Family MembersPediatric Cancer

Honoring My Daughter’s Last Wish to Swim When She No Longer Could

Sometimes we have to deal with the impossible. Vicki Bunke’s daughter, Grace, died from osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer, a day before her 15th birthday. This is a heartbreaking story of how Vicki honored her daughter’s life.
February 2022 Vol 8 No 1
Vicki Bunke
Clinical Psychologist
Marietta, Georgia
Grace and me at the doctor’s office.

Some people swim because they are competitive. Some swim for escape, and others swim for fitness. I swim for a purpose. I swim for my daughter, Grace Bunke.

Grace died from osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer, on March 25, 2018—a day before her 15th birthday. She started swimming to fulfill her desire to get better after her 9-month cancer treatment that consisted of chemotherapy, a partial leg amputation called rotationplasty (surgical removal of bone tumors in the lower leg and knee), and 2 lung surgeries.

Starting and Finishing

Many people, including me, 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 we 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, but never go beyond the first step. We join the gym, and often do not go. The truth is that many of us never finish what we start.

But not my oldest daughter, Grace. She was born on March 26 and died on March 25. I think with this she demonstrated “perfect grace” in the way she completed her very last year—her 14th year—on this planet. Grace finished what she started.

As Robin Sharma once tweeted, “Starting strong is good. Finishing strong is epic.” In her 14 years of life, Grace taught me so many things, including (at the end) how to finish what you start.

Who’s Teaching Who?

Being with Grace when she died was unfathomable and at the same time a pinnacle experience—something I would not 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 was not 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 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, humble, and unknowing teacher.

Although it’s been more than 3 years since we said “see you later” to Grace, it feels as if it was just yesterday and many years ago, 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 a hopeful heart, and swam off.

When she left us, 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.

Grace at the beach.

So Why Do I Swim?

The answer lies somewhere within those moments on March 25, 2018, when Grace could no longer speak. When she 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. Not because she no longer had a voice. Caroline could no longer speak, because the heartbreak was so thick, you had to fan it away from your face just to be able to see.

In the summer of 2021, I swam in 14 Swim Across America open water events, to honor the life of Grace, who lived for 14 years and swam in 14 swim meets during that time, as well as to honor the loss that Caroline experienced. I was swimming because my daughters taught me that the bonds of love are much thicker than the shadows of death.

A Mother’s Reasons

Grace and me before her Swim Across America in Atlanta in 2017.

I was swimming for a better future, in which mothers such as me would 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 was swimming to honor Grace’s and Caroline’s beautiful friendship, and the lessons that they both have taught me, in life and in death.

I was 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 was swimming with the hope that there would be fewer occasions for a younger sister to speak at her older sister’s funeral, because the cancer treatment that she received has not improved in more than 4 decades.

I was swimming because I wanted to be like Grace and Caroline. I wanted to hold firm to faith, love, courage, selflessness, and above all, hope. Swimming helped me to continue to choose hope over despair. And if I continue to choose hope, then Grace will never be gone, because as Grace taught us all, hope has no finish line.

I was also swimming because Grace had asked me to swim for her after she no longer could. What mother could refuse one of her daughter’s last requests?

Inspired by Grace, I partnered with Swim Across America for The Amazing Grace Swim Across America Tour. This tour consisted of 14 of the Swim Across America open water events, and the money raised is helping to fund cancer research that might have helped to save Grace’s life.

Grace’s Legacy

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. I was carrying forward Grace’s “swim cap” last year, by participating in 14 Swim Across America open water events, to raise money for cancer research.

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