays, at 8pm (EST), July 8th – August 12th.
VICKI BUNKE - Member of Swim Across America
Many people swim because they are competitive. Some swim for escape. Others swim for fitness. I swim for a purpose. I swim for Grace. Grace Bunke.
My daughter Grace died on March 25th, 2018 a day before her 15th birthday due to bone cancer. As a result of her desire to get better following her 9-month cancer treatment plan that consisted of chemotherapy, a unique partial leg amputation called rotationplasty, and two lung surgeries, she started swimming.
Many people, including myself, find enjoyment in starting new things. Why? I think it is because embarking on 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 yet cannot get beyond the first chapter. We sign up for a class and find reasons not to attend it. We make plans for starting a new diet or food plan while never going beyond the first step. We join the gym, and often do not go. The truth of the matter is that many of us never finish what we start.
But not my oldest daughter 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 both unfathomable, and at the same time a 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 over three 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 three years ago, it was an innocent betrayal based on a simple misunderstanding on my part…I thought she would stay with us forever. I cannot wait to see her again. But until then, I will try my best to finish what I have started. Just like Grace.
SO WHY DO I SWIM?
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.
Inspired by Grace, I have partnered with Swim Across America for The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour. This tour consists of 14 of the Swim Across America open water events, and the money raised will help to fund cancer research that might have helped to save Grace’s life.
ABOUT VICKI BUNKE
Vicki Bunke is the mom of 2 girls, Grace and Caroline, and the wife of Brian Bunke. Vicki, Brian, and Caroline live together in Marietta, Georgia - a suburb of Atlanta. Grace, both daughter and sister, now lives in Heaven as she died of bone cancer when she was 14 years old. Professionally, Vicki is a licensed psychologist who works with the Cobb County School District and part-time in a local private practice. Grace lived with bone cancer for almost 4 years and during that time, she inspired many individuals with her positive outlook and hopeful spirit. Grace loved her family, her friends, and swimming. In her last months of life, Grace dedicated herself to raising money for Swim Across America. Vicki is carrying forward Grace's "swim cap" this year by swimming in 14 Swim Across America open water events to raise money for cancer research.