Our Last Days At Merry-Sur-Yonne

It was never our intention to leave on Thursday 15 June. We were so full of energy and excited about this new opportunity. It was the first time the campsite complex (campground/restaurant/auberge/epicerie) was open all year round. A lot needed doing. From hand-pruning one of the 120 trees on-site to getting quotes for the ready-mix concrete to be poured into the two bases of our brand new camping pods or changing salt for the kitchen dishwasher, there never was a dull moment. We were on our feet (and knees at time!); running around, always with a smile. Our main goal: making sure everybody was happy. Whether they were guests, employees or volunteers, we wanted them to feel at home and relaxed.

One last time, the view on top of the famous rocks, "Les Rochers Du Saussois".

The Canal Du Nivernais.

We worked hard sometimes around the clock. But, it never seemed to be enough. The communication broke down; little by little the small trees separating us became bigger and bigger until they were cut down and replaced by a fence we never managed to cross again. We could never fully climb over it. As small things never got fully talked over, it slowly ate away our brains, all of us.

Without wanting it to be, one main event changed everything. After this, it spiraled very quickly. We were gone after a month. I needed to write everything down. To remember. To not mix and confuse moments. Here I try to relay the event as it happened, chronologically. And what went through my mind:

Quickly after we arrived on the campsite to start the 2017 season, we noticed how tired the owners were. Zach and David had been working tirelessly. They hadn’t stopped since they’d first looked around for THE campsite. The one they would transform and make it their dream come true.

After they very kindly allowed me a week off to travel back to Normandy to vote in the second round of the general election, they realised Paris was only a couple of hours by train from the nearest little rural train station about five kilometres away. They decided after much discussion and research that a few nights away would be just what they needed. Jamie and myself felt very proud that only after two months they trusted us enough to leave us in charge and look after the campsite.

They’d made it easier for us – amongst other things, we could shut the restaurant/bar from 3 to 7pm to eat & have a break. None of the auberge rooms were booked so we didn’t have to worry about changing bedding or breakfasts. New volunteers, Steve and Deb had arrived earlier than anticipated and made it to Merry on Sunday, the day before Zach & David left. It was quite of a crash course for them. Unfortunately, they had had problems with their motorhome driving all the way down from West Yorkshire! (N.B. My dear husband Jamie is from this lovely part of the country) and so had to go off-site on Monday and stay out for the night. 

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday morning came and went. Running the whole site was hard. But we managed. We were both tired and argued at times back in the van, but it worked. Customers were happy.

Wednesday afternoon. We exceptionally shut at 5pm. I made croque-madames for all of us including Jane and Peter a couple of long-termers living on site. They had been working hard outside all day in the scorching sun building the flat-packed-wooden-pod-that-came-all-the-way-from-Lithuania. Eating, chatting and laughing, sat at a table in the restaurant, our peace was broken as we were about to bite into our desert. 

One of our Dutch campers, Nikel peeped his head through the back door of the restaurant at 8pm. He wanted us to call a doctor for his wife, Sjieuwke. Her heart was racing unusually fast. After a couple of attempts of calling a local doctor, I dialled 15, the emergency number. After speaking to the emergency-response team and making sure they had the right address for the campsite, I walked rapidly with Nikel back to their caravan. Sjieuwke needed to be in a “cool place” and “laid down”, the calm and reassuring emergency staff kept repeating. I hung up the phone.

I was about to knock on their caravan’s door, when, wearing only a small vest top and her underpants, Sjieuwke ran out of her four-wheeled home, laid down on the grass and started vomiting. Their neighbours, Martin and Cobie, a lovely Dutch couple helped out as they had witnessed Sjieuwke’s health slowly deteriorating throughout the day. I put Sjieuwke in the recovery position. “Do you have any towels?” I said to Cobie. Nikel came back with a couple of small dry ones. I smile inside. I hadn’t precised that I needed them wetted a little [to cool Sjieuwke down]. I had assumed they would understand. Cobie hands me the dampened towels. We gently put them on Sjieuwke’s forehead, back and tummy. “Would you have a mattress or else to lay Sjieuwke on?” I said to Nikel. He was confused. Cobie translated. Shuffling ensued. All of a sudden, a big white mattress was desperately being shoved through their small caravan door. It was their bed’s mattress. We placed it against her body and gently rolled her on. “Don’t worry, it will be ok, the ambulance will be here soon”, I said caressing her back trying to reassure her. She started mumbling things in Dutch. Cobie spoke to her and translated back.

I needed to go. It seemed ages since I’d been with Nikel, Cobie and Martin. I needed to make sure the ambulance would take the right turn on the D100 to get here. What if they arrive from the back road?... Where’s Jamie?... Everything was going through my head. “Are you going to be ok?” I said to Cobie, Martin & Nikel. I found Jamie, Steve and Deb and walked as fast as I could out of the campsite and onto the road through the village and out. I stayed on the bridge over the canal. Have I missed the ambulance?... Is anybody waiting by the other road? Luckily Deb reassured me Jamie was on his bike waiting by the other road... It’s getting dark. There’s a storm coming. Literally and metaphorically I don’t have a rain coat with me. Deb’s with me. It’s nice... Steve was here too. He waited by the curve in the road. What was the ambulance doing? It was coming from the nearest hospital in Clamecy, approximately 22 kilometres away. I called back, “They should be here soon” She said. As I hung up, Steve shouted. The ambulance pulled by the corner. I climbed in. 
The couple of paramedics were friendly and chatty. It lightened the mood a little as I told them about Sjieuwke’s symptoms. It was nice. As we neared the campsite’s entrance, Jamie lead the way into the campsite and towards Nikel and Sjieuwke’s caravan. “What a welcome”, they both said.

It was very dark by now. About nine o’clock. I got out of the ambulance. Nikel took my hand and looked me in the eyes. “She’s gone ... She’s gone Sylvie... She’s been gone for ten minutes.” He said in a croky voice. I stared blankly back desperately trying to process this information. What does he mean?!... What is he on about?... Does he mean she’s dead?!... It cannot be? Or can it?... She was alive a minute ago?... Well... quite a few minutes ago.... Shit... I need to get on. I didn’t say anything back. 

I turned my head and walked over towards the caravan, where Sjieuwke was laid down. Something was wrong. The paramedics weren’t smiling anymore. They were trying to find a pulse. Nothing. I was towering over. As I looked around, the woman paramedic asked me to get their bag. For the next two hours or so, I became their- and another team’s junior assistant. Sat by them, I watched them giving CPR to Sjieuwke, listening to the computerised voice coming from their machine telling them what to do and when... Whilst telling her colleague what to do, the woman paramedic threw her mobile phone towards me, “Call them, call them!” she said. Over and over again.

I dialled again France’s emergency number, 15.  This time, my voice wasn’t as calm as it once was. This time it was “Une question de vie ou de mort”. “The paramedics have been doing CPR for more than ten minutes without success!”. “They need help! You need to bring another team!” I said. I dared to ask how long it would take... After Clamecy, the nearest biggest hospital is in Auxerre, 40kilometres away... “Count one minute per kilometre.” was the dreaded answer. “Thank you, please tell them to hurry.” was my hopeless desperate plea... I wanted to cry, shout, curl up in a bowl and disappear. .. Come on! Act! Continue!... I continued. Robot-like. Emotions would crumble this act. Jamie had gone on his bike to wait by the bridge again.

Where were they?! Time went on... 9.28pm, I called again. They’re near “Toucy”, the lady on the other line told me. Not too far, but another 12 minutes, maybe... Sjieuwke wasn’t responding.

9.38pm. The ambulance from Auxerre arrives. Everything goes faster. Change of act. The lead surgeon orders his team of four or five doctors around him. He asks what happened. I start by telling him Sjieuwke lost consciousness about five/ten minutes before the paramedics arrived, more than 30minutes ago. Did I do any CPR, the surgeon asked... I didn’t crumble... “No, because Sjieuwke was alive when I left her and Nikel, her husband. I needed to make sure the ambulance would take the right turn to get here. One to two kilometres away. And I didn’t ....” He’s off. He has the information he needs. He gives out more instructions. Tools and equipments are ready. The set becomes a mini-hospital. The intensive care unit. They know what they’re doing. They’re precise. They’re fast. It’s a choreography. An opera..

It’s raining. ”Can you hold the drip?” “Yes!” It’s in my hand... Where’s Jamie? Is he ok?... They try to give her some air; to reanimate her... Where are the others? Are they ok? Where’s Nikel? I can’t look at him... Have they found a pulse?  I don’t understand... No, they haven’t... Yes! No!... I don’t know...Did they do that for my dad and Francois, were they given the same chances? STOP it! How can you?! Focus. It rains harder.

11.19pm. It’s still raining. Sjieuwke is pronounced dead. The surgeon gives me the paper. They think she died of a blocked aorta. It’s a natural cause of death, he tells me. No need to call the police, but the insurance needs to be called immediately to start the body’s repatriation’s procedure and ensure it gets back ok to The Netherlands... We need to sort out where to put the body before the emergency services leave... It’s not a body! Jane (a former policewoman) keeps having to remind me that it’s not a “body”, it’s Sjieuwke, Nikel’s wife. Yes, she sure is. Damn! Stupid head!

Nikel cries. He is not sure about telling his daughter and his son especially, he tells me. I tell him that it will be hard, but they need to know, and as soon as possible. They need to be given the chance to arrive as soon as possible so they can see their mum one last time. I don’t need to tell him, he’s gone already. Jane’s with him... I think. One of the bedrooms in the auberge is ready for Nikel and his dog. Jamie, Jane and Deb had cleaned it earlier on.

Have any of the campers been awakened by the event of the night?... Everything’s ok, Jamie reassures me. Peter and Jane too... It’s fine... What’s next. Search the World Wide Web for the 24hr undertaker’s helpline. Tell Nikel he needs to call his insurance.

It’s raining hard outside. The temperature has suddenly dropped drastically after the heat of the last couple of days. We’ve taken refuge in the restaurant. Nikel, Martin, Cobie, Jane, Peter, Jamie and I. It’s around 12am. The undertakers won’t come until 1.30/2am as they’re dealing with another matter on the other side of the department. There’s only one team (one car, two men) available for the South of the department. Except for some of us who’ve gone to bed earlier on to [try to] get some sleep, we all decide to wait together for the undertakers. It’s nice. I’m glad we’re all together. We can wind down a bit. Sort of ... Time for a brew! We make tea and coffees. We talk. We attempt to lighten the mood by talking to Nikel about the “good ol’ days”. Did him & Sjieuwke go camping a lot? Did they ever go as a family? How long ago? Etc. It was nice.

2am. The undertakers come.

4am. Tomorrow’s Job-To-Do list: Call Funeral Home in Vermenton and arrange meetings. Fill in, sign, scan and email important forms [for Sjieuwke’s body repatriation to The Netherlands] to the insurance. Sit with Nikel and tell him he may have to start informing their bank and important institutions of his wife’s death. Are there anything else we could help him with. 

Tomorrow will be harder as he will wake up and slowly realise that his soulmate of 52 years has gone. Forever... I cry... Early rise... Tired... Come on, Focus! Shower. Prepare bread orders. Deal with campers. Back to daily routine for a couple of hours. It’s nice.
Nikel’s daughter, Krista; his son, Roel and his son-in-law, Hans arrive later on that day... They have driven a long way, about 600km. They are tired, hungry and distraught. We try and make them as comfortable as possible. I spend the day helping them with the repatriation procedure, translation and funeral home. I feel drained, but carries on. After several phone calls and heavy discussions with the funeral home. And with Jane and Peter’s support, I manage to make the funeral home agree to open their door at the end of the working day so that Nikel, Krista, Roel and Hans can see Sjieuwke one last time. Jane and I accompanied them. This was tough. We were there two hours. 

Zach and David are back at 5.30pm. After catching up with them, they prepare a meal for the family, Jamie and I. We weren’t sure about it at first as we thought we may want to have an evening for ourselves. But, it was really nice. We sit, eat, drink and chat about fairly mundane things. Both Jamie and I say that inspite of the terrible events of the last 24 hours we have made long lasting friends with Nikel, Krista, Roel and Hans.

4am. I can’t sleep any longer. I can see myself with the doctors and Sjieuwke. I toss and turn. Why didn’t I take Nikel or Cobie’s phone number?! Shower doesn’t wash away everything. But it covers the sounds. Tears flow down and mix with water. It all comes out. Later on that day, Roel and I call a couple of times the surgeon who pronounced his mum’s death. Nobody would have been able to save her. Sjieuwke died of an aneurism. They leave together having seen their mum, mother-in-law and wife. Later on, we say a very emotional goodbye. The caravan must stay here on the pitch as the insurance will come and pick it up later. Nikel, Krista, Hans and Roel leave after many tears and lots of hugs.

On top of Merry-Sur-Yonne's church.

Some tulips in Monet's garden, Giverny.

There’s a few loose ends I must tie up, but all of the formalities from our end are taken care of. Now things must return to normal, there are toilets to be cleaned, grass to be cut and campers to be helped.  

But, in the next few days, weeks and month, I cannot sleep as well as I used to before the event. Sjieuwke’s death brought back so many wounds. Lost ones; it wasn’t just my dad and my brother-in-law, Francois, but also Anna, Yael, Fraser, Oncle Bernard, Oncle Albert, Bonne Maman, Bon Papa and many more. I miss them.