Sunday, February 10, 2008

Bride dies during couple's first dance

The only thing Kim Sjostrom wanted more than a real-life reenactment of My Big, Fat Greek Wedding was the Greek-American husband who came with it: Teddy Efkarpides.
By the time the Davie teacher married the Sunrise carpenter on Jan. 19, she'd had a Greek-themed bridal shower, gotten a ''Greek by Marriage'' T-shirt and practically memorized the movie, which played while friends did her hair and makeup before the ceremony.
''She couldn't wait,'' says Efkarpides, 43.
The Hollywood version has a happy ending; this version doesn't. As 60 disbelieving guests looked on, Kimberly Sjostrom Efkarpides, 36, crumpled in the first dance at the reception and died of heart disease -- in her new husband's arms. They had been married for less than an hour.
''The only official document now that can bear the name she wanted to have is the death certificate,'' says Efkarpides, his voice a raw whisper. ``Life sure deals some lulus.''
Every day, Teddy Efkarpides -- a burly, bearded, Brooklyn-born six-footer -- tries again to sort out what happened. Why fate cast him as the romantic lead one minute, a widower at his own wedding the next. Why, after a wrenching divorce, he won a loving heart, only to see it fail them both.
Cardiac arrest, the doctors told him, related to blockages and hardening of the arteries. Relatives told some of her friends that she'd had a previous episode in her 20s.
The wedding guests who knew her well suspected a diabetic complication.
''She was diagnosed when she was 9 with juvenile diabetes,'' Teddy says. ``She was a poster child, literally. I remember seeing it on the New York subways.''
Or, thought the few who knew her even better, it might relate to a miscarriage the previous week.
''She was 10 weeks pregnant,'' says Efkarpides, a father of three. ''She was upset. She'd been pregnant'' in her first marriage, and lost that baby at five months.
Kimberly Sue Sjostrom was born prematurely in the Bronx and spent her first two months in the hospital. After her parents divorced, she moved with her mother to Mississippi.
She earned college degrees from New York's Fordham University, moved to South Florida in 2004 and began teaching at Davie Elementary, lately first grade.
''She loved the little guys,'' Efkarpides says. ``It's her character. She's a child in a grown-up's body.''
The two met through an online dating service.
The wedding was three years to the day after their first date -- lunch at a restaurant followed by a long talk at his apartment. He says it lasted eight hours.
The next, he cooked chicken fried rice, and they watched television and talked. By the third date, they were an item, and that summer she moved in.
Their weekend passion: ''Karaoke!'' Efkarpides smiles momentarily. ``She was magnificent. . . . She had the voice. We developed a whole portfolio of karaoke discs.''
''I'm the music teacher at the school, and she would come by my room and I'd play Broadway piano for her,'' says Dominic Church, a close friend. ``We'd get a crowd of teachers . . . listening to Kim sing.''
She produced a holiday-season musical that brought demands for an encore.
Their first Christmas together, Kim gave Teddy her ''101 Reasons Why I Love You,'' framed.
He reads: ``Number 1. You make me smile. 2: You know where I'm ticklish.''
No. 4 reads, ''You kiss away my tears,'' an irony not lost on the weeping man who has no one to return the favor.
``She was my soul mate. She was kind. Caring. She looked past all my flaws to bring out the best in me. . . She always looked me in the eyes, always with a smile, as if she won the lottery.''
He proposed at the Broward Mall, just after buying Kim a Tanzanite and diamond ring. It was Jan. 3, 2007.
Kim Sjostrom's wedding became a Davie Elementary School project. Teacher Cheryl Carter provided the venue -- her sister's large home. One teacher bought Kim's gown. Others did the flowers, the decorations, the tablecloths. The music teacher Church, also an ordained minister, presided over a ceremony melding Kim's Catholic faith and Teddy's Greek Orthodox. They said the Lord's Prayer and were crowned with Greek wedding wreaths.
Kim wore satiny beaded bedroom slippers and a crystal tiara. She carried white flowers and some dyed blue -- the colors of the Greek flag. ''In every picture from that day, she's glowing,'' says Naomi Church, Dominic's wife.
At 5 p.m., the ceremony began. Right about at ''I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health,'' tears of joy rolled down the face of Teddy Efkarpides, a Navy veteran.
Then the couple headed for the reception, on the patio. A friend announced: ``Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time ever, Mr. and Mrs. Teddy Efkarpides!''
''We walk out -- big smiles on our faces -- to where we're going to dance,'' Teddy remembers.
The song was the Greek Agapame, which means ''Love me.'' It was one of Kim's favorites.
''I used to sing it to her all the time,'' he says.
About a minute into the dance, Kim said she felt lightheaded. Teddy figured she needed sugar and suggested they head for a table.
Then, he says, ``she collapsed.''
Someone rushed in with sugar packets from the coffee service. Dominic tried CPR. Paramedics arrived in seven minutes, but it was too late.
''A lot of brides pass out on their wedding day, so maybe it was the emotion,'' thought Grettel Guerra de Jesus, who also teaches first grade and who coordinated the wedding. ``Then I noticed she was down for a little longer. . . . It was almost like watching Romeo and Juliet.''
Still, at Memorial West Hospital, Teddy saw '15 doctors trying to revive her. Then one doctor says the words I didn't want to hear: `We did everything we could.' ''
Later at the house, Teddy gathered up his wife's bouquet and placed it lightly on the pool deck, where she fell.
On Jan. 23, many of the wedding guests joined scores of others at Calvary Chapel South in Fort Lauderdale.
''The same people who took care of the decorations took care of the funeral,'' says Naomi Church.
''When it came time to make the financial arrangements, Cheryl threw me out of the room,'' Teddy says of the teacher whose sister provided the house for the wedding. Cheryl Carter says she arranged for payment because at Davie Elementary, ``We're there for each other for the happy times and the bad times.''
Kim's ashes were taken to Mississippi. She'll get her own page in the school's yearbook, says Carter, and a mural related to one of her favorite causes, Circle of Love, which delivers toys to kids with cancer.
Dominic and Naomi Church say that for such a young person, Kim Sjostrom talked a lot about her own eventual demise, and that in many ways, what happened would have pleased her.
''It was her happiest moment, with all the most important people, looking beautiful,'' Naomi says.
''It was perfect for her; for the rest of us, not so much,'' Dominic adds.
Teddy has lost 30 pounds. He tries going to work, until grief sends him home, to the company of Kim's ill-tempered cat.
Sometimes he looks at Kim's ''101 Reasons'' list -- ''97: You amaze me every day; 98: You're the one I want to grow old with'' -- and he cries.

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