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Fit as a fiddle at 93

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Renee DeSilva doing her morning exercises (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

Every morning Renee DeSilva likes to do her “thumps and bumps”.

Planks, push-ups, walks and weights – the 93-year-old does them all because if she didn’t she “would be stiff".

"The exercises loosen everything up,” she explained.

At 85 she suffered from dizzy spells and had problems with her vision. Doctors discovered she had a brain tumour but were unable to tell how fast it was growing. Six months after the diagnosis, Ms DeSilva had a stroke and was rushed to King Edward VII Memorial Hospital.

“She was in and out of consciousness and not able to speak very well,” said her daughter, Samantha Torak. “For some reason we understood each other.”

Medical staff didn’t hold out much hope. Ms DeSilva and her family feel she was written off because of her age.

“They did not pay much attention to me,” she said. “They would not even put me on a drip.”

It was four days before she saw a neurologist and a plan was made to send her to Boston, Massachusetts for specialist treatment.

“She went on a commercial airline,” Ms Torak said. “My brother Mark had to carry her onto the plane.”

Doctors at Dana Farber Cancer Institute removed the tumour and coached her through rehab where Ms DeSilva had to once again learn basic skills such as how to walk.

“I just have a bit of sensitivity on the back of my head where they took the tumour out,” she said. “I don’t even take that much medication now.”

She was born in Gillingham, Kent, England. Her father, Lieutenant Commander Frederick Birch, was a British naval officer. Her mother, Maria, was from Gibraltar.

Her parents brought Ms DeSilva and her brother Frederick here to live when she was 12 years old.

Her father, who was tasked with running the Royal Naval Hospital on Ireland Island, Sandys, arrived first. The rest of the family followed in August 1939, a month before the Second World War erupted.

“We came on a public liner,” Ms DeSilva said. “In the middle of the night I found myself on the floor with a bloodied nose – my mother and I couldn’t understand it – with the ship was swaying from side to side.”

They learnt that a German submarine had attempted to blow them out of the water, hoping to trigger the start of the war. Dodging torpedoes, the liner had to return to Belfast, Ireland, then join a convoy to cross the Atlantic.

They eventually made it.

“At that time in Bermuda you either walked or you pedalled,” Ms DeSilva said. “My mother cried and cried when she had to get on a bicycle. She had never sat on one in her life. She missed her car at home.”

At a school in Dockyard run by British navy teachers Ms DeSilva learnt to swim, sail and shoot.

She then went to Mount Saint Agnes Academy but had to leave at 15 – a month short of graduation – to care for her sick mother.

“It broke my heart,” she said.

When her mother recovered a year later she went to work for Trans Canada Airlines. She then married and had two sons, Chris and Mark Andrew.

Chris was killed in a sailing accident at age 14 while in boarding school in England.

“It was tough,” Ms DeSilva said.

One day in Hamilton she ran into a friend who had also lost a son in an accident and was adopting a child. Inspired, Ms DeSilva adopted Ms Torak, who arrived from Canada at age four.

“It was love at first sight,” she said. “Adopting her was one of the best things I ever did.”

Renee DeSilva with her daughter, Samantha Torak (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

In her early 20s Ms DeSilva worked as a secretary and ran a nursery school in Hamilton called Tiny Tots.

For a few years her family lived in Spain. When they returned to the island in 1974 she started Bermuda Business Services, a secretarial service and temp agency on Serpentine Road in Hamilton.

To get clients she went from company to company introducing herself.

“I did not know how to start a business,” she said. “It was the best thing. I loved the interaction.”

She remembers being invited to a cocktail party at the Corporation of Hamilton where she was the only woman, aside from the secretary.

“I asked her at the end of the party why there were no other ladies there,” Ms DeSilva said. “She said they had never invited one until they invited me. I was the first. Then when I went to the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club I was one of the first women to be invited to be a member. I did have a good time at the Yacht Club, except they would ask me to go in the side door instead of the main door. I could not do that.”

Renee DeSilva with her son, Mark Andrew (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

She retired at age 60 and dabbled in real estate, buying properties, fixing them up and flipping them.

“That was fun,” she said.

Ms DeSilva divorced her first husband. A few years later she married Frank Edgecomb but after just three years he died of cancer.

At 80 she married Charles DeSilva.

“One day I was walking with my neighbour and we met Charles who had a dog,” she said. “The dog jumped all over me. This happened every time we saw him and we got to know each other. He must have asked me to marry him 18 times. Finally, my son Mark said, 'Mother, say yes! I’m fed up with this.'”

She took his advice and had a great time with Mr DeSilva until he died in 2019, 11 years after they married.

With three acres of property it is fitting that she loves gardening. Her faith is also important to her.

“I go to whatever church is running,” Ms DeSilva said. “As long as Jesus switches up, I am fine. I think I have been to every church in Bermuda. I was a big friend of Muriel Archer and she loved to go to different churches. So that is what we did.”

She also enjoys spending time with her seven grandchildren and is looking forward to meeting a ninth great grandchild shortly.

Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens every Wednesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or jmhardy@royalgazette.com with the full name and contact details and the reason you are suggesting them

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Published December 01, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated December 02, 2021 at 7:34 am)

Fit as a fiddle at 93

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