Ray Illingworth’s grown-up daughter Diane desperately wants to be strong for her 89-year-old dad, but emotion is rarely far from the surface. The legendary England and Yorkshire cricketer, who was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer a year ago, is talking about how he intends to end his remarkable life — or what he calls ‘this dying job’.
‘If I was well enough and it was during the summer, I’d like to go and watch a bit of a cricket match up there,’ he says, nodding towards the Farsley village ground near Leeds in West Yorkshire where he has played since he was a boy in short trousers.
‘Then I’d come back here and go to sleep. I wouldn’t want to go somewhere else [such as an assisted dying clinic in Switzerland] to have it done. If that was the only option I would, but we shouldn’t have to do that. I’d like to be put to sleep in peace in my own home in Yorkshire.’
Ex-England captain Ray Illingworth (pictured) has made a typically brave stand in the assisted dying debate after watching his wife’s cruel death from cancer – and being hit by the disease himself
For the best part of 30 years this home, a stone’s throw from the school where he met his wife Shirley at the age of 14, was filled with the stuff of a blessedly happy family life. But earlier this year it was a place of despair as Ray’s much-loved wife of 63 years suffered terribly in the last weeks of her life. She died ‘riddled with cancer’ in March after breast cancer had gone undiagnosed during the worst of the pandemic.
In typically understated fashion, Diane, 56, says it ‘wasn’t nice’ for anyone to watch. Her father, whose single-minded ‘we’ll bloody show ’em’ mentality helped lead England to Ashes victory in Australia half a century ago, is determined not to put his family through the same pain again.
‘I’ve always felt there’s no point in living if you have no life, but if I needed deciding, this has decided it,’ he says. ‘Shirley had a terrible time going from hospital to hospital in pain in those last months.
‘At the end she was in the back bedroom. You don’t forget those moments. I never will. We were having help — nurses coming in twice a day, things like that. She was on morphine — double doses — and couldn’t talk.
‘The day she died, I took her hand and was talking to her softly for a bit, saying, ‘Don’t go fighting and fighting if you’re in pain. You’ve had a tough time. Just go to sleep and relax. Let yourself go’. Pictured: Ray and his wife Shirley at Christmas last year
‘The day she died, I took her hand and was talking to her softly for a bit, saying, ‘Don’t go fighting and fighting if you’re in pain. You’ve had a tough time. Just go to sleep and relax. Let yourself go.’ I remember saying that. All the family were there but we weren’t sure if she could hear us. ‘I said to her, ‘If you can hear us, blink your eyes twice,’ and I remember . . .’
Ray’s jaw works back and forth and his eyes are red-rimmed. ‘She just blinked twice. I remember that more than anything. I don’t know how much she tried to let herself go or how much she fought it. What do you think, Di?’ He turns to his daughter, who has given up on trying to stop her tears.
‘You don’t let dogs go through that. You take them to the vet and let them go peacefully,’ she says. ‘I don’t know how much she did understand, but I’ve heard it said before [at the end] they can see something or someone beyond.
‘Her arm was out and she was doing that . . .’ Diane raises an arm heavenwards. ‘She could definitely see something. She was reaching for someone and we kept saying, ‘You can relax. You can go. We’ve all said goodbye.’
‘We’d ordered fish and chips for tea. That was her favourite. As the doorbell went with the delivery, that’s when she passed away.’
Tears dissolve into laughter. Ray laughs too. Humour, you sense, is how Ray’s large, loving family, which includes two children, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, have coped in the past year. In November 2020, two months before his wife’s diagnosis, Ray was diagnosed with cancer too. After 30 days of brutal radiotherapy, the family celebrated Christmas. There’s a photograph of Ray beside his wife in a paper crown with a glass of red wine and a trifle in front of him. Doctors had put him on a strict diet and advised all food should be liquidised, but this was Ray’s favourite pudding.
Pictured: Ray and Shirley Illingworth on their wedding day in Farsley Chruch, near Leeds, West Yorkshire, in 1958
‘No bloody doctor is going to make me liquidise my trifle,’ he told his family.
In truth, it’s a miracle of sorts that the tumour, which was 8cm in size, had been detected at all.
‘We hadn’t been able to see doctors for ages [because of Covid],’ says Ray. ‘But I’d gone to see the specialist for a follow-up after my knee replacement and he just said, ‘You’re looking very pale — I think we should do a blood test.’ We did a blood test that told him straight away what the thing was.
‘He rang up my doctors and said, ‘I want him in hospital tomorrow for more tests.’ ‘
The tests revealed the growth was at the bottom of his oesophagus, ‘where all the bowels and the stomach and everything join, so it’s a very difficult place to treat without doing a lot of damage to other things’, he says. ‘When I got home I said to Shirley, ‘It’s not good news. I’ve got cancer.’
‘She couldn’t believe it. She hadn’t thought I’d have illnesses like that. She thought I was fit and everything. I was always up trees, cutting the hedges and doing the gardening. I was never one for sitting here watching the telly. I’d much rather be outside doing something so it came as a little bit of a shock to her to find out I wasn’t immortal.’
Ray lost two stone during the 30 days of radiotherapy, which shrank the tumour to 2cm. Throughout the treatment Diane, who lives next door to her father with her husband, former Yorkshire cricketer Ashley Metcalfe, prepared liquidised meals and cared for both of her parents.
Ray doesn’t complain but you just know it was a miserable time. Shirley, who had suffered a stroke five years before, became increasingly frail.
‘Because you couldn’t see anybody they just kept altering her tablets,’ Diane says. ‘She struggled to get up and out of bed so I used to come round to get her up in the morning. Then, one day at the end of January, I just couldn’t get her up. They took her into hospital the next day.
‘I remember I was in the car when we got the results. The doctor said, ‘Pull over, we’ve got your mum’s tests back. She’s got cancer. Did you know?’ I said, ‘No’. They said she had it in her spine, her back and all down her leg. She’d kept saying about her leg, but because she had false knees and it was the side where she had the stroke . . .
‘They said it must have started in her breast . . . and towards the end — I don’t know how much pain she must have had . . .’
Ray turns to his daughter. His love for her is writ large across his face. ‘The best time was when the kiddies came round,’ he reassures her. ‘She was a different person when they were there running around. It didn’t matter what, she just laughed with them and it was nice to see. She didn’t spend much time laughing, but when the little ‘uns were here . . .’
The ‘little ‘uns’ are Diane’s grandchildren Oliver, nine, Luna, five, and two-year-old Seb. Oliver is a talented young cricketer who, says Ray, ‘can pick up a bat or a ball and do it left-handed or right-handed’. They rigged up cricket nets on the lawn outside Shirley’s bedroom window so she could watch him play in her last weeks. ‘They sent her home from hospital with a bed with no sides,’ says Diane. ‘So I was sat at the side of her bed all the time because she kept trying to slide her legs out. I said, ‘You can’t get up Mum.’ She was just like, ‘Why can’t I get up?’ I said, ‘You can’t. You can’t stand.’
‘To see her suffering like that wasn’t nice. She lost a lot of weight. She never talked about death, never talked about her funeral, but then she turned to you and said, ‘Are you going to burn me?’, didn’t she?’ Again, tears dissolve in laughter as she looks at her dad.
Ray laughs with her. ‘Are you going to burn me?’ he repeats. ‘There was one morning when her legs went completely. She flopped on to the toilet and she’d gone.
‘We got the paramedics here. Diane was there and [Diane’s children] Zoe and Amy all talking to her trying to bring her round, but they couldn’t and the paramedics couldn’t.
‘Eventually, I sat on the bidet by the side of the toilet, took hold of her hand and started talking to her. I was saying, ‘I’m squeezing your hand. Can you feel it?’ I spoke to her for, I don’t know, two or three minutes, maybe more. Suddenly she went ‘Ah’, like this.’
He sits up straight to demonstrate. ‘There was a big smile on her face but she never came back right again. That’s the day she should have gone. There was no semblance of human life really after that. For me, that’s the time you should be able to say goodbye.’
Three weeks ago, Ray received two targeted doses of radiotherapy to try to destroy the remains of his tumour. He will know whether or not the treatment is a success in a week, as fellow Yorkshireman Joe Root leads England in Australia, hoping to emulate Ray’s Ashes victory of half a century ago.
‘That’s when I’ll become a bit more worried if it hasn’t gone because you’ve either got to go through a lot more treatment, which I’m not sure I want to do, or you’re going to get into trouble.
‘But when I’m incapable of doing owt and I’m going to be in pain, that’ll be my time to go. I’ve had a good life. I’ve done just about everything I wanted to do so why hang on for 12 months and put a lot of pressure on our family as well?’
England’s Ray Illingworth (left) hooks as Australia wicketkeeper Rod Marsh (right) looks on during the Fourt Test of the Ashes in 1971
His granddaughter Zoe, who is preparing lunch in the kitchen, comes into the sitting room. ‘You’re not going anywhere, Grandad. You’re going to live to 100.’
She looks to her mum, who takes a deep breath. ‘You want everybody to live for ever, don’t you?’ says Diane. ‘But we have to respect my dad’s wishes. It’s his choice. He’s capable of making a decision and we have to go with his decision.’
It is, of course, unlikely Ray will ‘be put to sleep’ as he wishes in this home. Under the 1961 Suicide Act, anyone helping someone else take their own life in this country could face a 14-year jail term. Would she accompany him to an assisted dying clinic overseas?
This is not an easy conversation. Diane’s eyes swim with tears and love as she looks at her dad. ‘If he wanted me to,’ she says.
Ray is now emotional too. ‘It’s hard for them,’ he says. ‘But overall it’s better for them and better for me. I’ve mentioned it now so they all know how I feel. But you should be able to do it in a nice way when you’re ready for going.
‘I think if we took a vote of the general public, most people would be in favour of being able to say, ‘Look, I’ve had enough. I want to go now.’ Your family shouldn’t have the pressure of having to go somewhere else with you to have it done when you’re still well enough to travel and be thinking, ‘I’ve let my dad go when I don’t need to.’
‘Neither should they have to sit with people when they’re in pain right up to their death. The first time Shirley looked really peaceful was in her coffin. I hadn’t seen her like that for a month. So to see her lying there so peacefully was amazing.’ He breaks down now as he thinks about it. ‘You don’t see her as she is. You see all the years in her. From the first time you saw her in the school hallway when she kept getting sent out of class for talking too much.
‘You see her on our wedding day, on holidays in Spain, meeting me at the train station with Vicky when they hadn’t seen me for six-and-a-half months, both of us being taken to the game [on the last day of 1970/71 Ashes series] when Australia only wanted 80-odd to win with five wickets left. I remember thinking, ‘Well, my Lord, I’ve never asked for any help before, but a bit of help might be welcome today.’ ‘ The years slip from his face as he talks.
‘I know my time hasn’t come yet,’ he says. ‘I’ll see, maybe, another 12 months, but when it does come I’ll know. I’ll think, ‘This is my time.’ I’m sure of that. Once the dying job is done, who knows what happens next. I believe there might be some sort of life after death. I hope I’m right. I might meet up with the old girl again.’