Isaac Vatkin always cared for his wife, Teresa. Even as his own death approached, he clung to life as his wife's health, too, began to deteriorate.
On Saturday, when they were both unresponsive and breathing shallowly, the staff at Highland Park Hospital wheeled the longtime Skokie residents, who had been married for 69 years, into the same room and put their beds side by side.
Family members positioned their hands so they touched.
"I didn't want them to be scared," their granddaughter Debbie Handler said. "I thought maybe if they knew the other was there, it would help."
Teresa, 89, died first. Minutes after they separated the couple's hands and removed Teresa from the room, Isaac, 91, passed. They died 40 minutes apart.
"Their love for each other was so strong, they simply could not live without each other," their daughter, Clara Gesklin, said during their joint funeral service Monday at Shalom Memorial Funeral Home in Arlington Heights.
It's not unusual for long-married couples to die in quick succession, or even close family members, a recent example being Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher. It's sometimes called "the widowhood effect" or "broken heart syndrome" in scientific studies. But rarely does it happen minutes apart, as it did with the Vatkins.
"It's a coincidence. Or is it?" Handler said.
Family and friends gathered Monday to remember the couple's beautiful love story. They met in their native Argentina and, because they lived far apart, communicated by writing letters. They eventually married and came to the U.S., raising three children. Isaac started with nothing but built a successful business as a kosher meat distributor. Teresa was a homemaker and manicurist. They had close, loving relationships with their children and grandchildren.
"They were always in love, literally to the end. To the last second," said Rabbi Barry Schechter, who led the service.
The eulogies mentioned Teresa's sweetness and perfect nails, and Isaac's strong work ethic; he could learn how to do anything he set his mind to.
When Teresa developed Alzheimer's disease, Isaac, who was in his 80s, learned how to work a computer so he could research the condition and possible cures. He was desperate to help his wife and stubbornly fought the children when they suggested Teresa move out and get specialized care. After he finally gave in, he visited her every day, still wanting to take care of her.
Family members took some comfort in knowing that they died together.
"You didn't want to see them go," said grandson William Vatkin, "but you couldn't ask for anything more."