From Water for Elephants:
“Either there’s been an accident or there’s roadwork, because a gaggle of old ladies is glued to the window at the end of the hall like children or jailbirds. They’re spidery and frail, their hair as fine as mist. Most of them are a good decade younger than me, and this astounds me. Even as your body betrays you, your mind denies it.”
Sara Gruen, author of the New York Times’ #1 best seller Water for Elephants, artfully weaves the story of a Prohibition Era circus as experienced by young veterinarian Jacob Jankowski, into the fabric of Jacob’s life as a ninety-plus widower living in a nursing home - a time referenced in the quote above.
It is important to remember that this book is a work of fiction. Though many novels are based on reality, you have to be willing to set aside your own idea of reality in order to be carried away by an author’s tale. It is no different with Water for Elephants. Gruen paints a wonderful picture of the sleazy yet glamorous Benzini Brothers’ Circus and the lives of its members - lives filled with greed, murder and desperate love.
While most people wouldn’t know what working for a Prohibition era circus was like, most of us on this website can relate to watching a loved one decline in a nursing home setting.
For the most part, we are on OurAlzheimers.com for insight and support in caregiving, information on Alzheimer’s and other dementias, and we are rewarded by a feeling of community brought about by stories of other people’s struggles as caregivers. For that reason, I am going to focus on the elder Jacob Jankowski - widower and nursing home resident.
Gruen made use of some liberties granted to fiction writers in order to make this story work. It’s a little too convenient that an outdoor tent circus would be setting up next to a modern day nursing home. That event, however, is pivotal to the book, and Gruen uses it to educate readers about the mind’s deterioration as we get older. The device works. Jacob relives, in his mind, his years with the circus, as he anxiously - and at times angrily - waits for the time to come when his son will take him to the present-day circus springing to life outside his window.
His children use a rotating schedule to visit Jacob on weekends. But when no one shows up to take Jacob to the circus, we as readers realize that Jacob has been “warehoused” by his children.
I have a problem with this, since the back story of how Jacob and his wife Marlena met, and the obvious lasting love they had throughout their long marriage was so strongly drawn. If they were so in love, shouldn’t they have had wonderful children as a result? Of course Jacob’s oldest “boy” is in his seventies, with his own problems. But still, one wonders, why isn’t there more closeness? More caring within the family?
I know this happens in real life, but it is more apt to occur when the family is dysfunctional. I liked to think that Jacob’s family wasn’t so. However, here again, the novelist’s job is to manipulate each detail for the good of the whole. Jacob had to be somewhat abandoned by his family for the plot to have worked. So, Gruen is forgiven.
On the other hand, Gruen is spot on with her take on how we view ourselves as we age. Jacob hates to look in the mirror because he sees an old man in there and this startles him. It’s well known that with Alzheimer’s disease, people often are startled by the person they see in the mirror because they don’t recognize themselves, for the same reasons they often don’t recognize their loved ones. I don’t believe this is Jacob’s problem. I think he is just like most of us. His brain retains the image of a younger Jacob, and he “forgets” that he’s a very old man - until he looks in a mirror.
Jacob also remembers his exciting early days, the time when he and Marlena were raising their family, far more readily than he remembers what he did the day before. But why wouldn’t he? What he did the day before wasn’t very exciting compared to his days as a young father working for the circus. So, while Jacob’s mental journey back to his circus days serves the purpose of giving the reader a nice adrenaline rush, it is also realistic in that these were days that Jacob treasured. The promise of, once again, seeing a circus performance outside the nursing home brings back his youth.
The book title comes from a remark another nursing home resident makes, when he sees the circus setting up. He tells the ladies that he “carried water for the elephants” when he was young. Jacob is infuriated by this statement, in part because he knows elephants drink far more water than people can haul in pails. But the anger is also there because the man who told the story was trying to charm the ladies who sit at Jacob’s dinner table. And Jacob liked to charm these ladies. This is his territory and the new man is an intruder. Jacob’s tantrum labels him as “uncooperative.”
As Jacob’s favorite aide pushes him in his wheelchair toward his room, he fumes over this man and his “lie” about bringing water to the elephants. Jacob’s aide, Rosemary, finally tells him, “Sometimes when you get older…things you think on and wish on start to seem real. And then you believe them, and before you know it they’re a part of your history, and if someone challenges you on them and says they’re not true - why you’re offended.”
This hit me hard. My dad, who had dementia, kept me very busy making fancy diplomas and degrees from all of the universities he ever attended. Dad was an educated man. He enjoyed learning. But he didn’t earn a degree in every thing he studied. He often took classes for enjoyment or just because he thought he needed to learn something. After the dementia set in, he had himself convinced that he’d earned degrees from all of these universities, in all of these subjects. Was he lying? Of course not. In his mind, this was true. I believe Rosemary’s explanation, and I think versions of this can happen whether or not dementia is present. Everyone’s memories become somewhat skewed over time.
What Jacob hates most in the nursing home is perfectly understandable. The mushy food. The schedules. Having the simplest decisions made for him. At one point, when Rosemary is with him and being her usual kind self, as opposed to other nurses Jacob doesn’t like, he remarks, “…I’m so used to being scolded and herded and managed and handled that I’m no longer sure how to react when someone treats me like a real person.”
The nursing home scenes with the aging Jacob are well drawn. Gruen knows nursing homes, and I credit her insight. I only wish that real life could turn out as well as this novel’s ending.
Here it is - the spoiler. Jacob the nursing home resident gets to run off with the modern circus, like the young Jacob ran off with the Benzini Brothers. In both cases, the circus rescues him from the miserable life he is living. In both cases, it becomes a refuge.
The reader in me, the person who loved reading this book, and loved Jacob, was cheering Isn’t this what we all want? To live our lives doing what we love until the day we die?
It left me wishing I didn’t know so much about real life. If I didn’t know that the nursing home would be in huge legal trouble is they just “lost” a resident; if I didn’t know that there would be a heavy search, and that this nice man who was going to let Jacob run off with him would more likely be arrested for, at the very least, enabling the disappearance of a vulnerable person, or some such thing; if I could have shut up that voice in my head that kept telling me this is what people want, but not what they get - if I could have gotten to that place, I would have been better able to enjoy the ending.
Instead, the book haunts me. I can’t let it go. Could it be that it brings back my dad’s story in Minding Our Elders, where I wrote of the time Dad was telling me that he needed me to do three things for him: get the City Commission minutes, the words to the Hail Mary and - bring an elephant to Fargo? I succeeded with the first two. I failed with the last. A tear trickles down my cheek as I write this. I envy Gruen’s liberties as a novelist. She orchestrated the perfect ending. I could not.
Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006, is available in bookstores and online.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.