Attitudes toward assisted suicide for the terminally ill are seldom lukewarm—people either believe strongly that this course of action should be sanctioned or, just as strongly, that no one has the right to end another’s life, even for medical reasons and at that person’s request. Zoe FitzGerald Carter firmly believed in an individual’s right to take this difficult step until her own mother decided it was time to die. The anguish Carter felt, her conflicting emotions and the upheaval it caused in her family are painstakingly chronicled in her first book, a memoir titled Imperfect Endings: A Daughter’s Tale of Life and Death.
“It really was an incredibly difficult year,” says Carter, speaking from the home in Berkeley, California, that she shares with her husband and their two daughters. “I felt like my life had been derailed, and it was death and dying 24 hours a day. I started feeling very isolated from my husband and children because I felt like the predominant emotional event in my life was not with them. It was with this maddening, endless, difficult discussion with my mother which at some point I realized was only going to end when she died.”
There was never any doubt about whether Carter’s mother was terminally ill. Twenty years earlier, she had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and she was already dependent on around-the-clock assistance for the smallest of tasks. It was obvious that she would soon be unable to get out of bed at all. Her pain was increasingly resistant to drugs. So why did Carter refuse to go along with her mother’s decision?
“I live in Berkeley, and there are people who’ve read this book and they say, what was your problem? Why didn’t you just help her kill herself? You should have helped her go, it was what she wanted. And I don’t know if it’s because they haven’t experienced anything like this or it’s all about politics and assisted suicide should be legal, end of story. I think it’s probably because people have this idea—oh yeah, if I get sick, take me out back and shoot me. But I think when they get down to it, it’s a lot more complicated than that.”
It certainly proved complicated for Carter and her two sisters. While none of them wanted their mother to cease to be a living, breathing part of their lives, their responses to her decision to end her life were quite different. Her sister Hannah became Carter’s lifeline, the only person who shared her conflicting emotions. Katherine, the oldest sister, basically checked out of the whole scenario, saying their mother’s decision to die, her constant shifting of her “death date,” her demands that her daughters be by her side when she died, were all a shameless bid for attention—which Katherine refused to give her. It was important to Carter that this division among the sisters be chronicled in Imperfect Endings.
“I do think when a parent dies that what happens among the siblings, if there are siblings, is a really big part of the story: who shows up, who doesn’t show up, the different ways that they show up. The whole histories that we have in our families oftentimes emerge and intensify, and alliances and animosities and old regrets get reactivated and ratcheted up in these situations.”
Part of the impact of Carter’s book comes from her juxtaposition of chapters; she weaves her past into her memoir, giving the reader a more satisfying context to use as a contrast with the present. It becomes a reminder that an imperfect childhood often becomes irrelevant when a parent is dying. Musing on why this was important for her to bring out in her book, Carter says a relationship with a dying family member differs from any that has preceded it.
“When you’re with somebody who’s dying, you really do love them in this very pure way. You just love them and you’re there for them. It’s very healing. A lot of my anger and pain around my mother’s decision really dropped away at the end.”
Despite the gravity of the subject matter, there are sections of Imperfect Endings that are quite funny. The visit from the “Exit Guide” from the Hemlock Society is one such example: Carter’s snobbish mother cannot bring herself to allow this man to orchestrate her demise, not because she is bothered by “getting gassed,” but because he’s a good ol’ boy from Tulsa named Bud. This is, as Carter writes, a serious social handicap: “My mother is a solid Washington Democrat, a liberal even, but she’s also a cultural and intellectual snob, and this man is definitely not a member of the tribe.”
In the end, Carter’s mother (at the suggestion of her doctor) decides to refuse all food and water until her body ceases to function. It is this action that sways Carter to accept her mother’s choice of death and brings her to her mother’s bedside for the final time.
“I mean she didn’t eat, day after day after day. This was not a ‘dark night of the soul’ kind of moment where she took a bunch of pills and killed herself. This was something she talked about and thought about for a year and then persisted in, day after day at the end. . . . I saw her absolute commitment and unblinking strength during that fasting time.”
One cannot help but wonder, with all Carter went through, whether she would ever put her own family through such an ordeal. She says yes, but only if her daughters agreed that it was the right thing to do and were comfortable with the decision.
“I do believe assisted suicide should be legal, but you have to recognize that nobody wants to do it. Nobody wants to be in a place where they feel that is the best option. It’s not easy. And there is a price you pay for it. I do feel like there’s a price my sisters and I paid emotionally and psychologically by participating in my mother’s death. I think it’s a tricky issue.”
But, as Carter says, it was a privilege to be by her mother’s side when she ended her years of pain, although it’s not a topic she brings up at cocktail parties or the school’s PTO.
“People are uncomfortable talking about death. People think it’s all just a big downer, and it’s scary and awful. I don’t think it’s all just scary and awful. I think there’s something very life-affirming about going through a death with somebody. There’s nothing like death to remind you of one of the most profound things about life, which is that it doesn’t go on forever. That sense of gratitude for being alive and awareness of the gift of life is a wonderful thing to experience.”
Rebecca Bain is a writer in Nashville.