Annie Parker Decoded
Annie Parker Decoded is the personal memoir of a woman who, after losing both her mother and sister to breast cancer at an early age, went on to survive three different cancers herself. Annie and
Annie Parker Decoded is the personal memoir of a woman who, after losing both her mother and sister to breast cancer at an early age, went on to survive three different cancers herself. Annie and other family members were among a small group of North American families tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. After waiting almost two years, she learned that she carries the gene mutation and now actively promotes awareness and genetic testing.
Her story was the inspiration behind the movie, Decoding Annie Parker.
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I Am Fourteen
I am from a place where almost everyone, at one time or another, has called his or her mother, Mum. I am from the cold Arctic air, and where we celebrate Thanksgiving the second Monday in October. My hazel eyes are sometimes brown and sometimes green. I am the child of two souls deeply in love. I am from a land where we spell color c-o-l-o-u-r and favorite f-a-v-o-u-r-i-t-e. I am from the place of maple leaves; from a home with delicious cooking; from my Mum’s loving care and from being my Daddy’s little girl. I am from 57 Methuen Avenue, which contained a particularly narrow staircase. I am from being guided by faith; from thoughtful nurturing; and from sea to sea, A Mari Usque Ad Mare. I am from hockey, from growing up with two older siblings, and from happiness. All rolled together, these things make me: Annie.
Joanie, my older sister, was ten years my senior. She had always been one of the most popular girls in her class and was loved wherever she went. She was my idol and I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. Joanie taught me how to dress fashionably and how to be confident. She used to say to me, “Annie, walk like you are projecting the radiant colors of the northern sky.” Joanie taught me how to have fun and she took care of me with dedication. Joanie loved me and I loved her.
My brother Doug was four years older than me. After Joanie got married, when I was ten years old, Doug and I had the same routine Monday through Friday. After school, we played outside until dinner; we cleaned up the kitchen after the evening meal and then we did our homework. On Saturday evenings we watched hockey, ate popcorn and drank a soda. On Sunday nights we watched The Wonderful World of Disney and then The Ed Sullivan Show. Doug had really cute friends—I always thought so anyway.
My parents had high moral standards, and much of their social life revolved around our church—Humbercrest United—but they also knew how to have fun. They had lived in the same house, and the same neighborhood in the west end of Toronto, for most of my life. The second Saturday of every month, my parents and their local friends gathered to play the card game Euchre.
The evening’s competition was not only at the card table, but in the kitchen as well. Cooking was where the wives would try to outshine each other by producing the best meal. This was especially so for my mother. “Irma,” some of the ladies would exclaim, “you must have spent all day in the kitchen; you have got to give me this recipe.”
“Oh, it was nothing,” my mother would say modestly, even though she had just spent all day in the kitchen. Mum was always trying to come up with new, delicious dishes that she had never made before, and my father appreciated her cooking enormously.
She was a stay-at-home mum, and each evening when my father got home from his work as the manager of a sales team, “Toots” (as my mother was nicknamed) would have his favorite end-of-the-day snack ready for him: a beer and a plate of cheese and crackers. Irma did everything for Ralph.
The most remarkable aspect about my life was how unremarkable it really was. Day in, day out, it was a much-loved routine. When Joanie’s marriage broke down, she and her son Tim moved back in with us. Three-year-old Tim shared a room with Doug, and Joanie moved back into the bedroom we had shared.
I was no longer the youngest in the house, and it was my responsibility to take care of Tim, because Joanie had a job in a department store. I would pick Tim up every day from the babysitter on the way home from school. I loved having someone to take care of, but I also sometimes resented the fact I couldn’t go the Dairy Dell where all my friends met up in the afternoon. My social life wasn’t great, but I was still happy.
One particular Friday, however, will be etched into my mind forever: September 17, 1965. It was an exceptionally chilly day for that time of year, and it also happened to be my parents’ 24th wedding anniversary. First thing in the morning, Mum had laid a beautiful dress out on her bed, along with her pearl necklace. She was preparing early for an evening out with Dad at their favorite restaurant, The Old Mill. A beautiful bouquet of gladioli, my mother’s favorite flower, was on the kitchen table—my father’s anniversary gift to his Irma.
We were all sitting around the table eating breakfast—Joanie was having a grown-up conversation with Dad—when Mum stood up and tried to hurry us along. “Let’s go,” she said. “I want to make it to my hairdresser’s appointment on time.” We didn’t feel the need to rush and continued to enjoy our breakfast while Mum went upstairs. A moment later the ceiling directly above our heads shook like thunder.
Dad and Joanie looked desperately at one another, as if reading each other’s mind. Dad got up and moved quickly toward the narrow staircase, Joanie one step behind. Before she started up the stairs, Joanie bellowed out, “Doug, stay downstairs and under no circumstances let Annie come up.” As she climbed the stairs, her voice was softer when she added, “Tim as well.” I had never heard my sister take such a tone with either of us. For the first time, I felt the full force of the difference in our ages. She was a grown-up, and she spoke with authority and total control.
What was only a matter of minutes seemed like hours. I’m not sure where my mind went for those next few moments, but the noise that brought me back to reality was the piercing sound of an ambulance siren. My heart felt like it was pounding out of my chest. My brother and I didn’t say one single word to each other the whole time. I kept mumbling, “Please no, please no.” But the siren only got louder and louder. Then it abruptly stopped just outside our door. For a split second, everything was silent again, and it was like I was waiting for the big climax in a scary movie. I jumped as the front door swung open.
Two men with stark white shirts and black pants rushed into the house, pushing a stretcher between them that looked like a hospital bed on wheels. “What’s that for?” I asked Doug. “It’s a gurney,” he answered.
I never realized what a hindrance a narrow staircase could be. How were they going to get the gurney up to the second floor? I thought: Don’t they ever think about these things when building a house? My mind was swirling, and I could see the harsh glow of the ambulance’s red light spinning around and around on our living room wall. It was like a lighthouse beacon guiding ships to safety. But I knew there was no safety at 57 Methuen Avenue, not on this particular day.
My mother died that morning from what I was later told was a secondary cancer. A secondary cancer!? I didn’t even know my mother had a first cancer! The final realization hit me two days later when I read my mother’s obituary in the Toronto paper:
REDMON, Irma Adele… suddenly on Friday, September 17, 1965, passed away. Beloved wife of Ralph G. Redmon, beloved mother of Mrs. Burke Knight (Joan), Anne and Douglas Redmon, loved daughter of Mrs. Gertrude and the late Alfred Fowler, sister of Shirley, grandmother of Timothy. Resting at Turner and Porter York Chapel from 7:00 pm. Funeral service Monday afternoon at 1:00 pm.