Wearing her favourite cocktail dress, Zoe Marley-Hyatt uncorked a bottle of Krug champagne and sat down to share a drink with beloved husband Andrew.
It would be their final moments together.
For after the pair sipped bubbles, Andrew drank from a tankard of lethal drugs which would end the torment of his terminal cancer.
As tears streamed down Zoe’s face, Andrew said: “You’re still such a beautiful woman.”
Astonishingly, this heartrending situation was not new to Zoe, 54. For less than three years earlier she had given her blessing as her terminally ill mother took her own life too.
Zoe said: “Cancer takes you away in tiny bits until you are left lying there in pieces.
“Andrew had seen my mother suffer and he knew how torturous cancer could be. It could strip away every last ounce of dignity.”
Zoe faced hours of police questioning over her mother’s death and was left feeling like a criminal. She is now backing a law to allow the right to die.
© Tony Buckingham/ UNP 0845 600 7737)
On Friday the Assisted Dying Bill passed its second reading in the House of Lords – after a sombre statement in which Labour peer Frank Field, 79, revealed he is terminally ill and pledged his support for a new law. The final decision rests with MPs.
Zoe said: “No one should be criminalised for wanting our loved ones to have a worthy and comfortable death.We still seem obsessed with keeping people alive.
“Sometimes palliative care drugs drag out a life someone doesn’t want to lead. We need to open up the conversation around dying.
“We are simply saying, give people choice. To change the law is going to take anyone affected to stick their head above the parapet and talk about the reality for thousands of people. That’s why I’m sharing my story.”
Dentist Andrew, 72, took the decision to die in June after a slow, painful decline from colon cancer, which was diagnosed in July 2019.
Zoe, of Cromer, Norfolk, tearfully describes their final moments together.
She said: “We drank together and said our goodbyes. Then Andrew filled a tankard with a mix of a lethal drug he’d managed to get hold of and drank it.
“As a dentist, he knew how much to take and how long it would be before his whole body was repressed. I held his hand and watched him slip away, just as he had wanted.
“It was extraordinary painful, such a huge mix of emotion. But the year of his death was full of horror, pain and indignity because the law couldn’t support his wish to die.”
Assisted suicide is illegal in the UK. But no Brit has been prosecuted for accompanying a relative to Switzerland to take their life at the Dignitas clinic.
Campaign group Dignity in Dying estimates between 300 and 650 terminally ill people take their lives each year, with 6,500 attempting to do so.
Zoe, a holistic therapist, met Andrew when she was 25 and they have a daughter Isabelle, 26.
After a blissful marriage filled with laughter and his love of poetry and guitar-playing, he was diagnosed with aggressive colon cancer, which had spread to his liver. The grim news came 11 months after Zoe’s mother Judith, 75, ended her life.
The retired florist lived with Zoe and was diagnosed with lentiginous melanoma – skin cancer – in January 2018.
A lesion on her heel was cancerous and the disease spread to her groin and brain. Zoe said: “Mum said from the offset she didn’t want to suffer at the end of her life.
© Tony Buckingham/ UNP 0845 600 7737)
“She hated the smell of her lesion as it worsened. She said, ‘I smell of death’. The first time she overdosed was in our garden – a place she found comfort as she loved flowers. When she came round she was so angry. She never swears but she said ‘I couldn’t even f***ing kill myself’.”
Judith tried again a month later – in August 2018 – and succeeded. Zoe adds: “The day she died I took her hand and said, ‘Mum, whatever you choose to do, I will support you’.
“She put her arms around me. She said, ‘When you were a baby I’d put my arms around you and I knew you were special – but I didn’t know just how special. Thank you’.”
It was Judith’s plight that drove Andrew to “take control”, said Zoe. She went on: “The day he ended his life I was changing him – something he detested and felt embarrassed about.
“He’d go to the point where his whole body had swelled up with an edema and he couldn’t do his personal business by himself. He told me, ‘This is humiliating and degrading’. He said, ‘My life is wretched. Your life is wretched’.
“He had said, ‘If it gets to a point where I don’t want to go on, I want a plan’. I said, ‘This is your choice. I am here to support you, as your wife’. But after he died, when I phoned the GP and the funeral directors came to take his body away, I felt like a criminal.”
The GP signed the death certificate remotely. It wasn’t so simple with Judith. Zoe said: “Despite her leaving obvious notes for family members, police interviewed me for hours.
“It felt like an interrogation yet she’d made me her power of attorney and made her intentions to everyone, including the doctor, very clear.
“I had to wait for an inquest for six months – wondering if they were going to come knocking at my door. Fear hung over me. I lost a stone through stress.”
Zoe said Andrew was worried she or daughter Isabelle would get into trouble over his death. Under the 1961 Suicide Act, helping someone take their own life can carry a 14-year jail term.
A Dignity in Dying poll reveals just over half of Brits have seen a loved one suffer, while 70% urged Parliament to back the Assisted Dying Bill.
But Care Not Killing, an alliance opposed to legalising assisted suicide, claims a law change will place “huge pressure, real or perceived” on people to end their lives prematurely.
Chief executive Dr Gordon MacDonald said that in Oregon, US, six in 10 people who ended their lives cited the fear of being a burden on their families. In Canada 1,400 cited loneliness as the reason for assisted dying last year.
Dr MacDonald said: “It is disappointing a small number of campaigners and some politicians continue to press for assisted suicide, obscuring the wider debate about how we care for the most vulnerable and how we improve access to palliative care.”