Isaac Vatkin cared tenderly for Teresa, his wife of 69 years. When she began having memory problems more than a decade ago, he fed her and made sure she ate right. He washed her clothes and bathed her. He brought her to Mayo Clinic and enrolled her in research trials.
Only when he couldn’t lift her any longer did he agree to place her in a memory-care facility.
In his 80s, Mr. Vatkin mastered a computer so he could go online to search for breakthroughs in Alzheimer’s disease research. As recently as a year ago, he dreamed of getting an apartment where they could be together.
So when they died within 40 minutes of each other Saturday, after holding hands in their shared hospital room, it seemed fitting that Mr. Vatkin, who’d been such a loving caregiver, didn’t stop breathing until after his wife.
Teresa Vatkin, 89, died at 12:10 a.m Saturday at Highland Park Hospital. Her husband, who was 91, died around 12:50 a.m.
“The moment he felt we removed her hand from his, he was able to say ‘OK, I’m done protecting her. I can go and rest as well,’ ” said their son Daniel Vatkin. “The ultimate in chivalry — so he could go to heaven and open the door for her.”
Their children said it appeared his chest stopped moving as her hospital bed was rolled from the room.
“I’m not an overly religious person,” said another son, Leo Vatkin. “But there’s no explanation.
“His hand was on top of hers. He was trying to breathe. And then, as they wheeled her out, his hand was hanging over the bed. I turned around, and he wasn’t breathing anymore.”
“I saw it with my own eyes,” said the couple’s daughter Clara Gesklin. “All of a sudden, when their fingers separated, he just stopped breathing.”
“He never wanted to do anything apart from her,” Leo Vatkin said.
“We don’t get to see that often, and to know we helped the family all be together at the end, they all got teary-eyed,” clinical nurse manager Dianne Frank said of the hospital staff.
Mr. Vatkin, whose parents were from the former Soviet Union, was born in Montevideo, Uruguay. He grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His future wife lived in the coastal city of Mar del Plata — at the time an eight-hour drive. During their courtship, he wrote her beautiful letters three times a week, their children said.
They were married in 1947. She called him Alberto — the name he took to avoid anti-Semitism in Argentina — and he called her Tere. He worked as a leather maker, crafting purses, wallets and belts with beautiful stitching and buckles.
In 1968, the family moved to Chicago, joining Isaac Vatkin’s siblings, who’d immigrated before them. Mr. and Mrs. Vatkin began learning English in their 40s. He bought a refrigerated truck from Phil’s Kosher Meats and reinvented himself as a distributor. He’d buy meat, mostly veal, from Chicago slaughterhouses and distribute it on the North Side and North Shore, Leo Vatkin said.
They settled in Skokie, joined Congregation Kol Emeth and also began investing in apartment buildings.
“He put us through college, he paid the home off,” said Leo Vatkin. “They were never the fancy-car, the fancy-house kind of people. My dad had work ethic, honesty, doing the right thing.”
“My mom was always about family, taking care of the children,” he said. “When they got off the schoolbus, [she thought] somebody should be there for them.”
With her grandchildren, “She’d ask, ‘What did the children have for breakfast?’ ”
From his father, Daniel Vatkin said, “I learned what it is to be a husband. Not once ever was there a disagreement in front of the kids.”
As Mrs. Vatkin’s memory problems and medical needs grew pronounced, her husband reluctantly conceded he couldn’t care for her alone. Their children placed her in a memory-care facility. He fretted about her constantly.
“My mom was his world,” Daniel Vatkin said.
He started having memory problems of his own, granddaughter Debbie Handler said. To lessen his worry, his family moved him to a facility close to her.
Last weekend, he was admitted to Highland Park Hospital with influenza. Soon after, Mrs. Vatkin was admitted with pneumonia.
Administrators agreed to move them into the same room around 3 p.m. Friday.
“I grabbed my dad’s hand and put it on my mom,” Daniel Vatkin said.
“We weren’t really just watching their monitors anymore,” their granddaughter said. “We were watching them. We put their hands together.”
Other survivors include Mrs. Vatkin’s sister Yolanda Vatkin, who married Isaac’s brother; Mr. Vatkin’s sister Maria Gluck; eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
“It was really a love story,” their daughter said.
“I’m sure they’re already dancing above us,” Leo Vatkin said. “They’re already dancing the tango.”