Accidental activist sought to change assisted dying law after terminal diagnosis
HALIFAX -- When she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2016, Audrey Parker said she cried -- for about two seconds.
Then, the vivacious Halifax woman got on with living the rest of her life.
On Thursday, Parker's life ended the way she lived it: on her own terms.
The 57-year-old former image consultant, fashion buyer and ballroom dance instructor chose a medically assisted death, availing herself of two-year-old legislation that has already been used by more than 3,000 Canadians facing unbearable suffering caused by an irreversible medical condition.
In her final months, Parker became a public figure, speaking openly about her death and what she said was a terrible flaw in the legislation. She said the law forced her to choose to die earlier than she would have liked.
"I've shared every aspect of my journey," she said in an interview last week.
"By doing so, I've taught people about another way of dying. You don't have to roll up in a ball and wait. I've had a ball. I've had the best end-of-life experience you could ever have ... When I was diagnosed with cancer, I had a new path."
Originally from Wolfville, N.S., Parker left the small Annapolis Valley town for Halifax when she was 16. She was crowned Miss Halifax in 1982, attended the University of King's College and would later teach more than 7,500 people how to ballroom dance.
Parker also worked at the CBC as a makeup artist and floor director. She raised money for various charities and managed Mills Brothers, a high-end women's fashion store in Halifax.
"I was always good at reinventing myself, figuring it out and doing well," she said last week.
In 2015, she left her husband of 15 years and reached out to friends she had lost touch with over the years.
"My friends flooded back into my life, and four months later I found out I was dying," she said. "I just thought, 'I'm going to have a ball. I'm going to have the best life until I die."
She was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer in January 2016. Doctors said her tumours had spread throughout her skeleton.
Rather than dwell on her fate, Parker decided to embrace the idea that she could enjoy the time she had left and prepare for what she called "a good death."
She had been approved for a medically assisted death, but it could have been revoked if she had become unconscious or mentally incompetent before her final wishes were carried out.
Parker made it clear she wanted the law to be changed, to allow for what are known as advance requests -- written instructions that must be implemented even if consent is no longer possible.
"If (the cancer) gets into my brain, I might wake up tomorrow and not be Audrey," she said. "Then it's like I didn't even apply for medical assistance in dying. The law is not working."
For much of the past two years, she was in great pain, though she eventually learned how to manage her advancing illness.
"I'm dying. Does it look scary?" she said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press. "I'm just sweaty and tired. That's about it. The hardest part is saying goodbye to people."
On Thursday, Parker had planned to start the day at her Halifax apartment with a hearty meal -- eggs benedict with lobster -- followed by a gathering of a small group of friends and family, including her mother.
"I am so at peace with my death," she said last week. "(But) I am tired. I've been doing this for a while ... I don't want to suffer anymore."
In a news release, friends said that Parker's death "was the beautiful, end of life experience she wanted."
Before being administered a lethal cocktail of drugs, Parker's plan called for holding her mother's hand while gazing upon some of her favourite artworks and listening to Nova Scotia singer Laura Smith.
"And I feel that it's not the end," Parker said, making it clear that as a lapsed Roman Catholic she was hopeful to experience some kind of afterlife. "I think it's going to be exciting to see what happens."