It’s a sad, sad day. I have just heard from my parents that a dear friend of our family, Bernard Brécy, passed away yesterday evening.
Bernard was a truly unique individual, and in spite of all that life had dealt him in terms of trials and travails, he had coped with it in such a quietly resolute, uncomplaining way that he appeared pretty much indestructible.
I wanted to tell what I know of his story, as a mark of respect for a person who I have come to see as all that is most admirable in a human being. In amongst all the sniping, back-biting and unpleasantness that I have read online today, maybe it’s a bit of an antidote to some of the negativity.
We first met Bernard and his family back in 1989, when my parents were embarking on the search for a little place to buy in the Cotentin peninsula area of Normandy – we had fallen in love with this quiet backwater of France on family holidays. Nothing had really ticked all the boxes, so far, though, and so we decided to look up Monsieur et Madame Brécy, friends of friends, and maybe get a cup of tea before continuing the search.
Their imposing manoir de Grainville, located on the edge of the Cotentin marais – a low-lying area flooded by the occupying Germans in the lead up to D-Day, in a bid to prevent landings by airborne troops – made an immediate impression.
But this was as nothing compared with the impression made by Bernard and his indomitable wife Rolande. Rolande was Maire of the village, but also Conseil-Général of the whole département de la Manche, as well as carer for her husband since she first met him after his accident.
As we were to learn, Bernard had been on holiday in Greece in his late teens, and one sunny day, took a dive off the group’s yacht – failing to see the sandbar just beneath the water’s surface. He broke his neck. Fortunately there were people nearby – servicemen I believe – who stopped anyone from trying to move him until the paramedics arrived, just stabilising his head and neck as he floated.
And that was how he met Rolande, who was one of the nurses during his lengthy rehabilitation. They fell in love, and so began a formidable partnership that has lasted until now, and produced two equally wonderful children, and more recently a next generation.
As a result of his accident, Bernard was now tetraplegic. He had no sensation or movement below the shoulders, and his hands were more like claws, with which he could pilot his motorised chair and fill his pipe, and control the PC which was his window on the wider world. But far from being beaten into submission by such a cruel blow at this point in his life, he simply refused to allow his changed circumstances to impede him in any way more than strictly necessary.
During our first meeting that afternoon in 1989, we quickly realised that he was a person of a huge breadth of experience and knowledge – a genuine Renaissance man – with a gently-spoken warmth of spirit and a naughty twinkle in his eye.
After a few cups of tea and an exchange of glances, he and Rolande decided that we had made a decent enough first impression on them that they would divulge the location of a house in the village which had literally only just come into the market… In this way, they were directly responsible for mum and dad finding the house they ended up buying…
Over the next months and years, as we restored “les Cavées”, Bernard’s encyclopedic knowledge of Norman traditions, crafts and architecture were often invaluable, and we came to know his gentle sense of humour. On one occasion, before my mum leaned over to greet him with the usual kiss on each cheek, he held up a hand to say “wait!”, grinned and carefully turned off his motorised chair, as on a previous occasion she had accidentally put him into reverse…
Gradually we learned more about his life story. Together with Rolande – in between her mayoral and councilor duties – they ran the manoir as a chambre d’hôtes, but Bernard also bred horses as well as a herd of beautifully incongruous Highland cattle, over on his marais fields.
But he also yearned to spread his wings wider, and he and Rolande travelled more widely than most other couples I know, criss-crossing South America and the Indian sub-continent to name but two of their favourite destinations. Perhaps most extraordinarily, in a link to the accident which set him on his life’s course, he continued his love for sailing, ultimately buying a strange-looking junk-rigged yacht which had been purpose-built by Herbert “Blondie” Hasler (of “Cockleshell Heroes” fame), and having it converted to allow him to single-hand it around the Breton islands.
He inevitably had his dark days, and the knock-on health effects of his tetraplegia were many and substantial. Through it all, whenever I or any other member of my family wandered down the hill to the manoir for a chin-wag, he was unfailingly hospitable, cheery and delighted to hear how our lives were unfolding. I came to feel the sort tenderness for him that I was never able to share with my grandfathers, who both died long before I was born.
The world is a lesser place for his passing. My thoughts are with Rolande and his family, who will be bereft. Rest in peace, dear Bernard.