June 19, 2019

Family Matters

Just before the “Yizkor” service on Yom Kippur, Christina Wright will step away from her babysitting job in the child-care area at Temple Emanuel and drive over to Temple Beth Am. There, the 18-year-old Beverly Hills High senior will silently recite “Kaddish” for her nuclear family: her mother, father and little sister, all victims of AIDS.

“I will try to remember them, and to picture them,” says the petite, blond, blue-eyed teenager, who will sit beside her legal guardian, Ronna Sundy.

Christina will remember how her mother once surprised her by leading her into a fragrant rose garden. She will remember how her father dressed her up in fancy velvet dresses when she was small and how he cried at her Bat Mitzvah at Temple Beth Am. She will recall her baby sister, Heather, who did not live to see her second birthday.

As the memories come flooding back, Christina will think of the unique way in which she intends to honor her family this coming year: Just before her high school graduation, she will embark upon the California AIDS Ride, a bicycle trek from San Francisco to Los Angeles. She’ll travel 80 miles a day, sleep in a pup tent and wash in portable showers on the road. With her will be her adopted sister, Lindsey Sundy, and bicycle enthusiast Dr. David (“Doc”) Ackerman, a mentor of Christina’s since he was her principal at Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy seven years ago. Ackerman has provided the girls with used bicycles to begin their intensive training program this week.

Christina has been intent on the ride since her late father, Stephen, collapsed three days into the trek in 1996. He died a month later, leaving Christina an orphan. “There are many things I could do on behalf of AIDS, but I felt I have to do this,” explains Christina, sitting in Ronna’s living room beside a Victorian-style porcelain doll that was a gift from her father. “I have to finish the ride for my father.”

Christina was born near Seattle in 1982 to parents who met and married in the Navy. From her earliest memory, illness was part of the family. The downward spiral began in 1987, when Heather was born sick and her mother, Teri, a drug addict, was diagnosed with AIDS.

Christina has few memories of Teri save sitting on her sickbed; she remembers the last night of her mother’s life, when she entered her room in the middle of the night and discovered nothing but the neatly made bed.

“Because I was only 5, I did not understand what was going on, but I knew something terrible had happened to my mother and that I would never see her again,” Christina says.

After the funeral, Stephen and his girls became nomads, living in the homes of various friends. Christina often cared for her sister and helped to administer medicine into Heather’s chest catheter. She says she was calm the night the baby had a severe seizure and fell into a coma, since she was used to seizures. “The one thing I remember from the funeral is the little coffin,” Christina says. “I remember that a lot.”

When Christina was in fourth grade, she and her father, a personal trainer who by then was living with a male lover, moved to Los Angeles and settled in an apartment a couple of blocks from Temple Beth Am. Stephen, who had been a spiritual seeker all his life, had finally returned to Judaism: He began attending the temple’s morning minyan and enrolled his daughter in the shul’s Pressman Academy for her fifth-grade year. Christina, at the time, was just learning to read, her progress having been stunted by all the pain and uncertainty in her life. The child discovered some much-needed stability in her new Jewish community. But at home, she says, she had far more responsibility than the average 10-year-old.

“I was the adult,” she says. “I cooked and cleaned, took out the trash, did the laundry, put the medicine in my father’s IV. If we needed something, I’d walk to the 7-Eleven.”

Sometimes, she had to wash bedsheets that were covered with blood and excrement; when Stephen convulsed, she knew exactly how to place a pillow under his head to prevent injury. Whenever her father was in the hospital, Christina plaited his long blond hair.

In 1993, a new family unexpectedly came into Christina’s life: It began when she met Lindsey that summer at Camp Ramah. The girls didn’t initially like each other: “I thought Christina was a snob, and she thought I was a nerd,” recalls Lindsey, now 17.

But when Lindsey returned home, she discovered that Christina was the only camper who lived in her neighborhood, actually two blocks away. She gave the girl a call. “And that was the beginning of the rest of our lives,” Lindsey says.

The girls became best friends, and before long, Christina was practically living in Ronna’s airy, three-bedroom duplex, along with Lindsey, her younger sister, Joey, and Ronna’s ex-mother-in-law. Ronna became the parent Christina desperately needed as Stephen spent weeks and months at a time at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center. She helped with Christina’s homework, conferenced with her teachers, kept tabs on her whereabouts, provided her meals and clothing, took her to the dentist and to visit her father in the hospital.

The divorced single mother, who is now the special events coordinator at Temple Beth Am, even planned and catered Christina’s Bat Mitzvah, which had to be moved up a week because the teenager refused to recite a parshat she felt condemned homosexuals. To pay the bills, the struggling single mom took extra catering and event-planning jobs. The Jewish community helped, too.

“I couldn’t have done it without Temple Beth Am, Camp Ramah and the Bureau of Jewish Education,” says Ronna, who believes Christina is independent and adaptable because of her years living in so many different households. Yet the teen does not express emotions easily and has blocked out many of her unpleasant memories.

“She’s built a real wall around herself,” Ronna explains. “That is the way she survives.”

Christina, for her part, describes Ronna’s home as a safe haven. “I was always forced to be the grownup in my family as a child,” she says, “but now I am allowed to act my age.”

Three years after Ronna was granted guardianship of Christina, preparing for the inevitable, Stephen embarked on the California AIDS ride over his doctors’ protests. It was a sunny day in May 1996. Three days later, Christina received the disturbing news: Her father had collapsed on his bicycle and was coming home to be admitted to the hospital.

“I remember crying then,” she says. “For my dad to give up on something like that meant he was truly sick and going downhill. It was a shock to me.”

Not long thereafter, again against doctors’ orders, Stephen left his hospital bed to attend Christina’s graduation from Pressman.

“His dream was always to see me graduate from high school and to be there on my wedding day,” the teen reflects. “We’d always talk about that. But my middle school graduation was as close as he could get.”Two weeks later, Christina was awakened early in the morning by the sound of her father’s alarm clock blaring throughout the apartment. When she rushed to his room, she found him blue and lying face down on the pillow. She immediately called Ronna. “My father is dead,” she said.

It was Ronna who arranged his funeral at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary, with help from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The Sundys sat next to Christina as four rabbis conducted the memorial service. “There was a picture of my father on display, but I couldn’t look at it too long because it hurt too much,” Christina recalls.

Nevertheless, the day after shiva was completed, Christina went off to Camp Ramah after conferring with Ronna and members of the Jewish community.

“It didn’t have to do with death, but with the person Christina who was going on living,” explains Ronna, who closed up Stephen’s apartment while Christina was away. Christina toted to camp the giant floppy teddy bear her father gave her one Valentine’s Day when he was in the hospital.

This past summer, a girl abruptly left Ramah when her father died, and Christina was asked to address the campers about how to deal with tragedy. The teenager found a calling.

“I realized there is a reason why I have had to go through so much at such a young age,” says Christina, who keeps a photograph of her father and sister at her bedside and is comforted by pieces of Stephen’s furniture that grace Ronna’s home. “It’s because I’m supposed to help teach others through my experiences. When I share my story, an almost overwhelming feeling takes over me, which brings so much comfort and joy. Now I know this is exactly what I am supposed to be doing with my life.”

If you’d like to help sponsor Christina and Lindsey on the California AIDS Ride, which benefits AIDS research, call Ronna Sundy at (310) 652-7353, ext. 217.