Zoe FitzGerald Carter
Photo: Courtesy of Zoe FitzGerald Carter
The conversation tapers off as we speed along, and I'm grateful for these last few moments of quiet. My oldest sister, Katherine, will be at my mother's house by now, and I'm nervous about seeing her. Relations between us have never been easy and they've become especially fraught since my father's death seven years ago. I can't help wishing it were my other sister, Hannah, meeting me here.

"I can't do it," Hannah said when I called to ask. "Dan has to travel to Toronto for a music festival, Fiona has a school play, and I'd have to take Evie with me, and frankly, flying with Evie is a nightmare." Hannah's 2-year-old was famous for throwing up on planes. "Besides, if Momma sticks to her current plan of killing herself on May 1, I'll be down there soon enough."

"But what about the Hemlock guy?"

"You mean death's little helper?"

I laughed. "Actually, I think they're called exit guides. But whatever he's called, Momma wants us there when he comes."

"I'm sorry, Zoe. You're going to have to deal with him by yourself."

My stomach lurches as the car swings onto Key Bridge and heads toward the glowing lights and cobblestone streets of Georgetown. A dread so familiar it's almost comforting fills me as we make the ascent up Wisconsin Avenue, past the soaring, lit facade of the Washington 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.

"You made it," my mother says in a small, happy voice as I walk into her bedroom. She reaches up and grabs my shoulders. Her grip is tight and surprisingly strong, although I can feel the deep tremors running through her arms.

Releasing me, she sinks back onto her pillow. She looks oddly childlike with the ruffle of her flannel nightgown framing her face. Her once dark and luxurious hair lies flat against her head and I notice that the gray has crept almost to her ears.

"How're you feeling?"

She wrinkles her nose. "Well, I was trying to make this darn list all day for that Hemlock fellow and now my arm and shoulder are killing me."

"What list?" I ask, instantly wary.

"They ask you for a summary of your medical conditions. So they can evaluate you."

"You mean decide if you're sick enough to die?"

I say it lightly but deliberately, wanting to hurt her. I realize I've been half-expecting her to chicken out, cancel the appointment, and am angry that she hasn't. I could be at home right now enjoying a quiet Friday night with my husband, Jack, and my children, instead of back in D.C., embroiled in my mother's suicide plans.

But she only laughs. "Yes, exactly. They don't want you killing yourself if you've only got a hangnail."


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