By Vicki Bunke, Grace and Caroline’s mom, school psychologist
A few weeks ago, I walked into my daughter Grace’s bedroom following a Friday night sleepover with her younger sister and friends. What I found was nothing short of a suburban disaster: sleeping pallets everywhere, pillows all over the floor, empty pizza boxes on the carpet, half-full water bottles. Since both girls were already off to other Saturday afternoon activities, I knew I would be tackling this catastrophe alone.
Normally, I might let out a giant huff, think to myself that my children should be more responsible, and then begrudgingly begin the clean-up process.
But this day was different.
As I surveyed the mess, I felt something well up inside of me. Was that really what I thought it was?
Yes. Yes, it was. It was a feeling of … thankfulness. Why in the world would I feel thankful for this mess?
Perhaps because just three days earlier, an evening conversation with Dr. Karen Wasilewski, Grace’s oncologist, reminded me of just how little we are guaranteed in this life. Once again, I was reminded that we should learn to appreciate the beautiful things we are thankful for before they become the beautiful things we miss.
"How long?" I thought staring at the mess. "How long will I have a chance to clean up these sleepover messes in Grace’s bedroom?" I have no idea. Nobody does, not even Grace’s medical team. I do know that it won’t be nearly as long as I would like because Grace, our 14-year-old daughter, has been given a terminal prognosis.
Since Grace’s cancer diagnosis in 2014, I have lived in two worlds. There’s one where I am grasping for any thread of control over our family’s situation, just one ounce of promise that our daughter will survive her illness that is called osteosarcoma. The second world I live in is obscure and, perhaps to some people, an inconceivable or unattainable one: a world of thankfulness.
How does one feel thankful in this heartbreaking place, where our family of four will one day become a family of three? It is not easy, but it is possible.
In our family, we have come to realize that with every “life mess” comes a gift, the opportunity to appreciate the little things in life. The little things we cherish but often become invisible because we see them so often. The kind of things you would never think to share on social media.
We are able to feel thankful because we no longer have room for arrogance—the arrogance that comes with the certainty of another tomorrow. We are able to feel thankful because we know that how we look at things makes it possible to feel thankful. We are able to feel thankful because we know that if we live life in a way that emotionally and physically drains us, then we will miss out on the magic of each day.
The magic of cleaning up slime messes made by our children and their friends on a table without a tablecloth or a care in the world.
The magic of making two school lunches every night, despite the fact that both of our children are more than capable of making them themselves.
The magic of driving for three or four hours to and from multiple practices, soccer games and swim meets. This will end, and we will miss it.
The magic of clutter. Backpacks carelessly strewn by the front door, homework folders on the dining room table and cleats on the kitchen counter. The stuff you trip over, spill spaghetti sauce on and tirelessly move from place to place. The stuff that says, hey, a family lives here.
The magic of picking up Grace’s prescriptions at the pharmacy every week and adding them to the Excel spreadsheet of her daily medications. This means that although she is not healthy, she is still alive.
The magic of chasing our muddy-pawed, German-Indian dog around the house before she jumps on the forbidden white sofa.
The magic of kissing our daughters goodnight in the same bedroom, even though they both have their own rooms—and they are 12 and 14 years old.
The magic of the seemingly wrong events and experiences—the messy parts of life—actually leading us to the right places and the right people.
Places like the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and people like Grace’s medical care team, particularly Dr. Karen Wasilewski, Dr. Kathryn Sutton and Pediatric Nurse Practitioner Melissa Martin. These women are devoted to Grace’s life not because it’s their job, but because it is their passion. Because they understand their job is not to fight fate, but to help their patients through it, not as soldiers but as shepherds who gracefully blend clinical expertise, humor and compassion to help to make it feel OK, even when it is not.
On Aug. 1, 2014, the day of Grace’s diagnosis, these magical moments came into clear focus for our family. Whether we get 14 minutes, 14 years, or many more than that, human life is a fleeting vapor by the standards of our universe.
I would never wish this lesson on anyone. Ever.
But I do hope that our story might help others see the gifts in their lives that are wrapped up in inconveniences, frustrations, unexpected stops and turns, and messes.
They’re not the things you post about on Instagram or Facebook, but then again the magic is in the stuff you can’t see—and sometimes it’s sandwiched between empty pizza boxes and pillows on a bedroom floor.
These beautiful images were captured by Kate T. Parker, who first met Grace and the Bunke family while shooting photos for her Strong is the New Pretty book and series.