Rafi and Tamar Altman, friends of mine for 20 years, committed suicide together.
In their modest, middle class house in Great Milton they both drank a potion of poison and died in each other’s arms, Tamar with her head on Rafi’s shoulder and her arm around his chest.
I thought I knew them well in life. I found I knew them better in death.
Their son, Tai, sent me the news. “I know that my mother in particular was quite active on your BBC Radio Oxford programme many years ago, and I believe that you got to know her and my dad on a personal level.
“My dad was diagnosed with Lymphoma in 2006 and since then has been dealing with what that disease throws at you. They had seven pretty good years until very recently when the cancer finally got into his brain and started to shut down his motor control.
“My mother had always said that she would stay with him right to the very end, and that end was on October 3.
Tamar and Raphael Altman with their children Tanyah, six, and Tai, nine, in 1980
They went together in peace, without pain, but with dignity – and they were very great believers in having this choice.”
Travelling from Scotland, Tai visited his parents at their home last autumn. “We got Dad out of the hospital on the Monday. He couldn’t walk, couldn’t support himself, couldn’t get out of his chair on his own onto the commode.
“He was unable to use his left arm. All this happened almost overnight. I knew it was close to the end.
“I did a lot of crying because I knew what was going to happen. I was sobbing, but that’s not an environment I wanted them to spend their last days with, so I went into facilitating mode. It was shocking, upsetting and sad for me, but it was happening to them so I helped in every way I could. They spent two days saying goodbye. I told them there was nothing I felt I had missed out on in life; there was not a single bit of regret in terms of telling them what I wanted to say. I had known for a long time what the end would look like. I’d done my grieving over an extended period, particularly this last year, so I was as prepared as I could be. I kissed them and said they had been good parents and I felt honoured to have had them and the values they had given me would be passed to their grandchildren. I wanted to give them a feeling that they would leave something tangible behind.
“I left them on Thursday, October 3, and they died later that same day. They sent an email asking me to contact their GP Dr Lynda Ware and said the door was unlocked so she could get in without having to break down the door. That email triggered the chain of events.”
It rained throughout the funeral at the Fairspear Natural Burial Ground in Leafield as a group of us huddled under umbrellas; but the words of celebration were bright and clear.
One tribute was written as the couple lay dying. “And today, our dear friend is dying – or has passed, together with his life’s love. They remain together. They are choosing each other’s presence to celebrate and close their lifelong love story, a sacred love that knows allegiance only to giving.”
One friend of nearly 43 years wrote of “their love so glorious and palpable, irresistible and compelling. Rafi’s calm, acute intelligence coupled with Tamar’s passionate affair with life on the planet equally compelling.
“She always said he was her ‘life teacher’. Indeed, she did not forget to do the ‘good thing’ for an old friend even in her last moments before she lay down next to her husband on their last night here with us. She sent me love and strength and sent her last goodnight and goodbye wishes flying through the airwaves on an email.
“Who else would have had the presence of mind and generosity of spirit to stop for a moment, in the midst of preparing for such a momentous journey, to think of and write to an old friend?”
During this celebration of their life and love the rain poured down on the two wicker caskets holding their corpses, caskets that seemed to loom too large, blocked out too much light in the landscape.
When they were lowered into the earth we covered them with flower petals.
On the drive home I thought of that last night when Tamar and Rafi were left alone to get on with it as best they could. The ending to this love story could have gone so horribly wrong. As Tai said: “There are a lot of ‘what ifs’ but most would have been allayed had it been legal.”
I also remembered conversations with my own GP, Ann McPherson, before she died of pancreatic cancer. Ann talked of “the possibility of now being able to see dying as something to be respected and celebrated as a finally fulfilling experience rather than a technological failure”.
She wrote in the British Medical Journal: “Why can’t people have a rational discussion about assisted dying?
“Why can’t assisted dying be available in Britain for those who want it as a choice? And why, oh why, is the BMA opposed to physician- assisted suicide and euthanasia? “Surely now we are a culture that has developed enough humanity to provide the choice and still protect the vulnerable.”