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Water for Elephants, West with Giraffes
Frame Stories, Care-giving & the Power of Fiction
Water for Elephants
Last October, my mother’s unexpected death brought my caregiving days to a sudden end. Much of that time is still holy ground, but I want to share an experience I believe my readers may value.
While in the midst of giving care to a parent who brought you into the world and supported you through your own trials, you may find yourself desperate for God’s wisdom and convinced you can only fail.
The tables are turned. Rather than guiding you to independence—learning to eat, learning to walk, getting your driver’s license, finding your way in love and heartbreak and vocations and life decisions, you must guide them through down-sizing, passing of friends and family, lost freedoms, lost authority, lost identity, removed driver’s licenses, forgetting how to walk, even how to eat. All the while, you despair of your ability to do it right, to fix everything.
But wisdom often comes from unlikely sources.
Some years before my caregiving days became all-consuming, I read the book, Water for Elephants (Sara Gruen). Set in the 1930s, it follows a traveling circus and the behind-the-scenes lives of its performers and animal handlers. In truth, I did not much like the book. I found it an unremarkable love triangle placed in a circus context. I wasn’t convinced all the drama was worth it.
However, Water for Elephants is set in a frame story. In the frame, ninety-three-year-old Jacob is living out his last days in a nursing home. Jacob retells the central tale of his youth, the circus, his love, and the events leading up to a catastrophic stampede.
In Jacob’s present day, a circus has come to town and Jacob is determined to see it, if it’s the last thing he does. His family and caregivers are too busy to take him and, of course, he cannot go on his own because they are responsible for him and fear it will be the last thing he does.
It is this frame story that made an immediate and lasting impression on me. It sent up flashing lights. Not circus lights. Warning lights.
For all the caregivers’ genuine concern, Jacob was still capable of self-direction, of decision-making, and needed to be allowed to remain so despite his limitations, despite the inconvenience.
That truth became the grace of God for me during the years I strove to keep one or the other of my parents safe. It became a constant reminder I could not live their lives for them and they had the right to make every decision that they could for themselves.
When overseeing your parents’ care, you can't corral them into a playpen or send them to their room while you cook their special food. You can't sweep them up and set them on your hip when they fall. Sometimes you've got to call your husband home from work while you sit there on the floor with them, pillows stuffed under their head and other points of stress, and wait. That, or you call the paramedics.
The fact is, you are their overseer. To care-give means standardizing and systematizing. The fierce temptation is to become controlling. By the end, my parents depended upon me for everything. If you can control everything, you think you might survive. But you can battle the medical system, the insurance system, the caregivers’ schedules, and still you cannot control what’s happening in their bodies, in their souls. You can’t. You must let go, and you must allow them every act of volition short of setting the house on fire—from refusing cancer treatment to having ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, because if you don't, what's the point? They are still self-determining people, or else they are prisoners you are warehousing. What you can do is give them every opportunity to make their own choices.
My father’s passing took a long road, his suffering greater for it. But one of the last things he did before he fell into his final six-day sleep was to elbow me aside, and I loved him for it. He was himself to the end. To elbow someone aside was 100% uncharacteristic of him, but it was the one thing he could do right then to assert his will over a small matter of getting nourishment down him. He was never a controlling man, but he had an unshakable character and this simple act showed me that he was still very much with us, he would self-determine what he could, and I needed to stand back from it.
In the middle of it all, I remembered Jacob, his determination to have a say in what meant everything to him, whatever the risk. It was his risk to take, his choice of how to live. He needed to be allowed to go and see the circus.
This fictional frame story became a guide, a reference, a boundary, reminding me that my parents deserved their freedom to direct their lives.
I don't know what I would have done differently had I not read Water for Elephants beforehand. I might have understood these things myself, but I believe it would have come more slowly, with more damage and frustration in the daily battle of changing needs. Jacob was a lighthouse to turn to whenever I lost my way.
West with Giraffes
The days since Mom’s passing have not been what I might have imagined. They have not been a sigh of relief. There has been awe at the surreal presence of God in her last month of life, deep thanksgiving that her suffering was limited and short, and gut-punching shock at her disappearance.
Some months after my mother passed, as if to create its own frame story, I stumbled into reading West with Giraffes (Lynda Rutledge). This book is also set within a frame. Again, the present day’s main character is an ancient fellow living his last days in a nursing home. Woodrow Wilson Nickel’s goal is to write the story of his 1938 adventure as a seventeen-year-old Dust Bowl refugee destined to drive two young giraffes from NYC to their new home in the San Diego Zoo. At 105 years old, Woodrow will risk his last breath to get this character-forming episode of his life down on paper for posterity. To the dismay of his caregivers, who want him to rest and eat, he drives his own course. He finishes the manuscript just before his passing.
When your life was knit with the moments of final care, your grieving process has the added layer of second-guessing. Did you protect them enough? Did you make the best decisions? Did you fight hard enough?
West with Giraffes was a gift of solace, a reminder that my parents fought their own battles and fought them with dignity, surrounded by love, but walking their singular paths to the grace of God.
Imagine reading West with Giraffes while grieving my mother, who, just like Woodrow, kept writing her fifty-year project, drove it to conclusion, through the pain and the painkillers, and finished the most critical draft only four days before the fall, the delirium, the ER, the hospice and Home.
On the other side of caregiving, Woodrow reminded me that my parents were themselves to the very end. You can wonder and doubt and wish you had done this or that, but to the last moment, it is their life.
Sometimes doing your best means opening your hands and letting them live, even in their deaths.
Many books are forgotten. Others affect us, stay with us for reasons the writer never anticipated. Water for Elephants and West with Giraffes share many similarities: the period, captive African animals, the restless souls of the humans caring for them, and the end-of-life challenges of their frame stories. And each is a testimony to the power of fiction to challenge us and mold our empathy as we journey onward with our fellow creatures.
You may notice that I do not write typical book reviews. Formal reviews do not interest me as a writer. (As a reader, yes!) Instead, I tend to find connections between books or zero in on specific aspects of a work. I’d rather leave the formal reviews to others.
Next week I plan to post another excerpt from my Work in Progress. I am currently reading a selection of historical fiction works published here on Substack and am looking forward to sharing them with you soon!
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