Bob had been a committed campaigner for 18 months, ever since he returned from Dignitas after accompanying his wife Ann there in February 2014, after she was diagnosed with progressive supra nuclear palsy (PSP). So when I received the call it didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. He had been politically active all his life (once arrested for chaining himself to a railing when he was involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and I assumed, coming a few weeks after the General Election, he’d managed to already talk to his new MP.
“I’ve got cancer” was Bob’s reply when I asked him how he was.
He had always been straight and upfront with everything, and he began telling me what had happened. After having a slight pain in the side of his body, he went to the hospital and was abruptly told it was most likely Mesothelioma; a lung cancer that was probably caused by being in contact with asbestos when Bob was a carpenter in his teenage years.
He was hoping to have at least a year but the devastating news came – after confirmation of the cancer – that his prognosis was three months. He began making plans for Dignitas and was talking about going in the end of September.
Bob had done a tremendous amount with the campaign as soon as he joined. He spoke to his regional paper on his return, telling them about Ann and their life, and also her decision to control her own death. He wasn’t worried about the police, Bob knew he had done the right thing for his wife. He began the process of setting up a local group in Chester (where he had moved with Ann a few short months before she died) and travelled down in the early hours of the morning to be at our demonstrations outside Parliament, remembering to buy a pink scarf on the way after taking our suggestion of colour coordination very seriously and realising he didn’t have any pick clothes.
Being so involved with the campaign, and being a campaigner for his whole life, I can see why Bob didn’t want to be another voiceless statistic. A statistic that people sometimes brush off as small and insignificant. Even so, it was not an easy decision by any means. Bob was adamant that he wanted to do the most he could to help others in the future, and so after deciding to go to Dignitas he spoke with The Sun and ITV. For those who knew Bob he was a straight-talking northerner who wouldn’t shy away from anything, but was also very private. Even in the last few weeks of his life, when the pain had become almost unbearable, he still put on a brave face not wanting to worry his friends or the nurses.
But he felt he had to take a stand and anything that would change the law he was willing to do. That’s why he publicly spoke out.
His plan had been to go in September, but his condition deteriorated rapidly. In what his friends describe as a mirror image to Ann, every week you could see him getting worse and worse. I noticed the difference in the space of a few short weeks, and the last time I saw Bob he could only manage a few minutes of speaking before having to rest. He was in constant pain that couldn’t be controlled all of the time, despite the tremendous efforts of his care team. How he made the journey to Dignitas I don’t know, but it must have been unbearable. In the last weeks he had in Britain he couldn’t leave his house, except to go to Hospice for radiotherapy. Bob loved good food and had tried to go to a pub for lunch a few weeks ago, but as soon as he walked through the door had to go back home. Imagine someone in that condition going to the airport and flying to another country.
His friends were a constant presence of support. Living in different parts of the country they travelled back and forth to care for Bob and made sure he wasn’t alone. From right at the beginning when he was diagnosed, continuing all the way to Zurich. They also have shown tremendous bravery. Knowing the risks, they were as strong-willed as Bob. They respected his wishes about his own death and they also respected his drive as a campaigner and his decision to go public. It is one of the many cruel facets of the current law that his life-long friends, who have shown nothing but compassion, are now technically at risk. I think it is obvious to everyone that they should be allowed to grieve and left alone upon their return.
I only knew Bob in the last 18 months and his campaigning for assisted dying is only one part of his varied life. He was a keen mountaineer, a carpenter, a dedicated trade unionist with a spell in the Communist Party, a Town councillor, was Secretary of CND Cymru and later in life built and ran a successful guesthouse in the Welsh mountains. His friends will know more. I am just grateful for the time he dedicated to our campaign.
This job can be hard. We are fighting to change the law for the better, to give dying people choice, and for everyone when the time comes – but the reality is that people still die.
Opponents sometimes say that we don’t know about the reality of death, but they’re not the only ones who are with people when they’re dying. I thought Bob would be one of the people outside Parliament when we hear the law has finally changed, but he won’t.
Instead I now hope that when the law is changed, we’ll look back at Bob and realise that this was the moment we decided we could no longer ignore people’s suffering. It’s just a shame that Bob won’t be there to see it.