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first person

Illustration by Ashley Wong

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I was at that age (retirement) where everyone seemed interested in ruthlessly ridding themselves of possessions that were now demoted to clutter, if not outright garbage. People were selling their houses and squeezing into small condos. Why then was I going in the opposite direction, swapping a city condo for a house in the country on an acre of forested land? Why was I resisting the wisdom others extolled about “simplifying their lives” as old age pressed its face to my window.

As I approached my 65th birthday, I phoned my daughter to say I wanted a family party to celebrate becoming an old woman. After a pause, she said, matter of factly, “That ship has already sailed, mum.”

Obviously, in her eyes, despite the small fortune I spent monthly on hair dye and my attempts to stay current with fashion, I’d been a crone for some time. No one can explode your self-delusions like an adult daughter.

I started to think about how to best live out the rapidly diminishing years I had left. Like me, my husband had lived in cities his entire life and wanted to move to the country or a small town. Something different, a new life. A new home.

The fate of many elderly people is to spend their last days in small rooms. My 94-year-old dad died in a nursing-home room; my 72-year-old mother in a four-bed ward in palliative care. At the endpoint of their lives, the size of their living space was the dimensions of a single bed.

So given that sad prospect, why not spend as much time as possible in a house surrounded by the things that make it a home? For me that included: three overflowing bookcases, ancestral furniture, boxes of old family letters, racks of CDs, framed family photographs, pottery, artwork, an extensive kitchenware collection to support my husband’s Iron Chef alter ego.

But my sense of home went beyond possessions and a house. There was something nudging us both to seek a life lived closer to nature. We started looking at rural locations, close enough to the city we lived in for easy visits with family and friends.

It was a pleasant surprise to discover a modest house in the country cost about the same as an urban condo. After looking at 20 houses, we found the right one. The house was solidly built, big enough to accommodate overnight guests and the land around the house – with its forest cover of Douglas Fir and Arbutus trees – cast an irresistible spell.

It was Dec. 31st, and we wanted to spend New Year’s Eve in our new home even though the official move was scheduled for March. Our furnishings were sparse as we camped out in the newly vacated house: twin beds pushed together on the living room floor in front of the propane fireplace, a small patio wooden table with two chairs, a portable radio.

As the announcer did the countdown to midnight, we drank Champagne and cuddled on the floor. The TV ads always show happy young couples in their first homes surrounded by packing boxes and empty pizza cartons. We were as excited to be in our new home as if we were a young couple starting out. We were old, but we were starting a new life, giddy with Champagne and a sense of adventure.

In the middle of the night, I heard a strange, loud call, eerie in the silence that enveloped the house. An owl. The next morning, I watched deer just outside the wire fence, slow and silent as they searched for winter browse.

After four years, I still feel the delight of the deep silence, the wildlife, the fresh scent of the air, the starry skies.

“But what do you do over there?” a younger friend asked my husband.

“We like to watch the hummingbirds come to the feeders,” my husband answered, to her incredulous silence. (My husband used to be a perfectionist workaholic, he is now almost recovered.)

It is a quiet life, but we’re not in the back of beyond. There is community theatre, live music concerts, a funny old cinema that makes the best popcorn and an awesome library with a fabulous collection of new titles and few holds.

In the summer, our city friends and families come to visit. They tend to sleep a lot the first few days. Urban life takes a toll with its relentless noise and pace, and unforgiving deadlines. It feels good to be able to offer a refuge, where there is good food, clean air and peace and quiet.

The city was a great place to be when I was younger and necessary for employment. But as I age, it’s more contact with nature I crave. It’s like I’ve come full circle from my childhood when I would roam freely on my grandfather’s farm in the summer, exploring riverbanks and pastures.

I’ve rediscovered the joy of exploring, finding my own special place. I make my way along a trail past Garry oaks and salal bushes to sit on a rocky knoll, looking out at the islands floating between the limitless sky and the sea. Gradually, I sink deeper and deeper into just being in nature with no restless thoughts. I can sit for a long time there, not consciously meditating, but in some similar state. I leave feeling spiritually refreshed.

At the breakfast table, I share the newspaper with my husband. He reads aloud another depressing article about outliving your retirement savings, then jokes, “We can always sell the house and move into a trailer in the woods.”

I nod in agreement.

“Make it a double-wide and I’m all in.”

Connie Gibbs lives in Salt Spring Island, B.C.