The date is Dec. 25, 2009.
A happy family gathers around a steaming meal. There are laughs and smiles and stories from a lifetime spent together.
It is your generic Hollywood Christmas dinner. Almost. Only the solitary silence of a middleaged man betrays the scene. Ten years ago, his thick English accent joined in the family banter. Now he is quiet, withdrawn from the business of the holiday.
The man is obviously medicated, but there is nothing particularly ominous about dinner or this holiday. There are no premonitions, no warning signs that within 24 hours, everything will change.
A really happy time David and Susan Miller were an unlikely match from the start.
At the age of 20, Susan worked at the Vancouver Stock Exchange as just one of two female stockbrokers in a workplace traditionally dominated by testosterone-fuelled men.
A continent and an ocean away, David was a country boy with a country accent working as a stonemason in a tiny English village.
They met after Susan burned out of her fast-paced job and travelled to David's village, where her relatives ran a pub. Love and a daughter followed, as did trips to Canada.
Susan's mother, Jean Anderson, remembers one of David's visits to her home, when she lived in Vancouver.
"He stood looking out of the sitting room window at the expanse of lights and the Lion's Gate Bridge and he kept saying 'By gum!'" In the mid-90s, and with their daughter Lee (not her real name) still a toddler, the pair packed up and moved to Chilliwack, where Susan had grown up.
The Millers made their home in Ryder Lake. Susan began working as a clerk at a local credit union, while David quickly found that his stonemason skills were just as in demand here as in the United Kingdom.
And despite his mother-in-law's concerns that he wouldn't adapt to a moreurban environment, David-funny and jovial-melted into his new extended family and community with ease.
"It was just a really happy time," Susan's sister, Debbie Milne, remembered.
At Christmas time, David could be found in the backyard, playing soccer with a clan of children. He would wear silly hats and back up his mother-inlaw when she declared that, to the protests of her children, sprouts really were quite delicious.
"It sounds a bit Norman Rockwell to families today," Anderson said. "It wasn't remarkable in any way."
David's personality changed At first, the symptoms were subtle. "If something was going to break, it was going to happen when David had it in his hand," Milne said. "We always thought he was clumsy and a little bit off balance, physically."
But as the calendar ticked over to a new millennium, David's clumsiness grew worse and was joined by changes to his once-ebullient personality.
Probing for a cause, the symptoms led Susan to begin exploring her husband's family history. David's father had died at a rich old age and had visited the couple in Canada. But Susan learned that David's mother had shown signs of an unknown illness before she passed away in England.
"The word in the village was that the mother was odd, before she died," Anderson said. "Nobody in the village, even the doctor could not determine [why]."
The trail of clues eventually led Susan and David to the world-renowned University of British Columbia's Centre for Huntington Disease, where clinicians positively diagnosed David with Huntington's.
It was not good news.
While David's diagnosis gave him access to medication that could effectively treat his symptoms, it was also an unambiguous death sentence.
Huntington's disease is a brain disorder that causes the brain to degenerate, robbing a person of their mental and physical faculties. There is no cure: eventually and inevitably, the brain decay causes medical problems that kill the afflicted person.
"It was devastating," Milne said of the diagnosis. "Life as everybody knew it stopped suddenly."
David-or the person he was becoming-would eventually become unable to work, unable to drive, unable to do many household chores.
When David stepped out to smoke a cigarette, Susan would grow worried that he wouldn't remember to return inside.
During this time, Susan-who, over the preceding years had climbed the corporate ladder to become the manager of wealth management at Coast Capital Savings-appeared her "usual bubbly self" to her family.
But as David's condition deteriorated-and as he became a different person-Susan spent more and more time outside the house. And although she was being looked at to carry an increased load for her family,
Susan's own brain was in turmoil: only much later, when they cleaned out her car, would Milne and Anderson learn that Susan had been prescribed medication for bipolar disorder.
Allowed to leave hospital In December of 2009, David was hospitalized after he reported feeling unwell "in his head," according to Milne, who visited him there. She said David asked hospital staff to hold him until they could adjust his medications.
While he remained at Chilliwack General Hospital in the week leading up to Dec. 25, David was allowed to leave for Christmas Day.
Jean said David was "very, very withdrawn and obviously medicated" at Christmas dinner. But other than David's diminished presence, the evening proceeded as normal. Fourteen years later, Jean remembers a discussion with her daughter about facials and spas.
That night, David returned to the hospital, while Susan and Lee returned to their home. Within 24 hours, the couples' Ryder Lake home would be a crime scene.
The broad strokes of what happened the following day, Boxing Day of 2009, are not in dispute.
David was permitted to leave CGH and join Susan and Lee at their Ryder Lake home.
Around dinner, David picked up a kitchen knife, walked into Susan's bedroom, and stabbed her in the chest. He then found Lee and told her to call 9-1-1. David then sat down on a deck outside the house, and waited for the police to arrive.
When emergency personnel showed up to the house, they found Susan in "severe medical distress." She died later that night from her injuries.
Putting the pieces back together That night, an unmarked car pulled up in front of Anderson's home and everything changed, again. In the weeks, months and years after Susan's death, her family would find themselves trying to reassemble their lives.
For Milne and Anderson, that meant caring for Lee and mourning their deceased sister and daughter. It also meant—to the consternation of some—paying for the legal defence of Susan's killer.
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