Why the deaths of Isaac and Teresa Vatkin touch all of us

When a family member told us of the deaths of Isaac and Teresa Vatkin, it seemed a can't-miss story - one that would tug at everyone's heartstrings.

But it was more popular - and personal - than I ever would have imagined.

Isaac and Teresa, longtime Skokie residents, were married and inseparable for 69 years. They met and courted in Argentina, came to the U.S. where Isaac worked as a kosher meat distributor; Teresa was a homemaker and manicurist. They raised three children and were rewarded with numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren on whom they doted.

Isaac always was Teresa's protector, especially when she developed Alzheimer's disease and needed specialized care. He visited her every day.

But two weeks ago, the health of both declined rapidly. Realizing the end was near, the staff at Highland Park Hospital put the couple side by side; family members positioned their hands so they touched. "I didn't want them to be scared," their granddaughter Debbie Handler told staff writer Jamie Sotonoff. "I thought maybe if they knew the other was there, it would help."

Teresa died first. Forty minutes later, Isaac followed.

We published Jamie's story on Tuesday; through Friday morning, it remained our most-read story in a really busy news week. Other media liked it, too, and it was re-reported by Chicago newspapers, TV and radio stations; New York Post, BBC News and even Cosmopolitan magazine. Clarin, biggest newspaper in Argentina, reported the love story, too.

I have some theories on the reason for all this interest. Nothing new or original here, but in this time of all our toil and turmoil, we're thirsty for good news, and a great love story fits that bill. Another, and Jamie touched on it, is what's sometimes called the "broken-heart syndrome," when a longtime spouse dies, the other follows shortly. That was borne out in some of the online comments. "My grandparents were married 67 years. Grandma died first on a Wednesday, two weeks before Thanksgiving 1978. Grandpa died the following Sunday. They found NO excuse for Grandpa's death. I told Mother, he died of a broken heart," wrote one, followed by a similar recollection.

One other theory: The way the Vatkins' departed this earthly life is what many of us want for ourselves or our parents. After a long and happy life together, they died peacefully, side by side, at ages 89 and 91.

I'll give you two very personal examples of that desire.

Same as Teresa, my mom died from Alzheimer's, a painfully slow process that took no small toll on her principal caregiver, my dad. But he remained in good health until the night he died in his sleep at 88.

"He's what we should be shooting for," my brother-in-law said. No elaboration needed: length, quality of life and means of departure all top-notch.

Out of the blue a few days ago, my wife said to me, "Don't you go dying on me, Jim Davis."

She had just returned from a funeral where an older friend said goodbye to the wife he met late in life.

So, no, honey, I said, dying isn't on my short list right now. But it did get me thinking about how nice it would be if we could live long, live well and die together.

Just like Isaac and Teresa.

Hand in hand for 69 years in life and in death

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