Written by Jenny Smiechowski, staff writer for The Birches
Ask anyone what they remember most about Jack and Madeline Cavenagh’s 69-year marriage and they’ll give you the same answer—dancing.
Whether it was in the kitchen of their Oak Park home while their nine kids peeked through the doorway or in front of their friends and neighbors at The Birches’ “senior” prom, Jack and Madeline loved to dance.
“They just really loved each other. They’d walk around the hallway holding hands. And any time there was music they’d get up and dance with each other,” said Birches Activities Assistant Nai Cooks.
Madeline Cavenagh moved to The Birches’ memory care neighborhood Encore in May of 2014 when her Alzheimer’s became serious enough that she needed round-the-clock care. Jack moved into his own apartment at The Birches a few months later because, after more than six decades together, he couldn’t be without her.
Every morning, Jack left his apartment on The Birches’ second floor and joined his wife Madeline in Encore. They’d do activities together, go for a walk, and, of course, dance whenever the opportunity presented itself.
They danced during The Birches’ weekly “happy hour.” They danced when musical entertainers came. They danced whenever the mood struck them—especially Madeline.
“She would dance for 40 minutes nonstop,” said Jack and Madeline’s daughter Mary Schlesser. “Dad would take a break, and she would keep going. Then he would join her again when he could, because he knew how much she loved it.”
Jack spent his time at The Birches devoted to his wife Madeline’s happiness. But of course, his devotion to Madeline started long before they became Birches residents. It started in 1947 when mutual friends fixed them up on their first date.
“I don’t think they ever dated anybody else after that first date,” said Mary. “They were so devoted to each other. That’s what made their marriage special.”
According to Mary and her sister Anne Cahill, Jack and Madeline were always sneaking away to spend quality time together.
“When we were kids, my brother made a skating rink in the backyard, and my sister Lizzy woke up one night because she heard laughing. She looked outside, and my mom and dad were couples skating around in the backyard,” said Mary.
Even with his demanding career as a cardiologist, Jack found time to check in on Madeline and her large brood during the day. And he never missed a family dinner.
“He would stop at home between patients to see how mom was doing. He came home every night for dinner. He’d help get the kids ready for bed. Then he’d go and do office hours,” said Anne. “Whenever he came home, you could see a little spark in my mom’s eyes.”
Once Madeline developed Alzheimer’s, Jack devoted his time and attention to taking care of her. He learned how to cook. He helped her get dressed every morning. Eventually, it was more than he could handle by himself. But even after they moved to The Birches, Jack found little ways to demonstrate his devotion to Madeline.
“When they’d do activities together, if Madeline couldn’t do something, Jack would do it for her. He always put Kleenex in her pocket and put her sweater on her,” said Encore Resident Assistant Jemima Omfori.
Unfortunately, Jack died from complications of pneumonia in 2018. But Jack and Madeline were devoted to one another until they very end.
“They always showed affection to each other. That never ended. He’d always hold her hand,” said Encore Resident Assistant Brenda Garcia. “He took really good care of her.”
Just before Jack died, their daughter Anne decided to bring her mom to the hospital. By this point, Madeline’s Alzheimer’s was bad enough that Anne wasn’t sure how her mom would respond. Her sister Mary thought the experience might scare Madeline. But they thought it would be good for their dad to see their mom one last time, so they tried it. And the second Jack and Madeline saw one another, they lit up.
“He was able to hold her hand, and he just gazed at her,” said Anne.
In the end, Anne and Mary were grateful their parents—two people so completely in love and devoted to one another—had the opportunity to say goodbye. They were also grateful that they had the opportunity to witness such a special love between two very special people.
“We were very lucky to have them as our parents,” said Anne. “They were a great example.”
The team at The Birches feels lucky to have known Jack and Madeline too. “Dr. Jack” (as he was lovingly called) was a lively, stimulating presence in the community during his four years at The Birches. And Madeline is still a smiling, warm part of The Birches’ memory care neighborhood Encore.
“Jack and Madeline inspired everyone here through their love and affection,” said Birches Executive Director Jackie Sander. “We’re thankful we got to witness their wonderful devotion to each other…and their wonderful dancing!”
Ready to read more touching stories about the lives of Birches residents? Click “follow” at the top of this post to get Birches blog posts delivered to your inbox.