It is pitch black outside. I rush towards the kitchen, quickly stuff a sandwich in my mouth and run off to my bicycle. It is only 3:45 AM. Way to early to be in a hurry, but unfortunately the usual story nowadays.
Every morning I start my shift at 4 AM. Which leaves me as little as 15 minutes to take over from my colleague at the moment. The farm I am working at the moment is so big (5500 cows) that milking needs to go on 24/7. The operation never stands still. Therefore, everybody needs to stay on their post until the new workers arrive to take over. Coming late is therefore NOT DONE!
Like every morning I cycle down the long lane towards the farm. Which is, even though on the same property as our house, still 2 kilometers away. It’s a bumpy road. Normally the moon and my ‘made-in-China-light' on the front of my steering wheel give me enough sight, but this night there is no moon. Making me as blind as a bat.
Suddenly, I hear something rattling in the bushes and before I know it there is a big grey silhouette jumping in front of my bike. I squeeze the breaks as hard as I can, lifting my rear tire up in the air. I just managed to maneuver around it. The big silhouette quickly bounces into the field, followed by more, smaller silhouettes that rush after him…
It is the kangaroo family that grazes on the fields around our house at dusk and dawn. I take a deep breath to calm down, wipe off the dust from my pants and arms and quickly continue my way to work.
At 3:59, just in time, I take over from my colleague Charly. We briefly talk through all the important highlights from his nightshift and then it is time for him to set off to bed, while for me the day just started.
Every day we follow the same routine: Go to herd number 21 (around 500 cows), wake up the cows, clean their beds (yes cows have actual sandbeds to sleep in), bring them to the waiting pen, make sure they go through the parlour to get milked and then bring them back home again to repeat the same thing with all the other herds. Every single day again.
Time flies by and before I know it, it’s already 5.30. I notice that Jeff is still running around. “He Jef! Shouldn’t you be home already? Who is taking over from you” I shout at him. “Ah it is Mike, but he must have slept in again. They’re trying to get a hold of him, but he is not picking up his phone.” Jeff shouts back. “Ah damn Jeff, that’s shit. But hey. Cheer up buddy! At least you have some leverage to get him to work for you on my birthday, so you can get off for the party!” And I give Jeff a thumbs up. Jeff laughs and raises his thumb in the air as well. “I’ll definitely refresh his memory when it comes to that stage Sanne!”, he says before he quickly runs back into the parlour to assist one of the milkers.
I only have to get a small herd in now and these ladies (the nickname I use for the cows) are very easy to handle, which gives me some extra time to help the milkers. Once all the ladies have walked in the waiting pen, I shut the gates and I walk down the rotary (a massive turning caroussel-alike-construction, where all the cows stand on to get milked).
To my surprise, I see my always cheerful Dutch roommate and colleague in tears. 'He Marit, sweety, what's wrong with you? Is work stressing you out?' I ask her. She gently shakes her head while the rotary keeps on spinning, forcing her to keep on milking "No Sanne, it's Mike. He has been in a car accident this morning and ... he is ... he passed away Sanne ..."
It is like the earth underneath me is shaking. I cannot believe it. I don't want to believe it. I look at Sally. Her cheeks are also covered in tears. Thomas, one of the newbies, looks in shock while he keeps on connecting the cups. I take a step back and smash my fist against one of the panels. I can not believe it. His chocolate bars are still in the laundry room. He had kept them for today. So he would have some extra snacks for his long shift.
Yesterday, Marit and I had joked around with him, before we went home. "Bye Mike, see you tomorrow!", we said. And he laughed, waved back and shouted, "See you tomorrow!". And now there was no tomorrow...and he would not come to work anymore. Not today, not tomorrow, never. Oh gosh and his children, and his girlfriend. There are a thousand different thoughts flying through my head. Like time stands still and at the same time, work just keeps on going. It's a bizarre contrast. Too harsh to be true. As if he could simply walk in at any moment...
The days pass by. It moves me to see how a tremendous loss like this, brings people together. Colleagues that never spoke with one another, suddenly give each other a hug, a tap on the shoulder, a cup of warm tea. Also in the backpacker house, there is a great support for one other.
"Do you maybe want to stop at the spot where it all happened?", asks Amy, an Irish colleague, and housemate. "We'll drive pass it when we go shopping anyways.", she says. I hesitate but agree it would be a good closure.
We stop at the tree. There are still small car parts and pieces of metal scattered around the place. Behind the tree is a beautiful fairytale meadow. There is a group of horses grazing against a background of green hills ... it is almost like he drove straight into heaven. I raise my eyes to the sky "Goodbye Mike, thanks for all the laughter, the fun, the jokes. Thanks for everything."
"How was it yesterday?", Thomas asks the next day. "Yes, unreal, still unreal. But a good way to give it some peace of mind", I answer him. Thomas nodds his head "Yes, I think we all take life for granted most of the time. It's so normal to wake up in the morning and start the day. But life is fragile. We have to embrace it. Appreciate what we have and who we have around us. Because it can be over at any moment. Even during a simple drive to work."
Thomas could not have been any more spot on. I gaze out of the window. It is a beautiful day. Nathalie asks me to take on an extra shift, but I reject it. Today I'm not going to work anymore, today I'm going to take a nice walk, enjoying the sunny weather. To celebrate that I am alive. To take a moment to message my friends and family. To tell them that I love them and miss them and that I am gratefull to have them in my life. Because life is more valuable than anything and I am not taking it for granted anymore.
In memory of Mike and all those who have lost their life too early.
To ensure the privacy of all colleagues, the names of all the people in this episode are modified.
After a burn-out it was time for a change. I quit my job, sold my stuff and bought a one-way ticket to the Dominican Republic. What was supposed to be a 4 month adventure turned into 2,5 years and counting......
Photo by: Vanessa Marques Barreto