The following is an excerpt from my memoir, Imperfect Endings: A Daughter’s Tale of Life and Death. The book is about my mother’s decision to end her life after living with Parkinson’s disease for many years and the struggle my two older sisters and I had coming to terms with that choice. This scene takes place towards the beginning of the book. I have just flown in to Washington D.C. from the West Coast where I live with my husband and two children. I am on my way to my mother’s house in a hired car that she has arranged for me.
“So, how’s Mrs. Draper?” the driver asks, turning to look at me. “We haven’t heard from her for quite a while.”
“My mother?” I sit up, blinking my eyes, which are blurred and sticky from my contact lenses. “Uh, about the same, I’d say. Just staying a little closer to home these days.”
“Hmm.” He seems to consider my response and I wonder if he thinks I’m holding something back, which of course I am. But I can’t exactly say, “Oh well, you know, my mother’s pretty focused on dying right now. She just can’t quite figure out how to do it. In the meantime, she’s taken to her bed.”
The fact is none of us had taken her very seriously last summer when she first started talking about ending her life. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s in her mid-fifties — almost twenty years ago — she was tired of the endless drug cycles, the constant revving up and slowing down, the inability to stay in one state long enough to just forget the damn disease. But kill herself? It seemed unlikely. My two sisters and I chalked it up to a mild depression and near-pathological need to be in control.
“But then she joined the Hemlock Society and started imposing actual ‘death dates’…”
But then she joined the Hemlock Society and started proposing actual “death dates,” the most recent being May first. (The previous two were abandoned due to the lack of a “good, solid plan.”) And this weekend she’s arranged to have a volunteer from the Hemlock Society’s “Caring Friends” program fly in from Oklahoma to discuss how they might help her do the deed. He’s due in tomorrow morning.
“Well, I’m real glad to hear she’s all right,” the driver continues, thoughtfully. “We were talking about her just before she rang yesterday, wondering if she was okay. We used to pick her up two, three times a month. Take her out to Baltimore to see her aunt. She’s a special lady, your mom.”
I’m touched that the driver — his name is Derrick — has asked about my mother and called her “special,” although I realize Capitol Car and Limo may have been merely wondering whether to close the file on her. On the other hand, I’ve seen her inspire this kind of interest and affection from strangers my whole life.
My mother has a doe-eyed, romantic quality that people find irresistible: men want to protect her, women want to be her friend, and everyone agrees she’s stylish and beautiful. With her dark eyes and hair, her prominent cheekbones and chin, she looks like Jackie Kennedy, only a taller, rangier version, not so coiffed and demurely feminine. Even now, with her spine buckled from osteoporosis, her face gaunt and shuttered from illness, she projects an appealing Victorian fragility.
My stomach lurches as the car swings onto Key Bridge and heads toward the glowing lights and cobblestone streets of Georgetown. I focus on the sound of the tires, the cool touch of glass against my forehead. A dread, so familiar that it’s almost comforting, fills me as we make the ascent up Wisconsin Avenue, past the soaring, lit facade of the national cathedral, and then onto Ordway Street.
I peer up at my mother’s enormous gray stucco house, looming like a dilapidated ocean liner over the street below. The front door swings open and my older sister, Katherine, steps out under the bright outside light. Her hair, fair like mine, reaches almost to her waist. She stands, eyes shaded, looking down the wide slate stairs, the overgrown ivy bank that spills onto the sidewalk. Her posture is tense and watchful, as if she’s been waiting for someone to come and take her away. To rescue her from what lies inside.
To find out more about Imperfect Endings, or to contact Zoe Carter, visit her website at www.zoefitzgeraldcarter.com. Her book can also be ordered online from our (searchable) Parkinson’s disease Books page.