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  • Green Acres With an Ozark View: A Retirement Reset

    I once considered retirement a remote choice, taken once you’re older with much notice and glorious retirement parties.

    But in March 2020, the pandemic slammed the world. My husband, Jeff was diagnosed with rare Churg-Strauss (eosinophilic granulomatosis with polyangiitis or EGPA) and an immense, and tenacious thymoma encased my son-in-law’s chest. We were presented with three life-changing strikes in two months, and we were reeling.

    Due to initially intractable asthma amidst early COVID-19 waves, my husband’s physicians recommended avoiding his ENT practice. Imagine patients removing their masks and saying “aaaah” 10 inches from your face amid a lethal virus, while an autoimmune disease and the required immunomodulators wreaked havoc. Although I quickly returned to clinical ophthalmology, I daily feared conveying death to my susceptible loved ones.

    Laurie Gray Barber, MD and husband Jeff Barber, MD and their 1955 John Deere tractor.

    COVID-19 stretched on for weeks, then months. Essentially living apart from my husband and family depleted my reserves. We decided if our goal was living our bucket lists together while able, we’d best retire from our beloved medical professions. A few years prior, we had purchased a beautiful old farmstead in northwest Arkansas as an investment, three hours from our Little Rock home. Realizing it was a good time to downsize, we sold our Little Rock house in under 24 hours and committed to a quick reset and relocation. The ditty from “Green Acres” became my earworm!

    Before the pandemic, I could not imagine casting off the different hats of an ophthalmologist and physician, especially so quickly. My decades as an academician, advancement to professor of ophthalmology, scores of clinical research projects, mentoring, and intense roles in ophthalmology advocacy and leadership were high priorities up until March 2020.

    I had visualized our retirement as being filled with active trips away, hours reading and big gatherings of family and friends. Instead, mainly due to the pandemic, we took the curved, quiet path of rural living. I now keep up my stitching skills while sewing clothes rather than skin.

    Fresh produce and homemade gifts made for Dr. Barber’s friend, family, and local homeless shelters. 

    I now have wide brimmed sun hats and John Deere blaze orange caps to don. Growing up in a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa, I was not a farmer wannabe. My husband, Texan Jeff, on the other hand, has always been a man of the land. He thrives on bush hogging, hole digging and mowing with the old John Deere tractor that his dad utilized for 65 years.

    Together, we learned no-till gardening. We set up growing lamps, planted seeds, properly buried the seedlings, and harvested large quantities of vegetables. Jeff planted hundreds of apple, pear, pawpaw, persimmon, fig and even zombie fruit trees. We have harvested gallons of grapes (three varieties) and plucked massive stands of wild (with thorns!) blackberries. I have brewed huge pots of soup from the tomatoes, sweet peppers, onions, greens and potatoes we put up. Our good gifts of homemade grape, pear, and blackberry jellies and jams are lovingly shared with friends, family, and homeless shelters. Fruit cobblers and pies are requested now in lieu of birthday cakes, their wonderful fragrance wafting through the “compound” of farmhouse, shop, garden, cottage, corral, and barn.

    Slowly, we have climbed out of COVID-19 and illness bunkers. Our family and friends enjoy gatherings again. I volunteer to give COVID-19 vaccinations to eager recipients throughout northwest Arkansas. I relish a particular memory of a thrilled senior woman. Dressed in pink, she gifted the fire station vaccination site with her own enthusiastic, choreographed dance to overhead music as she awaited the post-vaccine observation time. It was a joy to have grateful Arkansans baring their arms, tearfully telling how they could see loved ones again or attend a grandchild’s wedding due to this scientific miracle.

    Determined to enjoy retirement, we traveled the Midwest and South in a hastily purchased and outfitted tow-behind trailer. My husband (begrudgingly) gave “glamping” a chance, and it was a great way to travel safely during the worst of the pandemic. We have since reverted to old modes of travel. I reckoned he bought the RV out of love for me and my insistence we could not abandon adventures. I sold the camper out of love for him, and the realization he didn’t enjoy the preparation and take-down necessary for each trip. To celebrate, we spontaneously signed up for a Greek isles cruise, and savored the sparsely populated, fully vaccinated, and masked ship and gorgeous Greek cities.

    Enriching our lives further, our two sons live nearby and have blessed us with a new granddaughter each. Our daughter and son-in-love have withstood the hermit life and scary Cs of cancer and COVID-19 and may move from Iowa to Arkansas if Mayo Clinic oncologists, radiation oncologists and chest surgeons deem his metastatic thymoma stable.

    As another way to remain active, we self-contracted building a 700-square-foot guest house. To our surprise, it has stayed booked on Airbnb when not blocked out for family and friends. Meeting folks from across the U.S., even during the pandemic, has been a good remedy for fewer social contacts.

    At this point in our retirement, I would tell my younger 2020 self that stepping back from a beloved profession will be an emotional experience, but it will allow a rebalance of priorities and a different kind of fulfillment. Thanks to excellent health care for my spouse, we enjoy an active life of hiking, biking, and kayaking, albeit at a slower pace. We have also found mental balm in tending plants and trees, encouraging wildflowers and native grasses for the birds and bees, and in seeing our family as frequently as our busy lives allow.

    Dr. Barber pictured with farm fresh produce. 

    I sing, “Green Acres is the place for me. Farm livin’ is the life for me” to make my two grand babies laugh. Simple pleasures such as an infant giggling strengthen us, and we live for the glorious sunsets from our home. Our life reset has agreed with us now that we have readjusted expectations. I am grateful for the chance to continue becoming, even if I move further away from the woman I had been.