Dying man’s final wish: Romantic dinner with wife of 46 years

It took prodding to get Nancy Vannucci to look backward, but she did it because she is polite. She has been so focused on the present lately, and on the certain future her husband faces, that the past seems so far away.

She and Robert worked at the Dunes, she said. She was a telephone operator, he worked the front desk. One day, he sent her a note through the hotel’s pneumatic tube messaging system. Go out with me, he pleaded. She paused, of course. They were both kids, barely 20 years old. But she said yes.

They were married a little more than a month later in 1967.

“It was love at first sight,” she said. And then she laughed. “His mother about had a heart attack.”

Now, after a lifetime spent raising children and sticking together, Nancy’s health is failing; Robert is dying. Some days, he can barely walk. He sleeps almost constantly, and he never leaves the house.

Except on Tuesday, he did just that. With help from the National Hospice Foundation, the couple went to a nice dinner at Nora’s Italian Cuisine, which used to be one of their favorite places. It was probably their last time out as husband and wife.

“I deal with it just by loving him, and taking care of him each day that we have together,” she said. “I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but I do know he and I are going to live each day that we have.”

The limousine pulled up outside Nora’s a little after 4 p.m. The driver got out first, followed by Nancy, who is 65. Robert, 66, needed help with his walker and the oxygen tank that helps him breathe.

“It’s my soul being taken away from me,” Nancy said. “We’ve been together for so long. He’s a good man.”

Robert’s health got much worse earlier this year. Nancy knew something terrible had to be wrong. She took him to the doctor. They ended up at the Cleveland Clinic.

The doctors settled on a brain disease, either Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease or Lewy body dementia. It didn’t matter which one. He’s too far gone for effective treatment. Neither is curable, and both can lead to loss of control of the body and the mind.

The social workers at Nathan Adelson Hospice knew about Robert’s condition, of course. He has been under the hospice’s care for several months now. Hospice patients typically have less than six months to live. Some spend their remaining days within the hospice’s facility, while others receive home care.

Karen Rubel, the hospice’s director of development, said the National Hospice and Palliative Care Association recently came out with a new program. It’s similar to the familiar Make a Wish program. In this one, hospices can apply to have one of their patients live out a final wish.

Nathan Adelson’s people nominated Nancy and Robert.

“This means so much,” Nancy said.

They had three children over the years. They volunteered with the Little League and at church. Robert eventually worked his way up to casino management, including being president of the Riviera on the Strip.

But Nancy said the family “lost everything” a few years ago after the bankruptcy of the Riviera Holdings Corp.

Nora’s, she said, was a rare treat in recent years.

The last time they were there, she said, was almost a year ago on her 65th birthday.

“He’s so looking forward to this,” she said in the hours before their limousine ride. “To him, it means everything.”

Contact reporter Richard Lake at rlake@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0307.

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