After 38 years where "Every day was a love story" this couple died on the same day
“Lost Lou. I’m to follow. Love, Dad.”
John Duignan sent that seven-word email at 7:37 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017, to five people.
Four were his children — Kathleen, Margaret, Renee and Jason. The fifth — David — was someone John considered a son.
Kathleen saw it first and told Margaret.
Margaret called Renee, who was getting ready for work in her St. James, N.Y. home.
“Have you spoken to Dad?” Margaret asked.
“No. I spoke to him on Sunday.”
“Well have you checked your email?”
Renee found the email in an old account.
The daughters were frantic by now.
They phoned their mother and father.
There was no answer.
Renee called David Justini, her father’s boss and a family friend — he had received the fifth email — who lives in Bluffton.
David hadn’t seen the email, but he drove to the couple’s Sun City home to check on them.
The fire department, paramedics and the police were already there.
The blue mailbox
John and Louise “Lou” Duignan met in Plainview, N.Y., in 1979 and married in 1984.
Both had been married before. Both had two kids. John’s were Kathleen and Margaret Duignan. Lou’s were Renee and Jason Cuocco.
Only Renee and Kathleen wished to speak for this story.
John and Lou, according to those who knew them, lived the sort of love story that Hollywood makes movies about, Renee said.
“The Notebook” comes to mind.
Maybe “Romeo and Juliet.”
But “What Dreams May Come” seems the most fitting to Renee.
What’s certain to Renee is that John was in love with her mother from the moment he laid eyes on her.
Because he told her so.
In the spring of 1979, John saw Lou delivering mail every day to the blue postal box on Newtown Road in Plainview. He watched her from the window of the office where he worked as vice president of sales for a fastener company.
Her beauty captivated him, Renee said.
It took him weeks to work up the courage to walk to that blue mailbox at the same time.
Lou wasn’t “in the mood” for John’s pitch, Renee said.
But he was, after all, a salesman, and he convinced her to go out with him.
His powers of persuasion aside, he still couldn’t believe she said “yes.”
What they have
Renee was 12 when her mother married John.
The afternoon ceremony took place in the backyard of their Dix Hills, N.Y., home. More than a hundred people attended the ceremony and the party that followed.
She doesn’t remember their vows.
She does remembers the way they looked at one another.
“I was watching in awe,” Renee said. “It makes you want what they have.”
Renee also remembers dancing and smiles, and her parents feeding one another a slice of their three-tiered, pink-and-white-frosted cake.
“You just saw the love he had for her. He was smitten by her,” Renee said. “It was like two high school kids very much in love, when they have that sparkle in their eye.”
John moved in with Lou, Renee and Jason.
John and Lou “weaved” together. They gelled.
More than that, they made each other better people, Renee said.
John was an extrovert, a sociable man, a problem solver — and the family’s rock, Renee said. Kathleen remembers him as outgoing, always surrounded by people.
Lou was a “firecracker” — strong, smart and witty — with a tendency to tell people exactly what she thought. If she didn’t like you, you knew it, Renee said.
Courtney Ross, John’s niece, said John and Lou had opposite personalities — Lou was the “yin” and John was the “yang.”
But the connection John and Lou had was palpable she said. So real that strangers on the street could likely tell they were in love from the way they walked and looked at one another.
Lou knew her worth. So did John. He put her on a pedestal.
She was his bride. That’s what he always called her, for years after that backyard wedding.
“Everyday was a love story with them,” Renee said.
Even colleagues noticed.
Arthur Tsavaris, the current owner of the fastener company, met John in 2002. Two things stood out about John: he was a hard worker, and he “lived for Lou.”
“John would say, ‘Oh, I just love that woman so much!’” Tsavaris said. “Just out of the blue.”
Over the years, John and Lou traveled with the kids to dude ranches. They danced the Twist and the Waltz. They read together.
They were perfectly content to sit silently in one another’s company, Renee said.
And they were always there for one another.
When Lou was sick one summer, John sent her a dozen red roses everyday for a week. One day he brought a singing telegram.
“He just wanted to make sure she was comfortable, safe and warm,” Renee said.
Lou put her heart into John’s gifts, too.
She wrote him beautiful cards for most occasions, Renee said.
They’re on her list of things to gather when she comes back to Bluffton.
An obvious love
In 2004, John and Lou left New York for warmer weather.
With the kids grown and no one at home, they wanted a change.
Bluffton and Sun City were the right fit. The area was “decompressing” for them, Renee said. It was a fresh start both mentally and financially after John sold the fastener company.
Down south, they spent time with Max, their tuxedo-patterned rescue cat. They visited Coligny Beach on Hilton Head.
Lou worked as a senior fitness specialist in Sun City. John was in the Sun City Veterans Association, something he was passionate about after having served in the U.S. Navy.
Lou acted as a personal trainer for residents. Joel Serkes was one of her clients. He’d moved to Sun City in 2009 and worked with Lou for six years until just before she retired in 2015.
For thirty minutes twice a week, Serkes and Lou talked as she guided him through his exercises.
Once she went out of her way to research ways to help him when he developed back problems.
He and his wife, who saw a different personal trainer, felt close enough to Lou to give her a Christmas present each year.
Lou often talked about her kids and John. It was clear, he said, that John and Lou were happy.
John went right back into sales after moving to Bluffton, working for David of Porch Outfitters in Ridgeland. David became an extension of their family.
David declined to be interviewed for this story.
John also served in the Sun City Veterans Association color guard, where he was known as a friendly, down-to-earth guy, according to Dan Peters, executive officer for the organization who’d met John in 2012.
Peters is certain about this:
John was proud of his kids, especially Kathleen, who is in the U.S. Coast Guard.
And he was “head over heels” in love with Lou.
The severity of things
During their thirteenth year in South Carolina, John and Lou’s health began to falter.
In August 2017, John, then 75, was in a car accident. Glaucoma had begun to affect his eyesight. Doctor’s orders meant he could only drive within Sun City.
His car was hit head-on while driving there, Renee said. The airbag deployed, blackening his eyes and leaving him with a mild concussion.
After the crash, his eyes and overall health began further decline.
That decline may have had more to do with anxiety than the car crash.
His bride was not doing well.
In September 2017, at 70, Lou had a pacemaker and defibrillator implanted. It was meant to be an outpatient procedure, but she was hospitalized for four days, Renee said.
A distraught John watched as she flat-lined four times.
He was, Renee said, simply in shock.
Renee spoke with John on the phone while Lou was hospitalized. She told him she wanted to come down to visit.
John insisted she not.
That upset her.
But it was something else that he said that upset her more.
“There’s no reason to live if I lose my bride and my eyes,” John told Renee.
He had said something like that a month before, something about not knowing what he would do if he lost his bride. It seemed like an off-hand comment and it didn’t scare Renee the way the hospital phone call had.
Lou had been complaining of pain for the last four years, Renee said. She had indigestion and couldn’t keep certain foods down.
But medical personnel never checked her heart until it was too late, Renee said.
Or maybe they did and John and Lou simply decided not to tell their children.
“I think they were protecting me,” Renee said. “They didn’t want me to see the severity (of things).”
Renee said her grandfather on her mother’s side passed away from heart disease at about the same age.
Renee thought she’d have at least another ten years with her mother.
What she and her siblings didn’t know was that their mother had less than a year to live.
The last time
After Lou’s procedure, John didn’t leave her side.
He didn’t even leave the house.
Paperwork piled up — and that just wasn’t like him.
His handwriting became scrawled and shaky.
Renee called them to check in often. She didn’t text much because looking at the phone screen would put a strain on her father’s eyes.
She called them on Sunday Nov. 19.
John answered his phone the way he always did: “How’s my beautiful brown-eyed girl?”
The two were playing Scrabble, John said.
They talked about Renee coming down for Christmas.
They asked her not to be disappointed because they weren’t putting up a tree this year.
They were too tired.
Renee didn’t care about the tree.
She planned to help her parents get organized, help them sell one of their cars because they didn’t need two, and talk about her moving down south to take care of them.
But Renee remembers hearing anxiety in her father’s voice.
She remembers him calling Lou his “lovely bride.”
Lou was on the call briefly, but said it was getting hard to breathe, so she got off.
The entire conversation lasted 15 or 20 minutes.
“He wasn’t himself,” Renee said. “He was pushing me off the phone. … I guess she must have been really bad and he wasn’t telling us.”
It was the last time she’d ever hear their voices.
Every emotion at once
John said he couldn’t live without his bride.
On Nov. 22, 2017, the world learned he meant it.
Lou died around 6:30 a.m. of natural causes. It’s unclear if she passed in her sleep, but she was lying in the bed of their Sun City home.
John called security and told them his wife was not breathing at 7:43 a.m., according to Tom Yurkin, Sun City’s chief of security.
Six minutes before that call, John sent the email:
“Lost Lou. I’m to follow. Love, Dad.”
He lay down next to his bride and took his own life.
Renee tries to imagine what was going through her dad’s head that morning.
Grief, love, fear, the feeling of abandoning his children. All of those emotions at once, she suspects.
He may have felt he failed Lou. He had, after all, promised to protect her, to keep her safe.
Renee thinks he may have called Sun City security — rather than 911 — to give him time for his final act of what can only be called love. Had he called 911, police would have come right away. As it was, they arrived two minutes after John’s security call.
“I think he honestly felt he couldn’t live without her,” Renee said. “He had no purpose. There was no reason.”
According to the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office report, John and Lou were found side-by-side in the bed.
David told an investigator at the time that Lou had been sick for two months and had shown no signs of improving.
John, David said, had devoted himself to being her caretaker, despite the toll it took on his health.
“He made it very clear how much he loved Lou and could not live without her,” David told investigators.
A neighbor said he last saw John and Lou on Saturday Nov. 18, four days before their deaths. They chatted about cleaning gutters and drains, the sort of mundane things neighbors always chat about.
Lou went for a walk.
John seemed concerned about his worsening eyesight.
Neither said anything about how bad things really were.
It felt dark
Renee never thought she’d lose her parents so early.
Or that she would lose them both at once.
On Thanksgiving 2017 — the day after they died — Renee and her three siblings went to their parents’ home.
It felt dark, as if the spirits that had brightened it before were gone.
She wanted to visit for the holiday, but her mother told her that because it was such a busy travel time, she didn’t want her to come.
John and Lou had planned to spend Thanksgiving at David’s.
“Maybe she might have known,” Renee said. “And that’s why she didn’t want me to come down.”
But in the end, she did make the holiday visit, now under the most terrible circumstances any child could face.
On the kitchen table was Lou’s health ledger, where she recorded her blood pressure and made notes about how she felt.
Two days before she died, she felt fine. She always drew a smiley face when she did.
The day before she died, she felt nauseated and cold in the late morning.
In the afternoon, she wrote that she was having heart palpitations and was “really, really tired.”
A sense of loss
Serkes said John and Lou’s passing was a shock to the community they called home.
There was a sense of loss, he said, especially to those who worked with Lou.
“It’s kind of like a “Romeo and Juliet,’” Serkes said. “I guess he just didn’t want to face life alone.”
A memorial service was held at St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church in Bluffton. Serkes couldn’t attend because he was out of town and had not yet heard about the deaths. He said many Sun City trainers and clients went, though.
JoAnn Pearson was one of Lou’s former clients, although, it was only for three sessions five years ago.
She often ran into Lou at the gym and the two forged a connection, chatting about their lives and families.
Pearson said it was clear Lou loved her husband; she once said she was looking forward to retiring so she could spend more time with John.
Peters, who knew John from the veterans association, said he still drives by John and Lou’s house when he patrols for the Sun City security department.
What used to be a stop to check in on his friend is now a painful reminder of losing him.
“Talk about true love,” Peters said. “He was head over heels. He just didn’t want to go on without her.”
A love beyond life
A week after her parents’ deaths, Renee went for a jog in New York.
She could feel the sun on her face that 60-degree day. It reminded her of John because the two were always outdoors together.
She felt a warmth that surrounded her.
That’s when she said she heard her father’s voice.
“We’re OK,” he said. “I will take care of your mother.”
Renee said the voice urged her to care of her brother, to “make sure everything’s OK.”
The voice offered some hope.
“You will be fine,” it said.
Then it was gone. Renee stood in the sun and wept.
She sees similarities in her parents’ story and the 1998 film “What Dreams May Come.” In the movie, a man dies in a car accident and his wife takes her life because she can’t bear to be without him.
Renee thinks her parents’ love transcends this life and will go on in another, the way it does in the movie.
Beyond her pain, she knows they’re OK.
Little things serve as constant reminders of them.
Sunday mornings when she has her coffee before she goes to the gym, she thinks of them.
She misses the phone calls, the texts.
Black cats remind her of her mom.
The pain doesn’t lessen, she said.
But she’s coping.
She hopes to one day find the kind of love her parents had.
“They couldn’t live without each other,” Renee said.
“The love they had for each other is so enormous.
“It lives beyond life.”