Imperfect Endings: A Daughter's Story of Love, Loss, and Letting Go


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. ...

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Imperfect Endings: A Daughter's Tale of Life and Death

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Zoe Carter's mother, in effect, invited her family to her suicide. Aged, debilitated, and suffering from Parkinson's, this feisty widow decided to end her life in a carefully orchestrated way. Her almost matter of fact announcement plunged her daughters quite understandably into wrenching crises as each struggled with her mother's decision and their own responsibilities. Imperfect Endings embodies the emotional complexities of assisted suicide and maternal love. This former Discover Great New Books selection has won strong support from book club readers. Now in paperback and NOOKbook,

From the Publisher
“Carter coaxes beauty from the bleak in this book about the months after Margaret, who has Parkinson’s, tells her three girls she plans to ‘end things’ and wants them to be there when she does. Ultimately, in losing her, Carter finds a mother she never thought she’d know.” People

“Carter’s memoir about her terminally ill mother’s decision to end her own life becomes a bittersweet tale of how Carter and her sisters coped with their mother’s botched efforts, their own sibling rivalries, the ongoing controversy over assisted suicide, and the hard, final task of acceptance.”—Elle

"An engaging and insightful tale of familial love, understanding, and forgiveness, shot through with a surprising amount of wit."The Boston Globe

"I could quote from the book all day. . . but instead I’ll just recommend that those intrigued by the subject spend a little time with the ailing but ferocious Margaret and her daughters. A decision to die can sound romantic or it can sound repugnant. Carter shows us what it was like in reality."—Paula Span, The New York

“The questions that rise from her story are urgent, important and timely…sharply focused, engaged with essential ethical questions…the end of the book is so full of grace and acceptance that one might forget the memoir began with such urgent, roaring questions.”San Francisco Chronicle

"Zoe Carter is a luminous writer with a dramatic story to tell. With wisdom, poetry and dark humor, Zoe describes her ailing mother's courageous decision to end her life. In years to come, plenty of sons and daughters will face the same moral and practical dilemmas as Zoe's family; Imperfect Endings, with its wit and love, will provide an invaluable resource, as well as remain a fascinating, fabulously compelling read." —Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of She's Not There and I'm Looking Through You

"In her wise and moving memoir, journalist Zoe Carter tackles a difficult subject — her mother's decision to end her own life after years of severe illness. Under what circumstances can her family make peace with this choice? Many of us will find ourselves facing this kind of dilemma as our parents move towards death, and I cannot imagine a better guide than this thoughtful, compassionate book." —Julie Metz, author of Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal

"I love this book! Zoe Carter has taken what could be a very sad story and turned it into something beautiful and incredibly insightful. Her portrayal of her mother is wonderful, and reveals in moving and illuminating detail a slice of Washington life." —Kate Lehrer, author of Confessions of a Bigamist: A Novel

"First-time memoirist Carter comes close to perfection in this chronicle of her mother’s quest to orchestrate her own assisted suicide. . . .With surprising humor and sensitivity, Carter presents the struggle to come to terms with mortality and family dynamics."—Library Journal (starred review)

"A poignant memoir."Kirkus Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A deceptively cheery tale about her mother’s plans to end her own life underscores the author’s conflicted role in filial caring and responsibility. Carter’s mother, a widow living in Washington, D.C., had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for more than 20 years, and by 2001 had grown debilitated and depressed about her physical helplessness; she had joined the Hemlock Society and was actively making plans to kill herself, to the consternation of her three daughters. Carter, who is the youngest of the sisters, living in San Francisco with her husband and two small children, seemed the closest emotionally to her mother, and flew back and forth to accommodate her erratic schedule at “ending things.” Armed with a lethal supply of Seconal and morphine, the mother nevertheless vacillated about what to do, as her daughters (and their partners) debated the effectiveness and legal ramifications of her assisted suicide, even suggesting she was being manipulative and controlling. Although there are poignant memories of childhood and early family life, this memoir perhaps unavoidably dwells on the author’s needs and wishes, rather than the mother’s. In the end, the family rallied around her painful decision, and though Carter attempts to preserve her mother’s dying dignity, her account frequently jars, with its grimly glib celebratory tone. (Mar.)
Kirkus Reviews
A poignant memoir of a daughter's struggle to accept her mother's death. In 2000, Carter's 75-year-old mother began exploring the possibility of assisted suicide. Having suffered from Parkinson's disease for 20 years, she didn't want to face the reality of increasing incapacity. The author explores her own grief and anger as she tried to understand and support the decision. She felt betrayed by her mother's casual attitude and her unwillingness to consider her daughter's pain. When she phoned to set the date-"I've been trying to find a good time to end things . . . I was hoping that weekend might work for you"-Carter reluctantly left her husband and two young daughters in San Francisco and arrived in Washington, D.C., on the appointed date, only to learn that her mother had changed her mind. This pattern of vacillation continued for months, as her mother tried to decide how she wanted to die. She demanded that her three daughters be on hand to assist her suicide, despite their unwillingness. Not only did they find it difficult to accept her eagerness to die, but they feared being prosecuted for an illegal act. With a journalistic flair to her prose, Carter chronicles the months from January 2001 until her mother's death in July, as well as events in her earlier life. She memorably examines the complex dynamics within her dysfunctional family, including the rivalries and bonds between the sisters. Wishing she could stay away, she thought of her mother dying "alone in her big empty bed," and her "petulance turn[ed] to shame."Carter comes to a deeper, more compassionate understanding of her mother's life, and she is ultimately able to surmount her grief and affirm her mother's decision.Agent: Flip Brophy/Sterling Lord Literistic
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439148310
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 3/8/2011
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 1,388,285
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

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.

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Read an Excerpt



I don’t have to answer the phone. On my knees in the bathroom, daughters just settled into the tub, I have the perfect excuse to ignore it. Let the machine pick it up instead. But I push off my knees and head for the door, my brain several steps behind my body as it usually is by this time of day.

Only then do I pause, reluctant to leave the steamy warmth of the bathroom, the giddiness of my naked children who are lolling at one end of the tub, pouring water on each other. At four and eight, Lane and Clara are hardly at risk for drowning, but I remind them to be careful—keep the water in the tub, hold off on the shampoo—and step out into the bedroom.

Shading my eyes from the blinding late-day sun, I cross the room, glancing out at the glimmering strip of the San Francisco Bay and, just beyond it, the hazy outline of the Golden Gate. Four years on the West Coast and this view of water and sky still thrills me.

I pick up the phone, annoyed with myself for answering it, sure it’s someone calling to either sell me something or beg something from me.

“Oh, there you are! Have I caught you at a bad time?” It’s my mother. Her voice sounds cheerful and a little excited, as if she has good news. “I was just looking at my calendar and wondering if you could come to D.C. the first weekend of February.”

“I’m not sure. I’ll have to check. What’s up?” I drop onto the bed, heart beginning to clamor. I know what’s up.

“Well gosh, honey, I’ve been trying to find a good time to end things as you know, and I was hoping that weekend might work for you. I haven’t called your sisters yet, but of course I want them here too. And your girls if you can bring them. I’m still working out the details, but—”

“Jesus, Momma,” I hiss, cupping my hand over my mouth so Clara and Lane can’t hear me. “You make it sound like a family reunion!”

“Well, there’s no reason to get huffy, Zoe,” she says. “I can’t plan anything unless I know you girls are available. Can you just take a quick peek at your calendar?”

“No, I can’t! I’m in the middle of giving my kids a bath, I don’t have my calendar, and I can’t think about this right now.”

“Fine.” Her irritation is palpable and for a moment there is silence. “So when can you call me back?”

I want to say never. I will never call her back if she insists on talking about killing herself. But I think of her lying alone in her big empty bed, of her dying alone because her daughters weren’t willing to show up, and my petulance turns to shame.

“I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Okay, sweetie.” Her voice is cheerful again. “That would be great. Talk to you then!”

I stand up and look out the window, the sounds of splashing and laughter faint in the background, as if my daughters—or, for that matter, my entire life—had just receded into the distance. I watch the last burning rays of sunlight disappear behind Mount Tamalpais, the vast, glorious landscape slowly turning from gold to gray.

© 2010 Zoe FitzGerald Carter

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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 15, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    She Summoned Death - An Important read

    Whether or not one believes the choices this family made in Zoe Carter's memoir, Imperfect Endings, are right or wrong, Carter is an undeniably powerful writer, who has an easy way with words on a complex, but timely issue. She has taken the difficult, to say the least, subject of life and death and crafted it into an unforgettable personal story laced with wit, wisdom, humor, compassion, insight, and abundant food for thought. To be honest, when I first picked it up I wondered if I wanted to "go there." I'm glad I did-I found it incredibly moving.

    I know it took more than a little courage for Zoe Carter to write this provocative slice of life. Imperfect Endings meant paring familial façade to the bone and sucking out the marrow, which she did unabashedly.

    How does a daughter say, "Yes, Mom, I'll watch you die slowly by your own hand." I'll be a party to your staged sit-in with death.

    Hauntingly beautiful are the two words that washed over my soul when I finished reading Zoe Carter's Imperfect Endings. A true page turner, brought together through a dynamic flow of the highs of love and tenderness, and the lows of anger and sadness, revealing what it takes to be, at once, a mother and a daughter.

    I could see both sides as the drama unfolded: the mother's perspective, as she desired to make her exit -actually to direct it, while maintaining a modicum of dignity; and the three daughters' reluctance to come to terms with their mother's wishes and say goodbye to Momma. Throughout much of the memoir, a cloak of angry sadness hung from Zoe's shoulders-she was deemed the caretaker, ever flying from coast to coast, always at her mother's beck and call, while growing numb by degrees to her mother's flirtatious and ever changing dates with death. Zoe was the "good" daughter-but also a woman conflicted by daughterly duties over shadowing those of being a wife to a man trying not to lose his patience, and mother to young daughters of her own, needing her attention.

    Fluctuating between flashbacks of childhood memories and present day dilemmas, Zoe creates authentic scenes that strip away allusion to expose the raw reality of the family's intimate workings. The three daughters' angst for their parent's past transgressions and weaknesses was palpable, and their reckoning of their mother's pretenses and denial, although heartbreakingly understood, at least by two of the sisters, stayed unresolved.

    But, in the final days, as their mother, Margaret, slipped away, the atmosphere rang clear with tenderness and acceptance as Zoe's arms, gently enfolded a feather of a woman as the parade passed by, and songs from her lips sent Momma's soul soaring.

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  • Posted October 12, 2010


    Insightful, heart warming, sobering..........these are only three of the many words that I could use to describe this incredible tale told by the daughter of a woman who wants to end her life of pain, in her own way and with dignity Zoe is the daughter who has always been there for her mother but who has never felt that she could meet her mom's expectations. Now her mother confides in her about every little detail of her plan to end her life. Zoe and her sisters do not want this to happen, but they cannot sway her from her plan. Zoe is the one, however, that her mother calls each time she changes her mind or her method. The stress of constantly being at her mother's beck and call, along with the guilt she feels about not always being there for her own family at those times, is wearing her down. A world of memories and the scrutiny of herself that is part of this time with her mom, is making Zoe crazy and adversely affecting her own life. But she cannot abandon her mother. Reading this book as made me take time to think about my own relationship with my aging parents and the part I will play in their future, where ever it will take us.
    Zoe Carter has shared an intimate part of her life with us and I thank her for that, and for a book I will read again and again as my own family dynamics change.


    Reviewer: Elaine Fuhr, Allbooks Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2010

    Lacking in believable emotion

    This book was selected in our book group, which consists of myself and 3 sisters. We are all avid readers and intelligent women. Not one of us could relate to the author of this book. It left all of us strangely untouched, and this should have been very emotional. Mostly, we were put off by seemingly indulgent details from the author (such as describing her "toned knees" and "runner's calves") which detracted from the serious tone of the book. The portrayal of the dying mother struck all of us as manipulative and annoying. I think we all ended up siding with the oldest sister who refused to be part of the drama. This book brought up some very timely issues, and that encouraged many discussions, but they centered around assisted-suicide, not this book. I read this book thinking it felt like the point of view of someone in their twenties, not in their forties. It's hard to understand the over-the-top reviews. I won't remember this book this time next year.

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