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Halifax woman sets terms for death

Inside her Halifax home Friday, Audrey Parker displays the Chanel purse she plans to have her cremated remains placed inside. Parker has terminal cancer and plans on an assisted death at a time of her own choosing. TIM KROCHAK • THE CHRONICLE HERALD
Inside her Halifax home Friday, Audrey Parker displays the Chanel purse she plans to have her cremated remains placed inside. Parker has terminal cancer and plans on an assisted death at a time of her own choosing. TIM KROCHAK • THE CHRONICLE HERALD - The Chronicle Herald

If it all works out, Audrey Parker’s last minutes on this earth will be spent in the king-sized bed in her north-end Halifax apartment, or maybe in a bed in the city’s soonto- be-built hospice which, if time allows, she hopes to decorate.

The first injection from her nurse practitioner will put her to sleep. The second will paralyze Parker, who was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer in early 2016. The third injection will stop her heart.

“I have a strong heart, so it could take a while,” she told me Friday.

However long it takes, when her last breath comes Parker hopes to be holding hands with her mother and her friends, who have helped her to the end of her journey.

She hates thinking about how the tears will flow in that room. Other than that, the 57-year-old isn’t scared of a damn thing.

“I am excited to see what happens,” she said. “I can’t wait to see if I just die or if my spirit goes somewhere. I can’t wait to find out.”

We all, on some level, have the same question. We just want to learn the answer at some point as far into the future as possible.

Parker is different. When her cancer was first discovered in her spine she cried “for about two seconds” and hasn’t cried since.

Instead, the former Miss Halifax 1982 and one-time rhumba and cha-cha champ, who has been a television makeup artist, businesswoman and image consultant, “decided to lean in and accept my fate, but to go out with a bang and make sure that I live the best life that I can.”

Parker is not going to lie: The marijuana and the Dilaudid help with the pain which, at its worst, is akin to her nerves being on fire.

What has also helped is finding a way “to take control over a lot of the little things” which, Parker says, “makes me feel in control of a situation . . . which I have zero control over.”

By the “little things' she means stuff like getting her affairs in order and her will up to date.

A lot of people, myself included, would feel the job done at that point.

But Parker knows what is being served at the celebration of her life (sparkling wine and strawberries dipped in chocolate) and at the after-party (lobster sandwiches and sushi).

She knows, following her cremation, the vessel in which her ashes will be stored — a vintage Chanel bag purchased in Paris — and even where they will be sprinkled: under a memorial bench somewhere in the city so those who loved her can sit right there on some sunny summer day and have a conversation with their old friend.

Those people are legion. Some 60 of them have signed up for Arms Around Audrey, a community forum set up to support Parker when she needs a little help to get through the day.

This relationship is hardly a one-way street. I’ve known her for less than an hour and already feel that I’m a better person for having met someone who declares a terminal diagnosis “a major gift” because it has enabled her to prepare for death, to say her goodbyes, and to fill the time that is left right to the brim.

So how must it feel to really know a woman who seems without bitterness over having her life cut short?

“We don’t get to decide it,” Parker, who wears her blond hair shoulder-length, her jeans distressed and her slippers emblazoned with cocktail glasses, says when I ask why she’s not angry. “Some people are meant to stay on the Earth a long time and some are not.”

Though she was brought up in a baptist home in Wolfville and both of her ex-husbands were Catholic, she’s spiritual but not religious.

Life is a journey, she says, and everyone’s has a purpose. Hers, Parker believes, is to share her experience and get people talking about dying.

She does that in many ways. By acting as a spokeswoman for the Halifax Hospice.

And simply by telling anyone who asks that having terminal cancer isn’t necessarily a death sentence — she’s already lived more than two years beyond her original diagnosis — and that “you can choose to be ‘woe is me’ and have a terrible end of life experience, or you can be like me.”

This is how eager Parker is to share her story: A journalist is supposed to be among the people there with her when she dies. “I’ve shared everything,” as she puts it, “why not share the end of my life?”

She’s not sure when that will be. A few weeks back when she wasn’t using her pain meds correctly, she said that she had the feeling of “death upon me.”

On her bad days Parker says that she’s tired. Tired of all the pain and drugs and doctors’ visits.

“Once it is joyless and I’m in pain all of the time, I’m out of here,” she says.

But on the good days, while there is still time, she wants to go to every party, to have coffee with her friends, to see the people she loves and who love her.

It’s like she is living her life according to the glass-encased maxims I notice hanging on her wall: Listen to Your Heart, Shine Bright, most of all: I Choose Fabulous.

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