I first "met" Leontien through her Twitter account, @4leafclovercow. I asked to feature some of her tweets in a sidebar for Progressive Dairyman, and she responded within an hour. Leontien had also been a member of this Proud to Dairy network from some of its earliest days.
If you check out her page, you'll see she was constantly posting encouraging words for other members about sharing the dairy story.
I started following her blog religiously and spent hours looking through some of her past posts. In addition to her Four Leaf Clover Tales blog, she blogged on a separate site for about six months with a title of "Little Miss Bookwurm."
In one description about herself and her love for books, she caught my attention with this writing:
Books can impact a person's life just like a song can. A beautiful book makes your life shine, a lovely book makes you love the people around you a bit more, a depressing book makes you appreciate your life. A scary book makes you feel like a little girl or gives you strength to face your demons.
I knew we were kindred spirits and hoped for a chance to soon interact with her in person.
That opportunity first came in May 2011 when I decided to drive from the company's headquarters in Idaho, where I had been living for the past 18 months, to my hometown in Pennsylvania. (A million thanks to my sister Sarah and sister-in-law Kelly who flew out to Idaho to make the trek with me.)
As fate would have it, Leontien had to fly back to the Netherlands to renew her family's visas the same days we were driving through Indiana. Fortunately her family – parents Wim and Maria, brother Jan-Willem and his girlfriend Meagan – were still willing to show us around the farm.
Maria did most of the tour guiding. Spunky and animated, Maria kept us laughing with stories of the family's decision to move from New Holland to the U.S., thanks to Leontien's not-so-gentle urging.
Maria also opened up about Leontien's first round of battle with skin cancer.
I remember her saying in her rich Dutch accent, "It didn't look good, no, but Leontien, she never wanted to give up."
I finally got my chance to meet Leontien just over a month later from the original planned interview. I was featuring a dairy in western Ohio, and I decided I could easily extend the trip a day and make a second visit to Four Leaf Clover Dairy.
Leontien greeted me with a huge smile. As we made our way to a table in the office at the dairy and I set up my iPhone to record our talk, I explained that I intended to feature her as the cover story for our November 2011 "women in dairy" issue.
I tentatively said, "I want to focus on your decision to move to the U.S. from the Netherlands, but if you might be willing to talk about your battle with cancer, I think that'd be good for the story."
"OK," she said. "Let's get started."
The interview lasted about an hour. While I had a list of questions in mind, Leontien needed very little prompting, and I wasn't surprised.
She told her story the way she wrote her blog posts: straight-forward and honest. She remained positive even when describing some of the most difficult moments of her cancer treatments.
I saw a special glint in her eye when talked about her relationship with Bastiaan: how she convinced him to move to a brand new world with her and how they managed to get married three different times.
There was nothing that Leontien shied away from telling me. She was an open book.
The story (almost) wrote itself. I spent the next several months listening and re-listening to my interview with Leontien, sending the articles to co-workers for their suggestions and sending drafts to Leontien to make sure I had the details right.
In the meantime, Leontien won our 2011 Flavor Faceoff competition with her ice cream choice of Vanilla Bean. I was able to take the many photos I had captured of her, her farm and her family and, with the help of our design team, turn it into a photo collage as her winning prize.
Unfortunately, something else occurred during the time I met with Leontien and the publish date of that November issue. Her cancer had returned.
This time around, she had the support of a growing network of fellow bloggers and industry friends, many of whom had never met Leontien but just wanted to simply help in any way they could. I followed the efforts of "The Real Farmwives of America" and joined the "Love for Leontien" Facebook page the second I saw it.
Those people, bless them, continuously organized ways to lift up Leontien with photos, videos and inspirational quotes and stories. I was sure to add the efforts of this community to the article before it went to print.
I knew it was a special story, but I was overwhelmed as the comments came rolling in. Leontien's story had touched so many.
My last correspondence with Leontien happened in November 2012. Her article was the clear winner of our Top 25 most well-read content.
I asked her for an update. She first thanked the many (hundreds and hundreds, she said) who had supported and encouraged her over the past year. Then she ended with these lines, which still give me chills:
Every morning I wake up and ask myself, “Is this the day?”
And every morning I tell myself, “No, this is a day where Miracles happen.”
I spoke with Maria a few days before Christmas. Her voice broke as she told me she thought the end was near for Leontien.
"We don't want to her to suffer no more," Maria said. "But she doesn't want to give up."
Leontien's suffering ended on January 10, 2013. Her family posted the following to her Facebook page and blog:
At 12:00 in the afternoon on January 10th the suffering of our spirited, sweet, funny, strong, beloved Leontien ended and she left this world for the next. It was a peaceful passing, and she was surrounded by her loved ones when she went. We would like to thank each and every one of you for the support and love that you have sent her and her family through this difficult time. Words cannot possibly express how much it has meant to her and to each and every one of us. It is safe to say that Leontien was a true inspiration for many, and it is our hope that she will continue to be so.
In my own personal process of coming to terms with saying goodbye to my friend Leontien, I've thought several times over the past few days of the words that made me determined to meet her.
Thank you Leontien for being such an open and lively person. You made everyone who came in contact with you shine a bit brighter because your own radiant positivity was so infectious. You encouraged us to love those around us more deeply and appreciate what we have. While we prayed for your strength, you showed us nothing but your amazing courage while facing demons of tumors.
You are a real-life heroine, much more interesting, funny and brave than any I've ever read about. Your passion for agriculture, your family and your friends will never be forgotten. And your legacy will live on in the hearts, words and actions of all of those who ever had a chance to connect with you. Rest in peace, my friend.