Dancing just a memory, but couple whirl in Hospice Dream
If this were 70 years ago, Dick Milano and Milly Cleveland certainly would have answered the call of the jitterbug. A couple of hep cats back in the day, they cut a rug on the dance floor.
"Oh, he was a very good dancer," Milly says, recalling that night in 1942 when she first saw Dick in his Army uniform. "He was in the service at Jackson, Mississippi. That's where we met."
Working at the General Electric light-bulb factory in her Mississippi hometown, Milly liked to go dancing when her night shift ended. So did Dick, a northerner from Somerville, N.J., who was a young sergeant stationed in Jackson. They both liked the rooftop dance hall of the Hotel Heidelberg.
"It was a very popular place to go," remembers Milly, who was popular in her own right.
"He asked me to dance and then somebody else broke in and danced with me," she says with a laugh at the memory of Dick's reaction. "He made sure to let me know he wasn't happy about that."
Dick and Milly danced away many nights on that roof to Big Band music. "Jitterbug? Oh, heavens yes," Milly says. Then Dick got orders for a new assignment in another state.
"He kept asking me if I'd go with him, and he would not take no for an answer," says Milly. "We didn't know each other too long, but because it was during the war, you either did or you didn't."
They did, getting married on May 15, 1943.
"After we got married, I followed him for five years. I was certainly not disappointed I married him," Milly says. "He was a soldier in every way. He took very good care of me."
Their relationship continued to grow on the dance floor. "We'd always find the USOs wherever we were," Milly remembers.
The couple, who lived in Bloomingdale until health problems forced a move, don't dance anymore. The ravages of age and illness on both their bodies have kept the couple from even visiting each other. Dick, 91, has Alzheimer's and needs a wheelchair to leave his Chicago nursing home. Milly, 94, lives with their daughter Vicki and her husband, Jeff, in Marengo.
Because of health problems, Milly and Dick hadn't seen each other for two years, says Kansas Swain, director of Hospice Dreams, a nonprofit charity that grants wishes for people with terminal illnesses who are receiving hospice care. When they heard about Dick's dancing past, the Hospice Dreams board decided to make it happen again.
"We've been putting this dream together for a few weeks now," Swain says, explaining how the story of Dick and Milly touched people. "It was so visual. They used to go out to all the clubs."
The couple did so again Sunday night as guests of honor at FitzGerald's, the music club in Berwyn, where the Chicagoland Grandstand Big Band played the songs to which Dick and Milly used to dance. Dick's blue eyes that won her over seven decades ago seemed to lose their fog when Milly, who uses a walker, came up to him.
"When he saw me, I think he thought he had seen me someplace," Milly says, adding that she is pretty sure Dick recognized his bride. "At moments, we think maybe he did. He would sort of let you know when you were holding his hand. There was a connection."
The moment clearly was special for Milly, who gushes her thanks to Kaitlyn Henderson, communications manager for Hospice Dreams and others who helped organize the event.
"We all got to see him," Milly says, explaining how Dick met with Vicki and Jeff, grandchildren David, Paul and Alyssa and great-grandsons Ryan, 5, and 16-month-old Cooper. "When we got to FitzGerald's, his little great-grandson Ryan had been waiting and waiting. He couldn't wait to see Papa."
Not able to communicate verbally, Dick pinched his great-grandson on the cheek. "Ryan, he's trying to say he loves you," Milly assured the boy.
"We want to strengthen family bonds and create lasting memories for the family," Swain says.
Giving the entire family this night with Dick was a "great night" and a blessing, Milly says.
When the difficult decision came to put Dick in a nursing home a few years ago, Milly remembers how they'd play the old Big Band music and Dick would "take his walker and dance with it."
Sunday's last dance reminded them not about what they no longer can do, but about what they were lucky enough to have done.
"That's one thing we can say: We did have a good life. Thank God for that," Milly says. "Of course, there comes an end to everything."