As the one-year anniversary of his self-isolation approaches, Desjardins finds himself thinking about spring, making plans for the first plantings of cherry tomatoes and peppers in his greenhouses, and looking forward to new additions to his orchards and commercial garden setup at his home in St-Pascal-Baylon.
“We’re going to start a new greenhouse at the end of March,” he said, with a chuckle, during a Saturday morning phone interview February 20. “And if I run out of work, my son always has something for me to do.”
At 71, Desjardins’ idea of retirement is focused on managing his greenhouses and orchards, when he is not occupied with helping manage the present and future needs of the City of Clarence-Rockland. The latter job became a bit more challenging thanks to the pandemic.
The online mayor
Because of his age, Desjardins fell into the category of senior seen as most vulnerable to risk of COVID-19 infection. Pandemic health safety guidelines recommended everyone in his category go into immediate self-isolation, except for necessary trips for grocery shopping, picking up medications or seeing a doctor. Going into voluntary self-isolation was, to him, the logical decision to make though it meant having to adapt to a new home-office routine for everything he did, including his mayoral duties.
“I’ve even learned to sign cheques on the computer,” he said, laughing.
Being mayor of Clarence-Rockland for the past year has been less busy in some ways for Desjardins. The pandemic put a stop to many of the public gatherings, like new business openings, charity sports like the Mayor’s Golf Tournament, and other events where he might make a guest appearance.
Instead he estimates he spends about 20 hours a week on the computer, attending virtual meetings of city council, the United Counties of Prescott-Russell council, and other online get-togethers with provincial and federal officials or representatives of various regional agencies.
Beyond dealing with his mayoral duties, Desjardins doesn’t bother much with his home computer. He has little interest or time for social media, other than using it to keep in touch with family members living elsewhere in Canada. He doesn’t go on “virtual world tours” or surf the Net.
When he logs off the computer, Desjardins goes outside to work in his greenhouses or else go for a nice walk in summer or cross-country skiing in winter.
Facing the future
Desjardins noted that this will be his last term as mayor. He’s done what he wanted to do when he won the 2014 mayoral election and now he feels it is time to step aside.
“There are a lot of young people on council who will do a great job of replacing me,” he said.
One other incentive to step down as mayor is that he was diagnosed last year with Stage 4 cancer. Nodes appeared in his lungs and liver and he is now undergoing chemotherapy. He has lost weight because of the cancer and chemo but remains upbeat about his condition, even joking about how some clothes that have hung almost-forgotten in his wardrobe have gotten a new lease on life.
“I now have a fantastic selection of shirts,” he said, with a laugh, “where the buttons don’t scream when I fasten them.”
Besides occasional grocery-shopping trips, the only travel away from home for Desjardins is to Ottawa General Hospital for his chemotherapy.
“The care there is fantastic,” he said, adding that he is also going to wait his turn for when the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available for seniors living outside of long-term care homes. No queue-jumping for him.
“I will wait for my turn. I will not pass in front of anybody.”
Other than practical matters like keeping the snow off the house roof, winter is a quiet time for Desjardins. He occupies his mind with thoughts about plans for his greenhouses, his apple orchard of several dozen trees, and the future orchard of butternut trees that he planted last year thanks to a donation of 20 saplings from the South Nation Conservation Authority. Butternut trees are an endangered species in the region and he hopes to be around to see them yield their first crop of nuts.
“I like to plant new trees every year,” he said. “I’m even venturing into kiwi fruit.”
He’s ordered five kiwi vines from a Québec horticulture outfit which is also supplying him with a couple of pear trees. The vines will join his grape arbor somewhere near the house. Desjardin is not sure how the kiwi vines, which are native to New Zealand, will do in Eastern Ontario’s cooler climate but he looks forward to seeing the results of his experiment.
After a year in self-isolation, Desjardins feels optimistic about life in general.
“I’m doing quite well,” he said. “I’ve got a great partner in Aline (Ross) and she’s always ‘up’ all the time. We have more to do, so we’re not really confined. We keep busy, and that’s what helps keep the morale up.”
Besides keeping busy, Desjardins has one other piece of advice for everyone to help themselves to cope with the worry and stress of the pandemic.
“Take a walk outside. The sunshine can perk up anybody.”