'I watched as my parents faced their dignified, peaceful death'

Together In Life & Death: Edward Downes and his wife Joan with their son Caractacus.

It was Good Friday and Boudicca Downes had just put her three-year-old son to bed. Her husband was preparing dinner in the kitchen of their flat when the phone rang and she answered to hear the voice of her father.

“He told me that my mum had cancer,” said Boudicca, her voice wavering as she recalled the conversation with Sir Edward Downes, the world-famous conductor. “He told me of the last two weeks, of the checks mum had been having, and the various doctor appointments. And he told me the prognosis: A matter of months, possibly weeks. Then he just said, ‘so we’ve decided, we’re both going to Switzerland’.”

Letting go
Her 85-year-old father and his terminally ill wife, Joan, 74, would travel together from their London home to the Dignitas clinic in Zurich where they would be helped to fulfil their final desire — to commit suicide together. It was there that Boudicca, 39, and her brother Caractacus, 41, gripped their parents’ hands as each swallowed a single dose of a lethal barbiturate. Within minutes Edward and his wife were dead.

Sitting in the London house in which she grew up surrounded by shelves lined with thousands of her father’s books, Boudicca took a deep breath and began to explain why she had supported her parents; why she had backed not just her mother, who had only a few, painful months left, but also her father, who may have lived for a decade or more.

“Mum was not frightened of dying, but she was frightened of a living death,” she said. “She loved her life and she was infuriated by any type of illness, even a cold, by anything that sapped her energy levels because she had stuff to do,” said Boudicca. “The idea of being increasingly weak, fragile and tired in the last weeks of her life were unbearable.” Even at 74, Joan was the only person with more energy than her three-year-old grandson, Zeki.

All Boudicca wanted for the woman who had loved her throughout her life was “a dignified death involving the least suffering possible.” But what about their father? “I understand why there have to be very careful regulations to protect the vulnerable,” she said.

“In my father’s case, and I think in the case of many others, the issue is not the fact that you are about to die of a terminal illness in a certain number of weeks or months. It is that your life becomes unbearable because of physical or mental suffering. My father wasn’t terminally ill, but he was 85, he had many health problems. He was in terrible, terrible pain and had been for a long time.”

Boudicca described how hard it had been for her father to lose his sight and with it one of his greatest loves — reading. She looked around the room she was sitting in: “I am surrounded by thousands of books on every possible subject from history to art to languages to westerns. He was completely obsessed with books.” But it was not just his eyesight.

Upstairs, in another room lined with orchestral scores and tapes, stood Edward’s piano — a painful reminder to Boudicca of watching as her father’s hearing began to slip away. Though he wore a hearing aid, it distorted the sounds around him.

“For someone with my father’s ear, that was hard to bear,” said Boudicca of the man who conducted the first night at the Sydney Opera House, led the BBC Philharmonic, and worked with the Royal Opera House Chorus and Orchestra for more than five decades. “Having lived such an incredible life, he couldn’t read and he couldn’t listen,” said Boudicca. “He didn’t have a terminal illness, but without my mother his life would have been unbearable — he would have been utterly miserable. “Ten years of misery — was that really worth fighting for after such a full life?”

Unquestionably, the news that Joan was soon to die played a huge part in Edward’s decision to cut short his own life. Nevertheless, he had to make his own case to Dignitas as to why the group should help him to take his life. “The Swiss government regulates it closely. Dignitas needed to ensure my parents were absolutely convinced of what they wanted to do and they had many occasions throughout the whole process, right up to the minute before, to change their minds,” said Boudicca.

That did not happen. After 54 years of marriage; after a lifetime filled with professional triumphs and moments of joy — Edward and Joan boarded a flight to Zurich, Switzerland, for their final trip together. Caractacus travelled with them, while Boudicca flew in from her home in Rome.

“My parents were always good fun and they had no regrets. There were no last-minute confessions or requests for forgiveness. We didn’t need that.”

Joan had been reluctant for her children to be there, but Dignitas asked them to come as witnesses and promised it was something they would not regret. “It would be very strange to be anywhere else knowing that my parents were dying that Friday morning,” said Boudicca. They were given anti-nausea liquid, and after half an hour they swallowed the lethal shot that would bring their “wonderful lives” to an end. “It was calm and dignified — as they wanted,” said Boudicca.

The Guardian

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