“Ties and Tangles: Family Redefined”

Rev. Meg Peery McLaughlin

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She was 23 weeks pregnant, and everything was fine. Until it wasn’t.

People’s stories have always spoken to Christina Eppink.

Her teenaged bedroom wasn’t plastered with posters of distant celebrities. Instead she clipped images of ordinary people and news events from her dad’s Newsweek magazines, and taped those to her walls.

“I just cut out pictures I thought were interesting,” she said. “I wanted people to come in and be drawn to the pictures like I was.”

She wasn’t a performer herself, but she hung out with the theatre kids—the storytellers—in high school.

She studied psychology — specifically behavior patterns — in college and graduate school.

She shares missing person notices that cross her path on social media. She wonders and worries: Who are they? What happened?

Watching how people react to life circumstances and evolve — it’s her life’s work as a behavioral scientist. It’s also sort of in her blood.

So when her own life took a dramatic turn, she can look back now and see pretty clearly how it changed her.

Her family’s story began just after high school, when Christina met Miguel.

“It was back in the days of AOL instant messenger,” she said. “He messaged me because he thought I was a different Christina. But then we just started chatting.”

Eventually they met in person. They dated all through college, married, and had baby Grayson. They also withstood several miscarriages. That was a dark time for Christina. “I felt like a failure,” she said.

Grayson was attending preschool at BPC, and although his mother hadn’t really ever attended church regularly, Grayson said he wanted to check it out.

So the family did. They attended a new members’ class in February 2015.

And then Christina found out she was pregnant. She was both terrified and ecstatic.

Things progressed normally, and they learned they were having a girl.

At 23 weeks, everything seemed fine.

Until it wasn’t.

At a routine checkup, she was told that her cervix was open and she was already dilated. Her baby could literally fall out, she was told. That’s what it felt like was happening to Christina’s own life in that moment: The bottom was falling out.

It was a steamy July afternoon, and Christina had to drop everything and go to Fairfax Hospital. She was to be on her back, in bed, for an indefinite period of time while her baby girl continued to “cook.”

“They treat you like you’re in labor, so suddenly I was hooked up to all these machines and they started giving me steroids and magnesium, things to help the baby’s brain and lung development in case she is born on the spot.”

Christina was alone when a white-coated doctor came into her room and explained that the odds of Christina’s baby surviving, much less thriving, were slim.

But Christina’s story wasn’t supposed to end this way. On some level she knew that.

Within a few days, people from BPC started stopping by. People she’d never met, in most cases. They brought flowers and lip balm and admired Grayson’s crayon drawings. They prayed with her.

“People were reaching out, left and right, without my asking,” she said. “People genuinely wanted to know how we were doing. It wasn’t like anything I’d experienced before.”

Doctors told Christina and Miguel that the goal was for their baby to stay in utero until 28 weeks. And Marley was born at 28 weeks, almost to the hour. She was healthy and strong, but for her tininess. She stayed in the NICU for 73 days, and was home in time for her first Thanksgiving.

Marley beat the odds.

For Christina, that summer and fall unfolded in a kind of fog. “I just needed to hold it together, and I think I did it with a smile on my face.”

But the weight of the experience took its toll. Managing intense anxiety and fear creates traumatic stress, no question, Christina said.

One thing that helped was returning to BPC, the place she had first connected with because of her children. “Grayson brought us here and Marley drew people from here to us.”

Christina took on a leadership role in the Sunday school program. She organized Mom’s group gatherings with Muslim women from a local mosque, and became active in BPC interfaith events.

“It has been therapeutic for me, helping people,” she said. “This place has given me a way to do that.”

Marley today is a vivacious, dark-eyed, dark-haired toddler who has just started walking. It’s a happy ending.

But even the dark parts of Christina’s story created space for light, she said.

“I’m not saying I am glad the two of us went through all of that exactly,” Christina said. “But it shaped who I am today. And that’s a good thing.”

He spent a long time living in the moment. Loss, love, and fatherhood turned him into more of a planner.

Some people are planners.

Some people are more like Jim DeVaughn, who even at age 7 was game for most anything. No plan necessary.

When his buddies would pull up to his New Jersey house, Jim would hop on his blue Schwinn 5-speed. The boys would head for the creek, or for one of the town’s Revolutionary War-era iron mines, riddled with sand-filled sink holes.

They’d find their own adventures.

When the family moved to northern Virginia one rainy August morning, Jim settled in and followed his heart. He ended up at the Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology; while many children prepare for years to gain entrance to this prestigious high school, Jim had applied simply because he “kind of wanted to be around other nerdy kids.”

As it turns out, it wasn’t the fine tech labs Jim embraced. He practically lived on the beat-up green couch in the school’s music wing. It felt like home. So he joined concert and show choirs, madrigal and men’s groups, and was “into a capella before it was cool,” he said.

He applied to Virginia Tech, mostly because his older sister was already there, and the mountains reminded him of the scenic Poconos where his family vacationed every summer.

And when he was accepted, he agreed to pursue engineering, but only because schools usually make you come up with a plan whether you’re inclined to or not.

“So I limped through a mechanical engineering degree while clinging to music,” he said. He sang in the campus Methodist foundation’s outreach choir. He slapped together audition material for a competitive traveling show group called the New Virginians—- he sang Cruella de Vil— and he got in. He was part of a jazz vocal group, and an a capella group that sang at Kings Dominion in the summers. It was glorious.

As he neared the end of his tenure in Blacksburg, peers were applying to graduate school or talking to job recruiters. Jim was living in the basement of the Methodist house with a handful of friends. “We thought we might make a go of this music thing,” he said. “We didn’t know what we were doing.”

He paid the bills by doing temp work and driving a Blacksburg Transit bus. And when a friend said he could get the singers a gig at a theme park near Disneyland in California, Jim packed a bag.

“We were making demo tapes and thinking, ‘We’re going to Hollywood!” he said.

It didn’t last long. But it was a blast. Jim remembers eating turkey and stuffing back stage at the theme park because it was the holiday season.

And he remembers catching a red-eye home to Fairfax on Christmas Eve, not really sure what the day after Christmas held in store for him.

“But it was okay,” he said. “I have always been someone who is content to be in the place where I’m at.”

Jim’s friends started to get married and have kids. Jim was the “crazy uncle. It was hard for me to imagine having kids myself.”

Then, Jim’s mother died, on September 6, 2001, after a long battle with breast cancer. The funeral was on September 10, a day before the towers fell. By this point Jim had fallen into “my first real, grown-up, full-time job, with benefits,” he said. He was 29 and providing tech/engineering support for the United States Air Force Band.

Jim moved home to be with his dad, partly to save money and partly so the two could support one another in their grief. His mom had been the communicator in the family, so dealing with her loss was tough on multiple levels. He sought out therapy, which helped a lot. “I learned how to breathe and how to stop. How to listen.”

His “second act” of sorts began, Jim says.

He met Anne, through mutual friends. They didn’t click at first, but then they met again. They were married 364 days after that second connection. They eloped on the stage of the high school where Anne was teaching theatre, and then held a more formal ceremony months later in Anne’s hometown. A nod, perhaps, to the dual “live in the moment” and “honor tradition” that inhabit them both.

Their two girls were born in 2008 and 2011.

Jim’s sister suffered a massive stroke several years later. Then his father died.

Real life. Adult stuff. It came hard and fast.

“I’ve done a lot of growing up,” he said. “But in other ways, I’ve been ‘growing down.’ By that I just mean, having kids brings me back to my inner child.”

The tough stuff of adulthood is always there, of course. An internal drive to plan ahead and manage kid schedules, work, and money doesn’t come naturally to Jim, still.

But “sometimes we’ll be at dinner, and the kids will say something insightful or funny, and I look at Anne and I really see her, and I feel this deep euphoria. I think, ‘Wow. I want to put this moment in a bottle.’”

“Ties and Tangles: Partnering”

Rev. Meg Peery McLaughlin

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The fact that she tells her story from a wheelchair doesn’t really come up, until she’s probed.

Ask Karen Larsson her story, and you will hear about how, as a kid, she was more often wet than dry, living near the water in Warwick, Rhode Island.

You will hear about how her dad worked as a square dance caller on the side, so Karen spent many a weekend in the middle school cafeteria, hearing, “… back to the corner, now, do-si-do!”

You will learn that she was painfully shy and self-conscious, particularly since she was always the tallest girl in class: She was 5-feet-9 by the time she was in the eighth grade, and
6-feet at her tallest.

You will hear about her dreams of becoming a flight attendant so that she could travel the world, how she found true love, and the immeasurable joy of being a grandma.

The fact that Karen tells her story from a wheelchair doesn’t really come up, until she’s probed.

“I guess it’s one of those, ‘Be careful what you wish for,’” she says with a chuckle. “I always desperately wanted to be shorter.”

Karen was a single mom to Tyler, working for a computer database company, when her joints started hurting. Her father had arthritis and underwent multiple surgeries during the course of his lifetime.

So when Karen’s left hip started bothering her in the 1990s, she suspected she was in for a rough road.

Just how rough she couldn’t have known.

The first diagnosis was osteoarthritis, which involves the breakdown of joint cartilage and underlying bone. In 2002, she was told she had scoliosis, or a curved spine. A rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis followed, and that’s the most difficult for Karen to manage. This autoimmune disorder results in swollen, painful joints, and affects her hands, knees, feet, neck, and spine.

Karen’s surgeries are almost too numerous to list, and include the insertion of screws in her feet and ankles, rods in her back, knee and hip replacements, joint fusions, and multiple reconstructions.

At some point during a hospital stay, she caught an infection caused by staph bacteria that makes treatment with standard antibiotics very difficult. It compromised her immune system in such a way that she can’t take many of the medications typically prescribed for arthritis.

“I was really stubborn about the wheelchair,” Karen said. She had rods put in her spine in 2006, but didn’t stop walking until 2011, when her knees gave out.

Over the course of five years, Karen’s beloved second husband died of heart failure, both of her parents and her only brother died, and Karen was facing the fact that her body was utterly and completely turning on itself, with no end in sight.

“I had to make a decision,” she said. “Was I going to be mournful and stay in my house? I decided it’s all a choice. How you look at your life is all a choice.”

So Karen lives her life largely as if she wasn’t in a wheelchair: volunteering in the church office, at a neighborhood recreation center, and the hospital. Two years ago she decided she was ready to try dating again. She met her fiancé, Bruce, through an online match service. She walks the couple’s newly adopted dog, Riley; delivers food to homeless families in Fairfax; travels to retreats, beach vacations with girlfriends, and California whenever possible, to visit her son’s family.

“I don’t want my health to be the predominant thing in my life,” she said. So even on the toughest days, like one recently, when she learned that her right shoulder literally has dissolved, she remembers the choice she made years ago to stay active.

“God’s got me,” Karen said. “I’ll be honest, sometimes I forget that. But God’s got me.”

Her one fear in telling her story is that people will feel sorry for her. Instead, she hopes it gives people the “in” they need to reach out to her if they need to talk.

“If you are someone who needs an ear, or you know somebody who is going to through a really tough time, I have been there,” she said. “I am here. They can turn to me.”

Coming to America meant learning how to see a lot of things differently, including a range of social issues.

Deepu George was the kind of kid who took old Walkmans apart to see how they worked.

If a stereo was on its last leg, that’s when the real fun began for Deepu.

He knew early on, therefore, that he was destined to be a scientist.

“I was always fascinated by stories about physicists,” he said. He remembers reading about Isaac Newton, for example, and the legend of the falling apple sparking Newton’s theory of gravity. The 17th century physicist/mathematician did his theorizing in English gardens, while Deepu’s love of science developed in a lush tropical village along the Arabian Sea in southwestern India.

By the time Deepu had arrived in the capital city of New Delhi to pursue his masters’s degree in optics, he was studying lasers, not Walkmans.

His plan, after receiving a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees, was to earn a doctorate in physics and then settle somewhere close to family.

A professor offered another idea. This advisor received a call from a colleague at the University of Massachusetts in Boston who was looking for doctoral students. Deepu seemed a perfect fit.

He was 26 and had never left India.

“I don’t think I really knew what I was getting into,” he said.

As Deepu puts it: “Everything is ‘the other way’ in America.” Whereas a light switch in India flips down to turn on, it flips up in America. Doors that one pushes to open here would be pulled in India. Cars travel on the opposite sides of roads.

And of course, Boston can be very cold. Not like the rainforest where Deepu spent his youth.

But in the midst of the unsettledness, Deepu found community.

For one thing, “universities are about the most diverse places around,” he said. It didn’t take long to find other Indians to share meals of dosa and thali with.

The other place Deepu found community was church.

Deepu was raised Christian. According to an old Indian legend, the disciple Thomas traveled to Kerala, Deepu’s home state, in the first century A.D. to spread the Good News. Deepu was raised in a Reformed church that resembles somewhat the congregations he encountered in New England.

“We always went to church growing up,” he said. “That’s just what you do. It would feel odd not to go on Sunday morning.”

Deepu transferred to the University of Buffalo in New York, and he was drawn to the University Presbyterian Church there because he could walk to it. The congregation, though small, reached out to university students, and offered them lunch after worship. Deepu grew very close to several families, including one couple he regularly babysat for. Another church member offered him a room to stay in during his last year in Buffalo.

“She refused to take money from me, so that is a generosity I can’t pay back,” he said. “She really is like family to me.”

Those connections offered a sense of grounding, when home was tens of thousands of miles away.

But they also helped change Deepu’s perspective. While Deepu had been raised in a Reformed church, it was a good bit more conservative than the congregations he has been part of in America.

So over long dinners at kitchen tables with new Presbyterian friends, Deepu started thinking differently about certain social issues.

When he moved to Virginia Tech as part of a post-doc program there, he sought out another progressive Presbyterian church, to continue those conversations. And when he followed up on an advertisement for a roommate, and learned that he would be sharing space with a same-gender couple, he didn’t hesitate as he might have once. His friendship with the women blossomed.

“Once you have a human relationship with someone [different from you], you have to think about them and their situation more,” Deepu said. “You have to think, am I going to stand in judgment or is this person worth my attention and time to really understand?”

When Deepu moved to Northern Virginia early this year, his church hunt began anew. It was some of the sermons in the “Risky Resurrection” series—on topics such as sexuality and gun violence—that drew him to BPC.

Most days Deepu is in his lab, developing a retina imaging system at George Mason University, using something called photoacoustics. He is excited about the possibility of working someday for a large technology firm, and he’s not sure where he ultimately will land.

But wherever he lands, he does know he will find a church home there.

Gifts of blood changed her life. So when she had a chance to pay it forward, she took it.

If you have given blood at BPC in recent years, you’ve seen Judy Albert.

She has arrived sometimes before dawn to help the van from Inova Health System get situated. She has greeted you and helped you fill out paperwork, and she was probably the one who called you to get you there in the first place.

If you say something along the lines of, “Are you a retired nurse? I guess you have some connection with the healthcare field, given all the work you put into this,” you’ll be met with a little chuckle.

Nope, Judy says. Not even close.

The Pittsburgh-area native is private. She’d rather you see her as part of nature, which she loves. That explains the hiking photo.

But the part of her life that relates to blood she thinks is important to share. Because until you need it, or a loved one needs it, you may not understand, she said.

Judy’s own relationship to needles, tubes and platelets began in 2002.

An attorney with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Judy spent her days navigating the complicated waters of things like the relicensing of hydroelectric dams and turf wars surrounding tangles of electric grids.

When she wasn’t doing that, she was hiking, birding, or enjoying music, often with Luke, whom she met through a mutual friend and was with for 26 years.

When Luke started to feel unusually tired, his doctor told him he needed to take it easy and rest more. When he suddenly couldn’t climb stairs, Judy and Luke knew something was seriously wrong.

Aplastic anemia is a very rare blood disease; one’s body stops producing enough blood cells. Treatment is so specialized that Luke needed to receive care at the National Institutes of Health.

In the beginning, Judy tried to learn all she could about this cruel illness that seemed to be zapping the life from her loved one.

“But I would get on the Internet and I could only read a little bit at a time,” she said. “Then I would have to stop. It was too hard.”

Luke lived for 8 years with this illness, and he never went for more than 2 weeks without receiving a transfusion. When he received an infusion of red cells, “it was like he was Popeye,” Judy said. “Like he’d popped the spinach and was ready to go!”

Luke loved horses; he’d bought some more than a year before his diagnosis, and he would ride two or three times a week back then. When he got sick, he couldn’t ride much due to the risks involved with a potential fall. But he and Judy could still spend time tinkering in the garden, brushing his beloved animals, and taking short hikes.

Luke was alive in 2009 when Judy first saw a notice at BPC about the need for blood drive volunteers. The church had been hosting these drives for years, and it needed support. A table in the narthex, part of the church’s Mission Fair, caught her attention.

Judy decided to give back and sign up. And then, she was running the thing.

As Judy learned about the intricacies of managing a bloodmobile, her own life was being darkened by loss. Her twin brother died from a massive heart attack in 2009. Luke died in 2010. Her remaining brother died earlier this year.

So now she is thinking more about how to best support her father, who turns 94 this month and lives in Pennsylvania. She visits him often, and also likes to head out west, to beautiful towns where friends have retired.

And she is feeling ready to pass the bloodmobile baton, she said. Perhaps someone feels called to help, someone who has experienced as she did, the gift of life through blood.

“Those transfusions kept Luke alive and they gave him a life,” Judy said. “I was very, very grateful. For me, doing the bloodmobile was payback time.”

“Ties and Tangles: Parenting”

Rev. Jarrett McLaughlin

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