Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What Happened to Ivy by Kathy Stinson

David Burke's eleven year old sister, Ivy, suffers from cerebral palsy and is wheel chair bound. Everything in his family's life revolves around Ivy, who needs round-the-clock care. Things weren't always like this for David's family. His father, who is a Classics professor, used to take him to the museum. At the cottage he went fishing with his dad. But after Ivy began suffering from seizures following surgery at age eight, her deteriorating health has meant that David's life has changed drastically. Ivy now needs diapers and uses a wheelchair. His parents are consumed with all aspects of Ivy's care and she's due for another surgery to correct her spine soon.

All fifteen year old David wants is a normal life, where he can do things with his dad, where things don't always revolve around Ivy and maybe where he can even have a girlfriend some day. David begins a friendship with the new girl who's moved in across the street from him only three weeks earlier. Hannah is sweet and seems to like David and she's good with Ivy. David was worried Ivy would drive Hannah away but she seems to enjoy sharing David with Ivy.

When David's parents invite Hannah to come along on the family trip to the cottage David is thrilled. Up at the cottage though, David's father seems very stressed out. One day Hannah and David walk into town to get a few groceries, but when they return they find that Ivy has had an accident while swimming with her dad.

While dealing with his grief David discovers he must also deal with his guilt over Ivy. Many times David was resentful towards Ivy and the difficulties her disabilities created.
I loved Ivy, too. But I bet she didn't know it. Besides all the times I didn't speak up for her -- like today, which was nothing compared to sometimes -- there were the times I did worse than not speak up for her.
After Ivy's funeral people begin talking about what happened and there are rumours that Ivy's death was not as it seemed. Eventually David is confronted with the awful possibility that Ivy's death may not have been an accident when his father confesses one night to the family that he didn't try to save Ivy. As David considers this possibility he tries to reconcile what his father did with the care and comfort he gave Ivy throughout her life.
"Last night, was Dad trying to say he did what he did because he loved Ivy? How is that supposed to make sense? I'd sure never try to claim I fed her those worms because I loved her."
Among the questions David asks himself are, What makes a person's life worth living? And how do we know whether or not that life is a good one?
"Or was Ivy's life tougher than I ever let myself believe? How do you weigh crappy stuff like seizures and physio and people hardly ever understanding you, up against giggles and grins and just being happy with birds and pretty flowers and your sunhat and your turquoise bathing suit? How can anyone know whether someone else's life is worth living or not, especially if that someone can't tell you about it?"
David has an interesting discussion with his elderly neighbour, Will, who is now in a nursing home. When David tells Will that his father let Ivy die, Will tells him that he wished he had the courage to "do something for my Vera" implying that the courage is in mercy killing rather than helping that person live better.

But later on David questions this approach too. He recognizes that it is likely Ivy would have died eventually, if not in the lake, in the hospital - a place she hated. But he asks whether Ivy deserved to live life on her terms.
"But even if it was like that - and maybe it wasn't - did that make it okay for Dad to do what he did? To decide - whatever made him decide - that her life would now end? Sure, she's free of all the crap life handed her. But didn't she deserve more chances to splash in her bath and laugh at Shamus's tricks? To talk to the birds and east orange gummy bears?
In the end, David doesn't seem to know whether what his father did was right or wrong. When a witness comes forward to say that they saw what happened that day at the lake, David's father is taken in for questioning. So What Happened to Ivy ends with the question of Ivy's death unresolved.

This book attempts to address the thorny issue of mercy killing and does so reasonably well, but leaves the question open for the reader to decide. Predictably it leaves out the important point that there are usually options to murdering a person who is disabled and suffering. While Stinson does tackle the quality of life issue rather well, what is never discussed in the book are the options that might have helped Ivy's family cope with her overwhelming medical problems so that her father might not have considered doing what he did. It seems her family either didn't give this much thought or outright dismissed their options, as evidenced by the brief mention of putting her into a group home, which is immediately rejected by her mother.

This short novel closely parallels the story of Robert Latimer who was convicted of second degree murder in the death of his disabled daughter Tracy. Although Latimer served seven years of a ten year sentence, he maintains that his premeditated act of euthanizing his daughter by carbon monoxide poisoning was an act of love. Latimer was portrayed in the media as a loving father who did not wish to see his daughter continue to suffer. Similarly, David's father is portrayed as a caring father, so much so, that Hannah, whose father has abandoned her, refuses to believe that David's father did anything wrong.

In Canada there have been several recent incidents of mercy killing and not surprisingly, we see the case being made for the euthanizing of the severely disabled, those terminally ill, and the elderly. As the Council of Canadians with Disabilities writes, "murder is not mercy".

Book Details:
What Happened To Ivy by Kathy Stinson
Toronto: Second Story Press     2012
146 pp.

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