• Tuesday, February 27, 2024
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I knew my parents were going to kill themselves


For more than two decades, Tai Altman knew exactly how his parents’ lives would end. When the moment came to say goodbye, knowing they were about to kill themselves, he felt surprisingly calm. They had prepared him in every possible way, he says: he knew only that he respected their decision and didn’t want their last memory of him to be tears streaming down his face. “They were in their bedroom,” he says. “Dad was in his chair, Mum was sitting on the end of the bed. I said: ‘I love you. Goodbye.’ Then I went out of the room, down the stairs and left.”

Tai left his parents’ home in Oxford that day and spent the night at a hotel in Luton: next morning, he flew home to Inverness. The postman had delivered a letter from his parents. “You know what we’ve been planning and the time has come,” he read. “Call our GP and tell her to let herself into the house; the side door is open.”

For Raphael and Tamar Altman, sending that letter was the penultimate act of their lives. The final one was to swallow a lethal draught they had bought on the internet. When their doctor, alerted by Tai, entered their bedroom, she found Raphael, 69, dead in his chair and Tamar, 72, beside him on the bed with her head on his shoulder and her arm across his chest. In their diary for that day they had written one word: “Depart”.

Last week, four months on, the inquest into the Altmans’ deaths concluded with a verdict of suicide. Today, Tai, 43, is remembering his parents and telling their story, and his own. He doesn’t want them to be remembered solely for the manner in which they died and yet it’s clear that their end was rooted deep in their lives. For many years, much of their thought and focus was on the way it would occur. From all Tai says, it’s clear his parents had to work very hard – especially at the end – to ensure that not only would they die as they chose, but that he and his sister Tanyah would not be implicated in their deaths.

Raphael and Tamar’s marriage was, says Tai, a union of opposites: he was quietly solid, an instinctive intellectual, she was chatty, arty and passionate. Both were raised in Jewish families, Tamar in New York City and Raphael in Cape Town. Neither was a believer, but Judaism was culturally important to them and they met in Israel after both gravitated there in their teens.

It was the 1960s and the couple seemed to have been made for hippydom: in Tai’s photograph albums they smile out from under long, flower-strewn locks and gaze at one another as they strum guitars in their flared trousers. For a while they lived in a commune in Formentera, then Tamar got pregnant and they moved to London so she could give birth before heading back to the beach. In naming their son, they consulted the I-Ching, the book of changes, an ancient Chinese classic text, for inspiration: Tai means “peace approaching”.

 Later, they returned to Britain where, now a family of four, they moved into a caravan in the grounds of the country-house headquarters of a philosophical commune, the School of Economic Science. “They were living the Sixties dream,” says Tai.

When he was five and his sister Tanyah was three, they moved to Great Milton in Oxfordshire, to the house in which, almost 40 years later, they would die. Raphael enrolled at Oxford University as a mature student of theology, working as a cleaner to make ends meet. Tamar worked as an occupational therapist before retraining as a counsellor. At some point in the midst of their busy, bookish, music-filled lives, they became aware of the campaign for assisted suicide and decided it was a cause they very much believed in. They joined several right-to-die organisations including Exit and Dignity in Dying, and Tai, by then in his 20s, realised what was in their minds. “They didn’t ever sit me down and spell it out, but there were plenty of comments here and there about the right to choose to die, and Mum made it very clear that if Dad decided to go, she was going too. She said life without him would be a life not worth living.”

At the time, though, it seemed unlikely that Raphael would die first. His mum, says Tai, was often ill: she had neuralgia, joint problems, arthritis and eventually diabetes. Her physical problems led to psychological issues such as anxiety; through it all, Raphael was her rock. It was obvious within the family that Tamar couldn’t live without Raphael, but no one imagined she would ever have to.

Then, in summer 2006, Raphael was diagnosed with a form of lymphoma called Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia. Ever the researcher, he threw himself into finding out everything he could about this rare condition, even as the doctors hooked him up to chemotherapy drips. And as quickly as it had descended, the threat of illness seemed to lift: he rallied, and enjoyed three years of reasonably good health in which he and Tamar cruised on the Norwegian fjords and holidayed in the Lake District. “They knew they didn’t have forever and made every moment count,” says Tai.

Everyone in the Altman family knew last summer would probably be Raphael and Tamar’s last; Tai and Sarah took the children to Oxford to see their grandparents and they have photographs of the couple sitting in their garden smiling at Hannah Rose and her brothers playing at their feet. Raphael hadn’t given up hope of a new drug or a treatment trial that could help to keep him alive, but he was now heavily involved in planning the end: Tai would receive email after email telling him which estate agent they should use to sell the house, where to find bank information, and which magazine subscriptions would need to be cancelled.

By: Joanna Moorhead