Chapter 40: Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound

I was exhausted all of last weekend. I can only explain it as radiation + vacation recovery strikes again. Yes, one year later. Yes, it radiation still strikes. Yes, it’s annoying. But I get through. Despite being tired, a few nights ago I could not go to sleep. I laid there for a better part of 2.5 hours with silent slow tears streaming down my cheeks.

They weren’t sad tears. Well, let me take that back. Of course I’m sad. But I was intrigued by the tears when I realized they weren’t because of sadness. That’s what I was feeling on the surface, but something more was sitting beneath them. So I sat, and was quiet with the intention to lean into it a little bit. There was a voice whispering at me to listen to that something that I knew was hiding behind the sadness.

I’d been sitting on this cloudy feeling for a few days — unsure of the words or the feelings. I gave it some time to percolate, and like all good things that percolate like coffee, sometimes they keep you awake at night.

What was I percolating over? My friend Grace, who is 14 and has had an osteosarcoma (bone cancer) for 3+ years that has recurred twice, decided last week to discontinue all of her treatments for her cancer. Being very aware that the gravity of her decision meant that she would die from her osteosarcoma, she made that brave decision, in my mind at least, out of the highest act of love for herself and her life. The cancer treatments were making her feel bad, and why continue with something that makes you feel bad when you know it won’t cure you?

Seems simple enough. In fact, so simple that it made me wonder why we often times overcomplicate our medical treatments and decisions.

So back to the feelings that were percolating.

The first feeling that came to the surface from behind my sadness was awe. Awe of Grace’s and her family’s courage, resilience, and surrender. Let me be clear that I’m using the word surrender as it is truly intended, in my mind at least. It is not a means of giving up or weakness. It is the ultimate act of strength. It is acceptance in the face of something unfavorable that you must endure, whether you signed up for it or not.

After many many years of fooling myself into thinking surrender was an act of weakness and that forcing the impossible was how I needed to live my life, I have spent 3 years of my own life learning how to do this on so many facets of life. And it truly can be that simple. Surrender. Sure does make life a lot less stressful and a lot more liberating. Coming to that definition and conclusion in my heart in this scenario and many others, I’ve developed a bit of an addiction. Surrender begets more surrender. I find I’m frequently searching for the opportunities to surrender as I learn time and time again that oftentimes the most surreal beauty of life follows closely behind surrender. When we hang on to something we aren’t intended to hang onto, we miss out on that beauty. But letting go can feel so scary and anxiety provoking that sometimes holding on feels so much easier and safer than the step it takes to just surrender.

While almost every act of surrender brings with it an even brighter and more brilliant life hiding beneath it, I can recall the most important lesson of surrender I’ve had in recent times. Perhaps the deepest moment of surrender I found was when I was getting ready for my surgery. I’ve written the details to some degree in a blog about surrender and in several other blogs about waiting for surgery and waiting for treatment, but not many people know how many tears and how much anxiety initially went into that preparation. Like, maybe 4 people actually know.

I knew in my heart there was a good chance a lot of things would not go well in that surgery or I may not wake up. I was fortunate to be working with an incredible person at the time who knew me quite well and first let me just completely lose my mind. Because she knew me well, this meltdown was followed by a fairly pointed order to start a daily practice of prayer and meditation for no less than 3 hours per day. I humored her and said “sure”, but I didn’t really know what she meant by that. Sit still for 3 hours? Per day? Maybe she misspoke. Maybe she meant per month? No, I’m certain she said per day. Seriously!?!? I had so many better things to do.

But like the straight A student I once was, I decided to do my assignment with 180% effort (or, rather, as meditation goes and as I quickly learned, with negative 180 percent effort). It didn’t take me long to see what she meant and that I actually had nothing better to do. I craved that time. I cancelled clients, rearranged friend dates, made every effort to get my daily 3 hours—which often became much longer than that. I needed that time. I’d argue that we all need that time. I surrendered to that time. Side note: if you’re thinking of taking up meditation, please know it does not have to be for 3 hours per day. 3 minutes is great! I just happened to need and had the space for the whole enchilada in that time in my life. Side note to the side note: enchiladas sound really good right now.

My next order was to consider the fact that NO DAYS are guaranteed. How was major surgery any different than any other day? In fact, 10+ hours of surgery quite possibly came with more guarantees than most days. Someone was literally breathing FOR me, monitoring my every heartbeat, and making my blood circulate. They’d give me a precise dosage of medicine to put me to sleep and another precise dosage to help me wake up. Infections would be as controlled as they could be with additional medicine. I mean–how easy of a day was that for me when you look at it that way? But every other day–well, I was completely on my own those days.

So what was the difference then? How could I approach any average day and trust and have faith that I would live through it, yet be so terrified of one measly day where I slept for 12 hours of it on a cold table? It occurred to me (after several more days of giant chunks of prayer and meditation) that the whole point I needed to embrace was that we are not in charge, ever. Intellectually, I knew this. But it’s one thing to say it out loud because that’s what you’re supposed to say, and another thing to feel it in your bones and live your live as if it’s the only truth you believe. I realized my only job is to savor each moment, whether it’s a high or a low, because both mean that I AM LIVING.

And if we are to beg for guarantees and control over anything, the only guarantee in this life we will ever get is that we will die. Truly. That’s it. Nothing else is guaranteed. So for that reason, I then learned the concept of saying on a daily basis “today is as good of a day to die as any other day.” As I write that it still sounds completely wack-o, but I did as I was told, faked it till I made it, and saw what it meant. Embrace it. And also surrender to it. It’s not to be feared, but instead welcomed into the conversation just as lovingly as any other part of life. And as cliche as it sounds—I learned to be ready to finish each day with that saying — and mean it.

So I was making good progress in a fairly short period of time. Because I wasn’t about to back down from another deep hearted spiritual challenge, I had another assignment that I thought was completely wack-o initially. I started to do a series of death meditations, where I visualized my body dying–cell by cell, organ by organ, inch by inch. Following that, I slowly visualized each inch coming back to life.

To be perfectly honest with you I don’t know if there is a right or wrong way to do that (my hunch is that there is not), but I will say something very interesting happened. As I shut everything down, my body felt still, calm, quiet, and completely at peace. It was eerily beautiful. As I woke it back up, I’m not even kidding when I say as I scanned my body and whispered to each part to come to life that I was flooded with that rush-of-blood sensation you get when your leg goes to sleep then you get up and move it. It was eerily invigorating. And also the allopathic medical brain in me wants to know how that is possible (though my heart says “who are you kidding? You know who or what was in charge of that.) Point being here—both life and death–light and dark—were completely beautiful to me. So long as I surrendered to both.

And that’s how I felt when I heard about Grace’s big choice. I was sad initially, but something hid underneath. Something so painful and yet so beautiful and liberating at the same time. I couldn’t put my finger on it for days yet the concept was dancing all around me, showering glitter on my day, poking at me, tickling my feet, and sometimes floating into my lungs with each inhale. Turns out that concept was surrender. To death and to life. To a greater power. To knowing and accepting we’re not in charge, even if most of the time it hurts so bad to realize we’re not in charge so we fight tooth and nail with life to fool ourselves into thinking we’re in charge. Sounds tiring, doesn’t it? It is tiring. So why do we do it? Why do we repeatedly tell ourselves the lie that we are in charge, that we are in control, and that there are guarantees in life so long as we dot our i’s and cross our t’s?

Amidst all of these questions that arose during my evening of sleepless percolation, I finally realized what it was that was hiding behind the tears and sadness. I realized despite all the work I was doing on my own to learn and practice surrender, I was learning yet another newer, deeper lesson on the ultimate act of surrender. As sad as it made me and as painful as it is to write this, I was percolating on this lesson being taught to me by a 14 year old friend with osteosarcoma. As I thought about the timing of Grace’s brave decision and our upcoming swim together, I kept being overcome with a vision of a metaphor:

In open water swimming, the water is dark and murky and we can’t see in front of us and there are SO many unknowns swirling around us—yet somehow we have the faith to keep swimming and moving forward. And dare I say–we are enjoying it!!!! How interesting is it that swimming in open water can do that for us? How is that swimming is any different than any other part of life–be it surgery, cancer, walking across a crowded busy street, taking a hard test at school, or simply choosing what to eat for dinner? We can surrender to swimming without any vision of where we are going, so what about everything else in life? Side note–how did I not see that metaphor until now? Well, I know how–I wasn’t meant to see it until then. It’s another example of what surrender will do for me.

So I laid here tonight thinking “Ok Julie, there is a reason this story–Grace’s story, keeps circling back into your consciousness. The Universe wants you to pay attention.”

The awe–it outweighs the sadness 4 million to one. That’s not to downplay the sadness nor minimize the gravity of the situation. But I just gotta say–I’m celebrating Grace’s courage to surrender just as much as I would if she won a Nobel Prize, an Olympic Gold medal, was invited to tea with the Queen or figured out how to land us safely on Mars. I’m talking backflips, cartwheels, and pure inspired elation + celebration. Because while I have been faced with so many opportunities to surrender, I have not yet had the opportunity to truly surrender to both life and death, honoring life for its fleeting and guaranteed unguaranteed nature that it brings us. But why do we have to wait until we’re told “you won’t survive this” to surrender to death? Isn’t it true that nobody is making it out of this life alive? Why not go ahead and surrender? Rip of the bandaid, stop fighting it. Just get it done. I’ve apparently done it once before—when getting ready for surgery. I was now realizing that was a temporary surrender. The good news is I’d had some practice. Seems it was time to seal the deal for good.

And one very important thing to discuss here—just to reiterate what the real definition of surrender is (in my mind). Surrender includes hope. It doesn’t include quitting. While we may quit doing a certain behavior in order to surrender, it’s important to note that surrendering doesn’t make someone a quitter in what we may consider the traditional definition of “quitter.” It doesn’t mean someone just gave up. I’d be happy to get into a conversation or discussion about semantics on this one, but there’s truly a distinction.

Surrender never means giving up hope: in oneself, in a greater power, in love, in life, and in all of life’s joys. I always hear “well I won’t get my hopes up.” Why not? Why won’t you get your hopes up? Because you’re afraid? Why live through life dictated by fear and without hope? Is that not just another way of trying to control the situation? After all, we aren’t in charge. Who’s to say that just because science says something is impossible that it is truly impossible? So why not get our hopes up?

Grace certainly hasn’t given up hope. I certainly haven’t. The Law of Attraction posits that if you dream or envision something, like attracts like. So if there’s hope for tomorrow, perhaps tomorrow will come. If surrendering means that the beauty hiding behind the sadness will come shining through, then why not surrender and hope for that beauty? The beauty may be life, or it may be death. And as I learned long ago — how is that any different than any other day in life, whether that life is a life of fighting cancer or something else?

According to her mom, Grace thinks I’m Wonder Woman (thanks Grace, I won’t forget that because it is an honor) but I think she’s brought WW to a new definition in my mind. I only pray that when that day comes for me in whatever way it comes–that I can follow Grace’s example with, well, the beautiful Grace that she has demonstrated. That’s assuming I haven’t already surrendered beforehand. Spoiler alert: I can honestly say I’m not quite there yet, but I’m working through it day by day. And I will get there. Soon. Because why wait?

And it goes without saying: I ache for Grace too, I ache for her family. I’ve ugly-cried many many days since hearing of this decision. The pain is present, sitting right beside the awe and inspiration. but I really am more in awe and inspired than anything. And I’m savoring every moment that we get to be teammates on Saturday!

We had a sneak preview on Saturday’s open water swim about a month ago when we met (for the first time!) and swam together as part of Grace’s first swim after cancer treatment. It was a truly special day. Grace was not feeling well, was exhausted after radiation treatment (sounds familiar…) and on the surface looked and acted like swimming was the last thing on her mind. But as soon as she was in the water—she came to life. Swimming was the only thing on her mind. We didn’t just meet to swim though. It was more than that. We were filming a shoot on Grace’s story for 11alive News (our local Atlanta NBC affiliate) for Swim Across America, which finally aired two days ago.

Here’s the video:

And the best part about this whole situation is the very last line from the wonderfully skilled, beautiful, heart-as-pure-as-gold and talented anchor Cheryl Preheim: ”The Bunkes say that sometimes the bravest thing you can ever do is simply to let go.”

I wrote out this blog, all about letting go, this past weekend, before the story was aired. And when I saw that, my heart did a few back flips and cartwheels while simultaneously bursting into a million pieces. Wow. Don’t you just love it when the Universe aligns us all on the same wavelength?

So I’ll continue doing my best to get some rest and not stay up late percolating things, but I can’t shake the inspiration and incredible energy I keep feeling coming from Grace’s direction. I can’t wait to swim again with the real Wonder Woman (I am passing the torch on the WW title for now) in just 2 days. I’m ecstatic for what the next 4 days hold in store for me, and more importantly, for Grace.

Until then and after then, I’m sending the Bunke family LOTS of prayer for peaceful, life-filled joyful moments and HOPE moving forward. Forward: it’s the only way to move after all (particularly in a lake swim!).

We would be so honored if you would support our team and our swim. We’ll jump into Lake Lanier and swim 1 mile. We’ve already raised over $29,000, but we’re not stopping our efforts or our hope until we find a cure. And we’ll keep swimming until there is one and/or until we can’t swim any longer.

Click the link below to make a donation. I’m just $381 away from my fundraising goal of $5500. No donation is too small. I’ve been challenging folks all week to donate $11.50: one penny for each day that Grace has lived with a diagnosis of cancer. But we’ll lovingly welcome any amount you can spare. If you are unable to donate, we completely understand! We would love your well wishes too! Feel free to email me or leave some comments below. Thank you for all your support!