Zoe Carter’s busy life on the West Coast with her husband and daughters takes an unexpected detour when her glamorous, independent-minded mother, Margaret, tired of living with Parkinson’s disease, decides she wants to “end things.” As Zoe and her sisters negotiate over whether or not they should support Margaret’s choice and who should be there at the end, their discussions stir up old alliances and animosities, along with memories of a childhood dominated by their elegant mother and philandering father. Capturing the stresses and the joys of the “sandwich generation” while bringing a provocative new perspective to the assisted suicide debate, Imperfect Endings is the uplifting story of a woman determined to die on her own terms and the family who has to learn to let her go.
Reading Group Guide
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This reading group guide for Imperfect Endings includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Zoe FitzGerald Carter. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Zoe FitzGerald Carter’s mother, Margaret, is a beautiful, independent-minded woman who has suffered from Parkinson’s and other ailments for over twenty years. Knowing that her future holds only further debilitation and the slow erosion of both her body and her pride, Margaret decides to “end things”—and asks her three daughters to be there with her when she does it.
For months, Margaret discusses possible means of suicide and repeatedly sets and changes her “death dates.” Zoe and her sisters begin to wonder if she is serious and, if she is, who among them is willing to take on the emotional and legal risks of being with her at the end? As the “good daughter,” Zoe wants to help her mother achieve a good death but is distraught at the prospect of losing her. Revisiting difficult scenes from her past—including memories of her larger-than-life father, her glamorous, stubborn mother, and her warring sisters—Zoe finds herself examining her own desire for approval and control. Eventually there is compromise, love and courage, and her mother ends her life surrounded by family and friends.
Wrenching, provocative and ultimately uplifting, Imperfect Endings is the story of a woman finding the courage to die; of a daughter finding the strength to parent her mother; of a family learning to love and to let go.
1. This memoir transitions between the time leading up to Zoe’s mother, Margaret’s, death and vignettes of her childhood growing up. Did you like this narrative structure? How did it impact your understanding of the main characters? 2. This book is about life, as well as death—the flashbacks give glimpses of the young family, and Margaret’s grandchildren are full of energy and excitement. How did this contrast with Margaret’s desire to die?
3. The sisters, and their mother, all have different reactions to Jonathan’s alcoholism. Discuss their different ways of dealing with his problem. Are any effective?
4. Margaret does not seem to notice significant problems with those around her, such as her husband’s affairs and Zoe’s anorexia. Yet she is very picky about little things, such as appearances. Do you believe she was innocently naïve and unaware of those larger issues, or was she perhaps willfully blind?
5. Jack, Hannah, Katherine and Zoe express feeling that Margaret is being selfish in her wish to die and have them help her. Is that too much to expect from a loved one? Does she truly have the right to end her own life, even though it has such an impact on those around her? Is there anything she could have done to make it easier on her family?
6. Throughout her life, Zoe constantly craves others’ approval, especially her mother’s. She even goes so far as to neglect her own family and marriage to go to her mother whenever she calls. Why does she do this? Why do you think it means so much to her when her mother calls her a friend?
7. Mother/daughter relationships are the backbone of this story. Skim pages 80–84. Talk about each daughter’s relationship with her mother, and with the other daughters. Does Zoe really resent being pigeonholed, or do you think she finds comfort in her role in the family?
8. How does Zoe try to protect her own daughters from sibling rivalry? How much impact do you think a parent can have on the relationships among their children? Is there something Margaret could have done to help Katherine feel more included in the family?
9. Reread page 122, where Zoe talks with her friend Suzanne about her mother’s desire to die. She attributes her mother’s determination to “fear of the unknown. Fear of losing control.” Do you agree? What other reasons does Margaret give for wanting to end her life?
10. Why does Margaret keep pushing back the date of her death? Is she really as determined to die as she seems? At any point do you believe her death wish is “a weird bid for attention,” as Jack says (p. 146)?
11. Discuss the different ways characters exert control over one another, both passively and actively.
12. Margaret markedly lacks emotions in her book, The Sky’s the Limit. Why does she choose to leave out her own feelings, and relate only events and facts? Does this reveal something important about her character?
13. It seems everyone in this memoir hides behind a façade to disguise true feelings. Dress, social status and appearance are all very important. Discuss the ways in which the Carters hide things from outsiders, each other, and themselves.
14. Were you surprised at the ending? Was there ever a point when you thought Margaret might choose life?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Margaret, Zoe and Suzanne talk about Margaret becoming a bird and dropping feathers for them. Have you ever received a sign from a friend or relative who has passed on? If not, would you want to? Do you believe in such things? What do you think the feather and the bird represent? If you could be reincarnated as an animal, what would you be?
2. Margaret is a member of the Hemlock Society. If you have any questions or want to learn more about the beliefs and work of the Society, visit http://www.compassionandchoices .org/hemlock. The “Student Kit” outlines the basics of the Society.
3. Research the cases of right-to-die activist Jack Kevorkian, also known as “Dr. Death,” who was imprisoned for eight years for assisting suicide. Do you believe doctors should be able to help patients die? If physician assisted suicide was legal would this have made Margaret’s death easier for her and her family?
4. Zoe uses running as a means to relieve stress and feel alive. Is there some activity that helps you cope with stress in your life and makes you feel better and more in control?
A Conversation with Zoe FitzGerald Carter
1. This is an extremely personal story with intimate details of your relationships and your mother’s death. Was it hard to open yourself up through publishing this book? Do you feel at all vulnerable? Yes, I do! I was actually a little alarmed when I sold the book. Putting it out there does feel exposing. But my goal when writing it was to be as honest as I could—even when it made me look bad. And whenever I’d talk to people about the book, they would share their own stories and memories and it felt like there was this hunger to have these kinds of discussions.
I try to focus on the universal aspects of my story. While most people’s parents don’t end their own life, many of us deal with our parents getting older, getting sick and—eventually— dying. By writing about my own experience, “imperfect” as it was, I hoped to provide some perspective and maybe even solace to those facing these difficult end-of-life situations with loved ones. Going through this can feel very isolating.
2. Have your sisters read this book? If so, what did they think? What did your husband think?
It’s kind of funny, no one grows up thinking that someone in their family is going to put them in a book someday and, under the circumstances, both my sisters have been remarkably generous. They have both respected my right to tell my story—and include them in the telling. My husband has also been remarkably supportive, not just of the book itself, but of the time and energy it took to write it.
3. How has your life changed since your mother’s death? Have you been able to regain more stability in your life?
I am happy to report that the year leading up to my mother’s death was a uniquely stressful time in my life. Things have been much simpler and easier since then. My husband and I are doing well, my two daughters are growing into strong, joyful, independent young women, and I am blessed with a number of close and loving friends. I also find time to sing, go on long bike rides in the Berkeley Hills and spend time on the rugged Northern California beaches with my family. Life is good.
4. How is your relationship with your sisters? How has it changed since your mother’s death?
I am still very close to my middle sister, Hannah. We are in constant touch by phone and e-mail and spend part of every summer together. Her children are still very close to mine. But there is no longer the same urgency to “process” everything together the way we did during the last months of my mother’s life. My older sister, Katherine, and I are also friendly. I think, by writing the book, I came to better understand her choices at the end of my mother’s life, and this has brought us closer.
5. Did you ever finish the murder mystery you were working on at one point in your memoir?
Yes, I did, and I got an agent for it right away—and then it didn’t sell. After being turned down by five or six major publishing houses, the book lingered at a smaller press for over a year and a half before being rejected. But I don’t regret it. I learned a lot about writing in the process and if it had sold I’m pretty sure I never would have written the memoir. I’d still be writing mysteries.
6. Are there any plans to publish either of your mother’s books, The Sky’s the Limit or The Goslings Visit Grandpa Gander and Nana Goose?
No. The children’s book is beautiful but it’s very specific to our family. I think the novel is publishable but I haven’t had the heart to try and get it published – it really doesn’t feel like mine. A friend suggested that it would make an excellent screenplay, so we’ll see.
7. If you had been in your mother’s situation, what would you have done? Well, it’s impossible to know what you would do until you are there. But I like to think that with love and good drugs I could stick it out until death made its way naturally. That said, I would never rule out some form of “hastened death.” I would only hope that I could make the burden on my family and friends as light as possible.
8. Before your experience with your mother, did you support a person’s right to choose death on their own terms? How do you feel now? Do you believe that physician assisted suicide should be legal? I did support the right to “choose” death, but I hadn’t thought that deeply about it before my mother started talking about it. And then, because I loved my mother and didn’t want her to die, I spent months trying to talk her out of it.
I still believe assisted suicide—especially physician assisted suicide—should be legal but I don’t think we can underestimate the moral and emotional burden involved in participating in someone’s death.
That said, I’ve often wondered if my mother would have stayed alive longer if physician assisted suicide had been legal in Washington, D.C., in 2001. I think if she’d known she could count on a trusted doctor to come to her house, at a time of her choosing, and help her die in a quick and compassionate way, she might have relaxed a bit more about it, let nature takes it course.
I also know that if my sister and I hadn’t been worrying about the legal risks, we would have been more willing to help her. Having a doctor or hospice nurse there also would have allowed us to focus more on the meaning—instead of the means—of her death.
9. Your mother passed away about nine years ago. What have you been up to since that time?
I’ve been raising my children, playing music with my band, and—of course—writing. I am currently at work on a novel.
10. What advice would you give to someone who is in a similar situation as yourself, caring for a loved one who wishes to die?
I’m reluctant to give advice. Every situation is unique, so it’s dangerous to generalize. I would only suggest that people listen deeply to what their family members are asking for and be honest about what they can and can’t do for them.
11. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Make a serious commitment to your writing—and don’t give up!
Zoe FitzGerald Carter is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and has written for numerous publications including New York magazine, The New York Observer, Premiere, and various national magazines. Imperfect Endings is her first memoir. It won first place in the 2008 Pacific Northwest Writer's Association's literary contest and was a finalist at The San Francisco Writer's Conference. Zoe lives in Northern California with her husband and two daughters.