The past week has been stunning for Leo Vatkin of Old Bethpage — not only has he been mourning his parents, who died within minutes of each other in a suburban Chicago hospital room, but he’s watched their love story go viral, picked up by news organizations across the United States and as far away as England and Argentina.
“It was kind of a shock,” Vatkin, 55, said of the fact that people have been enchanted by the story of a man and woman married 69 years who held hands from their pushed-together hospital beds on the last day of their lives. Isaac Vatkin, 91, died only after his 89-year-old wife Teresa’s hand left his as her body was wheeled from the room.
“I don’t think any of us in a million years ever expected that,” Vatkin said of the story appearing first in one Chicago area paper, then on the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday, and then being shared thousands of times on Facebook. “Sometimes you don’t realize what other people might be interested in and think is worthy.”
Vatkin, a professional wedding and bar/bat mitzvah photographer, was in the Highland Park Hospital room along with other family members when both of his parents died. His father was brought to the hospital first with influenza; his mother was hospitalized the following day with pneumonia. Hospice workers decided to wheel Teresa into Isaac’s room on Friday, when they felt Isaac would die within hours.
“We put the sides of the beds down on the inside so they could get real close,” Vatkin said. “We laid his hand on hers.”
But Vatkin’s mother surprised the family by dying first. She opened her eyes briefly late Friday night. Tears slid from her eyes. “I was standing next to her. I wiped them,” Vatkin said. Then she closed her eyes and was gone at 12:10 a.m. Saturday, he said.
“You think you’re ready for them to die because you are waiting for them to die,” Vatkin said. But the family broke into tears and hugs. Hospital personnel wheeled Teresa’s bed from the room, and Isaac and Teresa’s hands separated.
Minutes later, Vatkin heard one of his nieces gasp: Isaac also had stopped breathing. He was pronounced dead at 12:50 a.m.
“They were inseparable,” Vatkin said of his parents. He called the spotlight on their deaths “a celebration of their life.”
“If there’s one couple out there that is going through hard times and they read this, and one of the two of them sees there is hope in being together . . . this is a testament to true love. It does exist,” Vatkin said.
The elder Vatkins were the matriarch and patriarch of a family that also includes Leo’s siblings Daniel Vatkin and his wife, Theresa, of California, and Clara Gesklin and her husband, Julio, of Illinois. They’re also survived by eight grandchildren, which include Leo’s four children, three of whom live on Long Island as well. The Vatkins also had six great-grandchildren.
Vatkin and his longtime girlfriend Laura Miller returned to Long Island on Wednesday night after attending the funeral and sitting shiva for several days. Though Vatkin grew up in Illinois, where his parents were in nursing homes, he moved to New York decades ago to pursue his photography career. He took the black-and-white portrait of his parents that has now been seen around the world.