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Photo by Everton Vila on Unsplash

Yesterday I learned that my brother-in-law died. Keith was a heavy Facebook user who suddenly went quiet, so a neighbor checked on him and discovered he’d passed away in his sleep—at 65. Since he was living in Ecuador, I hadn’t seen him in years. He was the second husband of Tom’s sister Susan, who herself died suddenly two years ago, a loss that I still have trouble coming to grips with. She was my age, and we were close, but I didn’t realize how much she was struggling with addiction.

Susan and Keith were each other’s second chance after long unhappy marriages. They were inseparable, their happiness radiating from a deluge of photos taken all over the world, where they traveled using Susan’s inheritance money. Their happiness was genuine, but it masked the deep pain Susan lived with, both in her present and distant past. Tom and Susan’s mother was volatile and abusive. One story Susan told was of having an accident when she was a preschooler, being stripped naked in front of a mirror, and forced to eat her underwear. I can’t imagine she could have actually chewed and swallowed cloth, but having it stuffed in her mouth, and the cruel shaming, must have been awful enough.

Memories of her childhood shaped her and plagued her, but losing her kids devastated her. When Susan left her husband, he mounted a relentless campaign of revenge, culminating in a lawsuit, filed by her adult kids, seeking to get some of Susan’s money. Although their case was weak, the legal costs were mounting, so Susan and Keith moved to Ecuador where the no extradition policy protected her. But there was no protection from the emotional pain of having her kids turned against her. In the last conversations I had with Susan, she’d learned that her ex-husband planned to go to Ecuador with the kids and pursue actions against her there. Maybe that’s why she loaded up on drugs and alcohol one night and fell to the bathroom floor, where she was found the next morning, too late to resuscitate.

Susan and Keith’s story is “happily ever after” gone tragically wrong. They found each other when she was in her late forties, and he was in his mid-fifties—when they should have had a few decades of life together. They didn’t make it to even one.

When Bob and I met we were 53 and 55, and we promptly promised each other 40 years, or at least 30. In the three short years we’ve had together, we’ve both been diagnosed and treated for cancer, and though both of our prognosis’s are good, Susan and Keith’s story reminds us that we don’t get to choose. All we can do is treasure the time we have.