“The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old” – Book Review

Can we learn about healthy aging and retirement from a novel?  What do the very oldest among us have to teach those of us who are newly retired or on the cusp of retirement?  “The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old,” published in The Netherlands in 2014 and in the United States in 2017, is a tender, darkly funny account of a year in the life of a Dutch retirement home resident, full of lessons about friendship, aging, death, and life.

“The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old, Grand Central Publishing, 2017, 377 pages

Hendrik Groen, the diary keeper (and the book’s pseudonymous author) begins his diary on January 1, 2013, and completes an entry almost daily for the entire year.  Plot lines—one romantic and another political—fizzle before they can fully develop, suggesting perhaps the limited possibilities for sustained drama at this stage of life rather than being a structural weakness.  The book instead finds its structure in the natural tragic arc of a year that begins in the winter, proceeds through spring, summer, and fall, and ends in a second winter.  Over the course of the year Hendrik feels the stirring of new love, comments wryly on the foibles of old age and acerbically on institutional indignities, and joins forces with a group of fellow “inmates” determined both to undermine management and to offer one another mutual support and comfort.  This group, calling themselves the Old But Not Dead Club, host dinner parties in each others’ apartments to escape the bland and repetitive dining room food, and organize outings to escape the boredom of bingo and common room gossip and whining.

Hendrik has an eye for ironic detail.  Capturing the eccentricities of the “older old” he describes the food, seventeen years past its expiration date, found in the refrigerator of a deceased resident.   Dark humor is omnipresent, as in this “crematorium crisis”:  “the coffin got stuck halfway in, so the oven door couldn’t close properly.  The coffin caught fire and the smoke seeped into the chapel.  The crematorium had to be evacuated.  Anyone who hadn’t already been weeping emerged teary eyed.  That’s what I call a spectacular way to say goodbye.”  Some critics have compared “Hendrik Groen” to Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” and Hendrik is especially deft in describing institutional pettiness and doublespeak.  When management installs hall cameras “‘for our own safety’” residents, old enough to have lived as small children through the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands, are soon comparing retirement home leadership to the Gestapo.

Patronizing, Packaging, and Utopia

Hendrik punctuates his yearlong chronicle with other wry observations and lessons:

On patronizing the older old:  “I heard that, on the heels of hospital clowns for sick children, special clowns are being deployed to cheer up lonely old folks.  I don’t know what they’re called or where they come from, but I should like to warn them in advance:  if any clown arrives to brighten my day, so help me God, I’ll use my last ounce of strength to bash his jovial skull in with a frying pan.”

On modern packaging (a complaint people of all ages can relate to):  “It’s the little things that get you.  Or rather, that you don’t get.  A daily annoyance:  packaging.  Cans with tabs you can’t wedge your finger under, vacuum-sealed LIFT UP HERE corners too small to pull, childproof cleaning products, applesauce lids, impossible to twist prosecco corks, blister packs:  they’re all specially designed to make it as difficult as possible for feeble, trembling, old hands to manage.”  

On utopia from an octogenarian’s perspective:  “Friday the thirteenth, a good day to buy a lottery ticket.  One always has to have something to hope for.  If I win the jackpot, I’m buying a small, private, old-age home for myself and my friends.  It won’t have a director, an orderly, or a board of directors.  No human-resource manager, accountant, or head of housekeeping.  No rules, no regulations, or interdictions.  That will save buckets of money and a lot of red tape.  What there will be room for is common sense, friendly staff, and a good cook who’s always on call, in case we don’t feel like preparing our own meals in our well-equipped kitchen.  A home with spacious, light-filled rooms where you can keep your cat, dog, or Christmas tree if you are so inclined.  How simple is that.  Keep dreaming, Hendrik.”

Friendship… and Plans

Ultimately, the most important lessons of “The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old” are about the importance of socializing with friends and of making plans—having something to look forward to.  At an end-of-year Christmas dinner with the Old But Not Dead Club, Hendrik raises a toast to “friendship as the essential ingredient of a good life.”  A few days later, in his final diary entry of the year, he contemplates an upcoming outing and writes:   “And after that trip, I’ll have to come up with another plan.  As long as there are plans, there’s life.”

“Hendrik Groen” should be a basic text for retirement home staff and others who deal professionally with the older old, but it is really for anyone who wants an entertaining and in the end profound lesson on what it means to age with dignity and a sense of humor.

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“Furnishing Eternity” by David Giffels – Book Review

The people you love most are gravely ill or dying, and you decide it’s the right time to build your own coffin.  Sounds pretty morbid, right?  In the hands of David Giffels, an associate professor of English at the University of Akron in Ohio, “Furnishing Eternity” is far from morbid—his memoir of grief is tenderly and beautifully told, both darkly and brightly funny, and ultimately cathartic.  (Why is this book being reviewed on a blog about successful retirement?  Because The Retirement Whisperer believes in life before death—and that a sense of humor is important.)

“Furnishing Eternity,” Scribner, 2018, 256 pages

Giffels tells of his mother’s and his best friend’s battles with cancer, but the emotional center of the book is his relationship with his father.  In retirement Thomas Giffels is exhaustingly active and dedicated to, perhaps obsessed with, making and fixing things; his workshop in the barn behind his house, stocked with every tool imaginable, is his sanctuary.  “Some people retire to Florida, some to the golf course,” Giffels writes.  “Midwestern civil engineers dream of settling into a place like this.”  When his father, too, is diagnosed with cancer, Giffels has a couple of motives for suggesting the coffin project.  “One of my goals with this endeavor was to learn from him—practical skills and hopefully more.  Whatever he would allow.  And just to have reason to spend extra time with him.”  But Giffels is also seeking emotional connection and fittingly sets this insight in the front seat of a car, where men often communicate best with each other:  “Some days I drove my dad to his appointment [for radiation treatment], and sometimes on the highway we talked about this coffin idea, partly as a distraction but also as a way to somehow address the general notion of mortality that was so unavoidable that summer.”  

The coffin project at first feels like an overly deliberate literary device, but the layering of pathos and humor gives the book emotional power.  “Furnishing Eternity” can induce discomfort, even anxiety in its vivid language:   “Then suddenly, sooner than any of us could have expected, we—her family—were ringed around her hospital bed, watching it happen in slow hungry gasps, death pecking at her.”  But Giffels can not only turn a phrase but set it spinning like a lathe—“It might be unfair to call him a control freak, but he was certainly a control aficionado.”—and he has an eye for absurdity.  His father wants to use wood resistant rot for the coffin; Giffels wonders why, under the eventual circumstances, that would matter.

Life Before Death

Mary Karr writes that “voice” is the key to great memoir.  Giffels has a distinctive one and by the end of “Furnishing Eternity” you understand where it came from.  From his crossword-loving mother he inherits not only an unabridged set of “The Oxford English Dictionary” but a passion for words; from his best friend John he learns to understand and appreciate the soul of the artist; from his father he learns method and craft.  And from intimacy with all of them he experiences the consuming nature of grief:  “For weeks, all I did was feel sad.  What I found was that feeling sad about death made me feel sad about everything.  Feeling sad about death made me feel sad about my son winning a baseball award.  It made me feel sad about a birthday cake.  It made me feel sad about a sunset.”

At the end of “Furnishing Eternity” the author finds not the end of grieving but wisdom about life and death.  “Grief is a collage,” he writes, “a bunch of vivid images thrown together without a clear order, leaving it to the viewer to decipher, only to discover that each image leads to a new one, which leads to another, endlessly elusive.”  Recent memories of pain and sadness for a time crowd out older ones, but eventually “missing pieces did work their way back in.”  Those happier memories balance but can’t erase sadder ones; they and the book itself ultimately affirm the importance of living life before death.

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