The Death of a Dream

Many years ago, my parents had a trailer up on Balsalm Lake, and they’d often go for a drive to view the countryside. The tale goes that one day they were out driving, and my mother yelled, “Stop! This is it!”

“It” being their dream home in the country. A broken down house nearly a century old, with no kitchen, bathroom, or electricity. A barn that was ready to topple at the first stiff breeze. And acres of swamp, trees, and mosquitoes. And bears. And deer. And other assorted creatures, some benign, some not so benign.

They bought the “farm”, and for years travelled back and forth. The house was raised and put on a foundation. (My husband not-so-tactfully said that the word should have been spelled “razed.”)

They added on a kitchen and bathroom. They started to put in some insulation and drywall.

Eventually, they retired, and they moved to the country to start their dream life in earnest. They had a huge garden, almost always overgrown with weeds by mid-July. That is, if there was no frost that year. (Yes, they’ve had frost in July.) They had chickens, and even sold eggs. They even had show chickens, and my mother actually became a certified judge on the county circuit. They bought a small apartment building in town as an investment.

My brother joined them, and for a while, he even had work driving a garbage truck. My mother took a course and became a certified lay preacher, and became so involved in the church that she was eventually elected President of Bay of Quinte Conference, which is the equivalent in our church of an archbishop. For years they had a part time rural mail route, which also brought in much-needed extra income. My brother married, and his wife came to live with my parents.

Things were going well. At least, up until about five years ago.

Then age set in.

The garden and the chickens were the first to go. My parents just couldn’t do the work, and my brother wouldn’t.

The apartment was the next to go. Changes in the building code and the landlord tennant act meant that expensive repairs were needed before they could even sell. They watched any profit they might have realized dry up.

My brother lost his job–the government created something called “The City of Kawartha Lakes” (I should show you a picture of the sign someday–it’s in the middle of a forest!), and the contractor for the garbage collection no longer had a contract. My sister-in-law’s job had disappeared even before that. The two of them took to full-time drinking and television marathons in order to pass the time.

Then my father started to show signs of senile dementia, and my parents had to let the mail route go. My brother and sister-in-law applied, but it went to a former full-time postie who had retired up north.

They lost about twenty thousand dollars in yearly income in one go, and because my mother had never really been good with money (it was always my dad who took care of the finances, and he was no longer able to function), they didn’t stop spending until they were in deep, deep debt.

They refinanced, but the reality is that most people who refinance their homes to pay off consumer debt are back in deep trouble within two years. I’m not sure I’d give my parents that long–my mother is still spending as if she had money.

And my father is becoming a real problem, with incidents of violence, and nighttime wandering, and total confusion. As a sample, he woke up one morning asking who had stolen the fish tank from his room. There has NEVER been a fish tank in his room.

The reality is, he should be in a nursing home. It was, in fact, his stated wish when he talked to me about the future many years ago. But his pension is the only thing keeping the household afloat right now–if he goes into a home, my mother will be forced to sell the farm. My brother and sister-in-law will, at the ages of 51 and 56 respectively, be out on the street and looking for work with no recent experience and a significant alcohol addiciton. I can’t take them in.

My mother, of course, will be living with me. We’ll manage.

Many years ago, Bill and I moved to the country. We too wanted a “simpler” lifestyle. A place where our kids could grow up with fresh air, fresh water, good food, and surrounded by nature.

We lasted a little more than three years before we returned to the city.

Because the truth is that until recently, living off the land really isn’t a viable option for most of us. The work is extremely hard, even if you just have a few chickens and a big garden and a house to renovate and three kids, and there are NO days off. And you need money–a lot more money than most people realize.

Sure, our house was paid off, and taxes weren’t much. But everything else was more expensive. Food, gasoline (of which we needed much more, since it was a minimum half hour drive just to get groceries), heat (no natural gas, so we had to buy wood and oil), and so on.

And there were no jobs. None at all. In our last year in the country, Bill would leave me every Sunday night to return to Toronto to get what supply work he could, and he wouldn’t return until Friday night. And I had a newborn, a two-year-old, and a four-year-old to care for!

It sounds good, that move to the country. But in reality, it wasn’t nearly so pleasant as I’d imagined it to be. And financially, it was a disaster. We’d sold our city townhome for more than twice what we’d paid only two years earlier (we hit the real estate boom just right!), and bought the country place for cash, with money left over. And within three years, we were in debt again.

We gave up and moved back to the city, where there was work and neighbours and public transportation.

I’m glad we had our years in the country. Both Bill and I are a lot more self-reliant that we would have been if we’d stayed in the townhouse, and the kids did grow up with more awareness of where food comes from, even though they were very young when we moved back.

But I’m more aware than ever that when I work towards creating a “dream life,” that it is today’s dream I’m working on. Tomorrow, or a year from now, or ten years from now, the dream may sour. It may even, as it has in my parents’ case, become a bit of a nightmare.

And in order to prevent real disaster, there needs to be a stop-loss plan put in place. What happens if things go wrong, and your current lifestyle becomes unsustainable, or you begin to hate what you once loved?

In my parents’ case, they should have talked to one another long ago about what they preferred if they became unable to care for themselves. Because they had two very different preferences–where my father asked to be put in a home, my mother has confided that she has a horror of such a fate. And it’s my mother making the decision for my father.

Financially, they should have been debt free soon after retirement (and they did have the means), and they should have striven to stay that way. My mother should have taken a more active role in taking care of the money.

Most of all, I believe they could have taken better care of their bodies and minds.

It’s too late for my parents to change how things turned out. All we can do is make the best of it for their remaining years, and manage things so that my ship doesn’t go down with theirs.

But for myself, I’ll be applying the lessons I’ve learned in the past few years about preparing for the end of life. I’ll be getting myself out of debt and staying there. I’ll be working on developing some sort of retirement income that will keep me afloat. I’ll be looking for a house that will accommodate me even should I need a wheelchair or walker.

And I’ll be updating my will and my power of attorney, and making my wishes known IN WRITING regarding future care should I eventually become unable to care for myself.


About Ruth Cooke

Ruth Cooke B.A, M.Div., MPS is a writer, public speaker, and itinerant preacher whose areas of expertise and interest include poverty issues and solutions, parenting exceptional children, sexual orientation, and the place of religious institutions in society. If you would like Ruth to come preach, speak or lead a class or group, please contact her via email.
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