Nearly six years ago I was sitting with a friend at a coffee shop, telling her about a job with our ministry I was trying to fill. I said, “I don’t really expect to find someone with experience in this – it’s too unusual for this area. What I really need is a certain personality. If I had the right person, I could train them to do it.” She asked me what I was looking for. “Most important would be rock-solid faith in Christ – I don’t want them to be swayed when Christians aren’t kind. I also need someone who can talk to anyone and isn’t intimidated by that, a connector who loves people and meeting new people, and is also very organized and persistent and willing to travel.” My friend immediately said, “You need to meet Donna Klabunde!”
Things got busy and I was traveling, but a couple of months later I found myself at another coffee shop meeting Donna for the first time. She was lovely, and as we talked, I really felt like she was the right one for the job. At the end of our meeting I said, “I would love to hire you. What do you think?” And she said something I don’t think anyone would recommend saying in a job interview:
“Jennifer, this sounds wonderful, and I really think I could do a good job and would enjoy it. I would love to be back in ministry and I’m very excited! But I think you should know something about me before you hire me. I could die at any time.” It was such a shocking thing to say that it was almost funny, but then I realized she was perfectly serious. She’d had cancer for years. It was currently stable, but she didn’t want me to hire her without understanding the risks.
Donna’s first cancer was as a very young woman with a brand-new baby, her third, Hannah. It was a kind that was easily treatable, and while frightening, seemed to be over. Unfortunately, they now suspect that the treatment used at that time for that cancer caused others. When Hannah was in kindergarten, they discovered a very bad form of breast cancer, and it was Stage 4. Donna was given a few months to live. She asked the Lord if he would save her. Specifically she asked to see Hannah graduate from high school – she wanted to raise her children. The doctors offered her an experimental treatment, and because she was dying anyway, she tried it. It worked. It didn’t get the cancer out of her body completely, but it stopped it from growing. When I met her, she’d been living that way years longer than anyone had data for. But they had told her that one day her body would become resistant, and they would have to try something else.
Donna started working with me about five and a half years ago, and what a blessing she was! She became such a good friend as well as a co-worker, and she had a beautiful ministry of her own at all my events. Every time she was with me, I would find her after the concert or retreat talk praying with women who had cancer, or someone who was going through a hard time. She could light up a room, and she made friends everywhere we went. She just exuded God’s love, and people around her felt it!
She had a very different perspective, living with cancer the way she did. She said often when we would talk about her future and health, “Today, I’m healthy. Until the doctor tells me otherwise, I am healthy.” She could have lived in fear and doubt and worry and let them rob her of the miraculous extra 12 years the Lord gave her, but she didn’t. She lived every day of her life, and last year she got to see her Hannah graduate from high school and know that the Lord had said yes to that particular prayer.
Here are just a few of the many lessons I learned from my Donna:
The Lord is reliable. Donna had “the peace that passes understanding” (Phil 4:6). He met her every need, and His faithfulness to her was a truth she shared with everyone. He has promised us heaven, and He is reliable – she didn’t want to leave her family or suffer, but she was never worried about her future or whether God would supply what she needed. She knew He would.
Every day is a gift. As I said before, Donna didn’t waste her life. I have known people to get bad news about their health, and that is the end of it for them – they stop living and instead wait to die. That was never Donna. She lived every day, and she chose purposefully to see the good and find the fun in everything.
Love people intentionally. Donna had the best friend group I’d ever seen. I was (and still am!) a little jealous – her “posse” is an amazing group. At first I thought she was just blessed, but then I realized she had such a determination to love people intentionally. She didn’t hold onto her pride, she was always willing to be the first to reach out, she was thoughtful, and she was a great friend. I am often scared to reach out, but she taught me to be more fearless. She invested deeply in her friends, and also really listened and empathized with people she met. She made everyone feel special.
Don’t miss an opportunity. When Donna’s cancer came back again about a year and a half ago, it was a different kind and it was much worse. We knew it was going to be bad. But as we talked about it, she said, “I trust God. And you know what? I have met people I never would have without cancer. I am with medical personnel and other patients I would never know otherwise. Maybe God wants me to share with them – He is always working the bad stuff for good.”
Laugh often, and look for the good. Donna didn’t walk through life as a virtuous, suffering saint. She laughed hard and often. She looked for the good in all circumstances and in all people. She made fun of herself. She acted goofy. She said she had a choice in how she confronted hard things in life, and she chose laughter and joy.
Donna leaves a hole in my heart. Her family has become so dear to me because she never stopped talking about them! And I will continue to pray for Larry, Josh, Jon, and Hannah – I know how it feels to be missing someone so crucial. But I also know without a doubt that we will see Donna again. And if we had this much fun together on earth, it’s going to be simply amazing in heaven! I’m so glad she’s there and healed and whole, and Donna, we will see you soon.