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Book Review

Helping mother choose her final path

By Karen Campbell
May 27, 2010

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When she was a child, Zoe FitzGerald Carter often grappled with the idea of death. However, her musings were less about what happens after we die than the process itself. “I drove my family crazy asking: Would you rather be shot or burned? Drowned or hung? Dropped from an airplane or left in the desert with no water?’’

In Carter’s autobiographical “Imperfect Endings: A Daughter’s Tale of Life and Death,’’ it is the author’s mother, Margaret, who is struggling with the best (i.e., most efficient, less painful) ways to die, and not just theoretically. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and failing quickly from its devastating effects, she contemplates ending her life with more grace and less pain than the malady is likely to afford. Her ponderings tend toward questioning the virtues of morphine vs. Seconal. One doctor assures her that starvation is relatively painless, that as the body fasts, one actually stops being hungry and starts to feel calm and clearheaded.

However, though it is Margaret’s end-of-life dilemma, it is Carter’s story, as her mother engages her and her two sisters into the protracted process of choosing how and when to die, setting up the moral, ethical, and legal issues of assisted suicide. And then there is the emotional upheaval — when Carter begins her tale, it has been more than a year with several changes of dates, prompting one sister, Katherine, to decide she’s not going to be a part of the “deathbed watch.’’

What could have been a rather morbid and grim account is actually quite an engaging and insightful tale of familial love, understanding, and forgiveness, shot through with a surprising amount of wit. As Carter chronicles her mother’s difficult journey, shuttling herself back and forth between her family in Berkeley, Calif., and her mother’s house in Washington, D.C., she revisits with Margaret many of the important and telling moments of their lives, including her father’s death seven years prior. “No one expected him to die. . . . He was a force of nature, an original, a man of so many talents and so much vitality, it seemed he would live forever.’’ Yet his big personality was fueled in part by years of alcoholism masked by social gregariousness, which took its toll on the sisters. Margaret enabled with denial, claiming that “he always held it so well. I guess I thought that meant he wasn’t a true alcoholic.’’

We learn of young Zoe’s childhood relationships with her sisters, the glamorous Hannah, only a year older, and Katherine, the plain, direct eldest. The bookish, imaginative Zoe was always the good sister, suffering an eating disorder in silence, her parents oblivious. The issue makes her mother’s contemplation of fasting to death especially difficult to handle. The adult Zoe, most like her mother in temperament, becomes her main caretaker and emotional mainstay, causing her to often neglect not only her own needs, but those of her husband and two young girls.

Amid the hurtful memories, fearful vacillations, and bitter carping, some wonderful, uplifting moments arise. When Carter’s longtime friend Suzanne visits, Margaret revives a bit, and they have a day of lively discussion and fond remembrances, ending with Margaret’s promise to send the women a white feather as a sign of life after death.

Margaret’s ultimate resolve and grace in letting go are truly affecting. The extended family’s calm acceptance and their lovely goodbye rituals are inspiring examples of making peace with this most final of decisions.

Karen Campbell, a freelance writer based in Brookline, can be reached at Karencampbell4@rcn.com.

IMPERFECT ENDINGS:

A Daughter’s Tale of Life and Death

By Zoe FitzGerald Carter

Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $25