For Gail Rich, the deaths of her daughter and son-in-law were heartbreaking. But she doesn’t consider them a tragedy.

“It’s a love story,” she said.

Rich’s daughter, Sandra, and son-in-law Donald Cragin of Standish were found dead in their home Jan. 24.

So far, police have said only that their deaths are not considered suspicious. The cause of death is still pending results of toxicology tests by the state medical examiner.

But Rich said the family knows the couple took their own lives. Their bodies were found a week ago by Sandra’s brother, Michael Sullivan, during one of his regular visits to the couple.

Donald had left a note on the front door, which was unlocked, telling Sullivan to come inside.

There, Sullivan found his sister neatly tucked into the couple’s bed, with Donald lying alongside her, on top of the blankets, his hand gently resting on his wife’s. She was 55 years old and he was 65.

Rich said the two most likely took pills, although she doesn’t know which ones. Sandra left notes for everyone in her family, including her husband, leading Rich to believe that her daughter didn’t know Donald planned to follow her in death.

“He couldn’t live without her,” Rich said.

Those who knew the Cragins best described them as inseparable, with a devotion to each other that only deepened in the decade or so since Sandra was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, an incurable hereditary illness.

FATHER DIED OF SAME DISEASE

Huntington’s, which afflicts about 30,000 people in the United States, is particularly cruel, combining the worst symptoms of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Sandra had watched her father, John L. Sullivan, die of Huntington’s, which causes nerve cells in the brain to break down. Sullivan was diagnosed in the mid-80s and died in 1991, Rich said, and Sandra knew well the ravages it inflicted, from Parkinson’s-like loss of motor skills, cognitive problems similar to Alzheimer’s, and the steady muscle deterioration seen in those who suffer from ALS.

Sandra had been her father’s legal guardian, Rich said. Because Sandra and her siblings helped care for their father, who ended up dying in the veterans hospital in Togus, she knew what challenges she and her husband would face after she was diagnosed with the disease herself about 10 years ago.

Chris Cosentino, director of communications for the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, said most people who contract the disease are diagnosed in their 30s or 40s – when Sandra learned she had it, she was in her mid-40s. He said most people die within 15 to 20 years of the diagnosis and, at the end, its debilitating symptoms means sufferers typically require around-the-clock care in a nursing home or institution.

“They can’t eat, they can’t speak. It’s both a physical and mental disease,” he said. “The cognitive side is often the worst. In late stages, they need 24-hour care.”

Rich said Sandra was determined that wouldn’t happen to her, and she and other family members knew what she would do to avoid it.

“One time, she asked if I would be awfully angry if she left this life, and I said, ‘No, Sandy, you have to do what you want to do,’ ” Rich said.

The couple was three weeks away from their 31st anniversary when they died.

‘SOMETHING SPECIAL’ TOGETHER

Sandra’s brother Michael introduced the two in 1985 at a summer camp that Rich operated in Limerick. Michael Sullivan and Donald Cragin were co-workers and friends, and Michael thought Donald was a good candidate to be a brother-in-law – although Rich said he wasn’t actually too picky about which of his sisters Cragin ended up with.

“My son tried to interest him in any one of his (four) sisters,” she said.

Donald and Sandra hit it off from their first meeting, and were married on Valentine’s Day 1986. They initially lived in Standish, where Sandra worked as a dental technician and Donald worked with an electronics company. Eventually the couple moved briefly to California and then to North Carolina, where Donald worked as a safety technician for a company that installed heating, cooling and ventilation systems, and Sandra took up breeding and raising Havanese terriers.

The couple’s devotion to each other was clear to everyone.

“He and Sandy had something special,” said Jim Turkett, who was Donald Cragin’s supervisor at Environmental Air Systems in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Turkett said Donald Cragin’s life revolved around work and Sandra.

It was in North Carolina where Sandra was diagnosed with Huntington’s, Rich said. Sandra’s daughter noticed she had trouble climbing the stairs, had trouble remembering things and had developed facial tics.

The family was devastated to learn the diagnosis, Rich said.

Then one day early last year, Turkett said, Donald came to him.

“He just looked at me one day and said, “I’m going to take her home,’ ” Turkett recalled.

The couple moved back to Maine and into a house that Gail Rich owned on a big lot on Shaw’s Mill Road in Standish.

A neighbor, Donna Sincyr, said she would often see the two outside the house this past summer.

Like herself, Donald Cragin was a “lawn warrior” who couldn’t be bothered with a big riding mower on the large grassy lot and preferred a push model. Sincyr said Sandra would often ask her along on a walk.

Even in the few months they lived in the house, Sincyr said, it was clear that Sandra’s illness was progressing. Still, she tried to walk and stay active.

Rich said one odd feature of her daughter’s illness was her continued ability to ride a bike and maintain her balance, even in the last year. But as soon as she got off the bike, Rich said, the illness would cause her arms and legs to flail again.

VISITING RELATIVES TO SAY GOODBYE

Sandra continued to fight against the disease, even though she knew that it would ultimately be futile.

“She considered herself a soldier,” Rich said. “She didn’t fool herself, but every day, she said to herself that she was going to beat it. But you can’t overcome Huntington’s.”

In November, the couple drove west to visit their children and grandchildren. Their son, Derek Cragin, has a daughter and lives in Utah. Their daughter, Savannah Wilke, is married, has a son and lives in Missouri. Both declined to be interviewed.

Rich said her daughter knew what was ahead and saw the visits as her chance to see her children and grandchildren one last time.

The trip out west was tiring, Sandra told her mother, but rewarding.

“Sandy was just lit right up” after the trip, Rich said. “But every day, it was progressing.” Rich said she doesn’t know precisely why her daughter and son-in-law decided to end their lives when they did, although she suspects it was because Rich and two of Sandra’s sisters would be out of town, so they wouldn’t find the bodies. The three had gone on vacation to Florida the day before Michael found them, she said.

Sandra’s note to her simply said that she was “in a new body now and at peace,” Rich said.

She’s comforted knowing that Sandra and Donald made the decision on their own about how and when to end their lives.

“They lived, and loved, on their own terms,” she said.

Children born to those with Huntington’s have a 50-50 chance of getting the disease. One of Sandra’s siblings also has the disease, said one of her sisters, Shannon Sullivan. She declined to identify the sibling.

Rich said neither of Sandra’s children has gotten tested to see if they have the disease.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]