Author Zoe FitzGerald Carter has had a different experience from many. Her mother had advanced Parkinson's disease and sought assistance to end her own life. This extraordinary memoir acquaints us with the person who was Margaret Draper, recounting past experiences and telling about the realities --- and the tenderness and agony --- of witnessing her death.
I assume most people know what the Hemlock Society is. Once Margaret felt she had lost both her dignity and quality of life, and with a number of health issues looming over her, she called them. They sent general literature on assisted suicide, leaving the various methods and the details vague. Then, once Margaret made the decision to pursue it and was sure, she began telling her friends and family, and her three daughters couldn't be more shocked.
This is the point where Zoe FitzGerald Carter's memoir begins: with her mother's decision to kill herself already made. Zoe and her mother are best friends and have been for years, much closer than her sisters are to their mother. None of the three are okay with the choice when Margaret announces it. Though they feel conflicted and can rationalize her reasons --- even see them firsthand as they watch her deteriorate --- coming to terms with the reality of losing her by choice is something none can fathom.
Margaret is bedridden but ineligible for hospice as she's not near enough to her natural end of life to qualify for those services; hospice agencies will not knowingly aid in suicide anyway. She spends her days talking to her daughters, resting and finishing an autobiography. She has friends who are supportive of her choice and some who are not, but it seems that the only three people she's worried about are her daughters.
Zoe finds herself in the agonizing position of acting as a sounding board for her mother and two sisters, sometimes becoming a middleman. She tries to be understanding about how her mother feels while becoming wholly nonfunctional in her own life, unable to deal with what's happening. And Margaret moves the "death date" several times, leading to doubts about her resolve and even her initial reasons.
Through the months during which Margaret plans the morbid details, she discusses everything with Zoe. The Hemlock Society has given her specific information now, detailing the methods available and also backup plans so that patients don't end up making themselves into vegetables. As a reader, this is enough to make your blood run cold. There are portions of the memoir that begin to feel quite twisted and harsh, especially when the subject of methods is laid so bare. With the way it's written --- with mixed humor, naked honesty and compassion --- readers begin to understand what the choice means and to think about what it will be to witness those final chapters. Suddenly the situation feels very close, and you begin to comprehend --- though not truly understand --- what Margaret and her family went through.
IMPERFECT ENDINGS is a journey of sorts, both back in time to Zoe's youth and then forward into the process of accepting and finally witnessing Margaret's death. It's quite articulate and exceptionally written, focusing on humor and emotional honesty. The members of Zoe's family are funny, familiar, dysfunctional and downright lovable. And when you get to know Margaret as Zoe describes her, you don't want her in the state she's in either, which makes the final chapters of the book even harder to witness. I won't claim this memoir isn't sad --- few books have left me so teary-eyed as this one did --- but it’s not written as a principled argument for or against assisted suicide. It's quite a wonderful experience to read about Margaret's life and, in the end, becomes a tribute to a lovely woman who made a brave choice. One promise I'll make is that if you read this, you will never forget it.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on January 22, 2011