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It’s impossible to know what to expect when you’re meeting a stranger to discuss her impending death, especially one that she has scheduled because it’s the only way to stop the cancer from completely stealing her reins.
I’m Jessica Leeder, The Globe and Mail’s Atlantic Bureau Chief, based in Halifax, and I was unusually jittery on the late October morning that I set out to meet Audrey Parker. I braced myself to absorb a lifetime’s worth of regret, sorrow, fear and anything else that might ooze out during her deathbed interview.
Parker, who lived in Halifax, thrust herself onto a national stage to advocate for assisted dying reform in her final days. I have been replaying our interview in my mind for months now, not because of how much it drained me but because of how much it filled me up.
I expected Parker would talk about how to die well. More than that, though, she wanted to pass on her prescription for how to live happily.
“I’m on the outside looking in. When I see all my people, I don’t see a lot of happy faces,” she said, effervescent and slugging a tall can of Red Bull to keep her energy up. “My friends are stressed and tired. But I love myself. I’m leaving as my best self.”
This was not by happenstance. In the wake of a divorce and a devastating diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, Parker flirted with dipping into a pit of despair. But then she decided to make the most of the rest of her life.
“We have to have more courage to set our lives up. I just set my life up to be happy,” she said. “I’ve worked really hard in these last few years to try to be the best I could be. I’m still terrible with money and men,” she said, laughing.
“But I feel really good with who I’ve become in the end. You have to keep working on your self-love.”
Facing death forced Parker to confront the invisible things women often do to ourselves – and to one another – that, intentionally or not, inflict pain and damage, and decided to scrub them from her life. The first step, she said, was becoming her own ally.
“Most people talk to themselves in a very negative way. I don’t have inner dialogue with myself about myself,” she said. “I used to do it. But it’s so detrimental. I found it really affected my self-respect.”
Katie Horwitch, a writer and “self-talk shifter”, says our habit of indulging in “casual negativity” – calling ourselves fat or silently berating ourselves for being too sensitive, for example – is so widespread that it has become a “cultural epidemic.” She has even set up an online platform (WANT: Women Against Negative Talk) to teach us how to battle it (I love this post she wrote called “Breaking Out Of Self Doubt”).
When Parker dropped the habit, she also scratched negative people from her life. “I surrounded myself with really good friends,” she said. “I kept searching for my people until I found them.”
This isn’t easy to do, particularly with all the spinning plates that accompany midlife. This is also the time so many of us realize that meeting “friends” through work or on the bleachers at the kids’ 6 a.m. hockey practice doesn’t always lead to the sort of platonic fireworks necessary for lifelong kinetics.
Journalist Abby Ellin describes an inspiring and intriguing alternative in this New York Times piece: women joining intergenerational social groups designed to address this gap in our social fabric.
An easier step forward for many of us might just be to audit our tendency to make what the writer Ruth Whippman has dubbed “The Little Comment.”
She writes, “You know that you are dealing with a ‘Little Comment,’ as opposed to just a comment, when on hearing it you feel a stab of either irritation or self-loathing (or more often, an uneasy blend of the two).”
Whippman says these are most commonly traded between mothers and daughters. But what she is onto has a non-familial counterpart. The “Little Comment 2.0” creeps up on me when I am in benign-seeming conversations with other women who are curious about who tends to my kids when I work long hours.
I tell them my husband takes a turn; they inevitably say something like, “Oh, you’re so lucky.”
I’d feel luckier if women didn’t make each other feel like going to work was a luxury we ought to be grateful for.
Let this be the year that we all recognize how we pull each other down and, instead, switch gears. Let’s lift each other up.
Audrey Parker would be proud.
What else we’re reading:
“I loved the crackle of champagne, its hot pine needles down my throat.” This is how the author and recovering alcoholic Leslie Jamison begins to describe her love affair with booze. When I read those words in an excerpt of her new memoir my mouth actually watered. I, too, love that crackle of champagne (and the warmth wrought by one and a half glasses of a big, bold red and the mental levity that flows from a generous glass of very chilled summery white). I don’t abuse alcohol, per se, but I have become more conscious of how easily I can justify a drink just about any night of the week. Wine used to be for weekends. But that was many, many dye jobs and boxes of diapers ago. I don’t really know why that changed or why it feels so hard to go back. I’ve begun to explore my relationship with alcohol – if for no other reason than to make it less reflexive and more intentional. In case you want to join me, here is some booze-related reading that asks why some of us love it, what it does to us and what life is like without it.
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