I was 29 years old, a newly minted veterinarian, when I met her. The veterinary group that I joined after graduation had several clinics scattered across South Memphis and the quietest among them was Westwood Animal Hospital. It was a very slow practice located in a part of town where many people didn’t hold veterinary care for their dogs very high up the list of financial responsibilities. I would say it ranked right there with spending money to remove junk cars from front yards. There were many yards with a bunch of junk as you could only imagine.
Donna was the technician, the receptionist, the kennel person and the best friend of anyone who wandered in. One day I was assigned to work that clinic so the regular vet could take a vacation. I parked next to the only vehicle in the lot which was her Chevy Pickup, and walked in the side door. Donna met me at the door with a warm, enthusiastic smile like she had known me her entire 22 years. Honestly, I felt like a life long friend of hers, this unpretentious, plump little red-head with the most beautiful ice-blue eyes you ever saw. Little did I know that she would remain so dear to Melody and I for the next 31 years.
We spent many hours of “company time” talking about life. Donna had lost her Mom not long before we met, and only a few weeks after our meeting, her Dad, broken-hearted and alone, took his own life. Many were the times she and I discussed these tragic events and I tried to help her come to grips with it. I don’t believe she ever did, she just put it on the back shelf somewhere in her heart and mind.
The one thing that was continuous and unwavering it this little lady’s life was her deep and sincere love for animals, especially cats and horses. I was a city boy growing up, and was never exposed to horses. Apparently she was bitten by the horse bug early in life and would patiently listen while I ranted on and on how horse ownership was a black hole for one’s money and time. Horse ownership, I lamented, was labor intensive and offered no reward for the sweat, dust and dung that you got in return. She would patiently hear me out, always, and with a lovely twinkle in her eye, tell me that if I ever owned a horse I would understand. She was right but only in the last year since I bought Spirit, my Tennessee Walker, did I come to know a new kind of critter to love. I never got to tell her that she was so right and I regret that fact deeply.
When Melody and I started Hillcrest Animal Hospital, our first employee was Donna Wilbur. Just a week or so after she joined our “family” my first son, Travis, was born. That little boy spent his first 4 years living in the upstairs at the clinic. Donna was always around, watching him grow. She spent so much time with him, teaching and learning. She loved him like her own, always so sincere and genuine in her affection for him.
When Cody came along she got to start all over again. She attended so many of his baseball games and was such a cheerleader that I know many other parents thought she had a kid in the game. It was my kid but he, too, always loved his time with Donna.
Over the years many staff members came and went. I can honestly say none ever disliked her. It was her sincere love and compassion for animals and people who garnered respect and inspiration from all that came to know her. She would not speak unkindly of another, that was just her way.
Donna was an outstanding bowler. For years, she anchored our bowling team. My brothers and I, with Donna as the anchor, bowled together once a week for years. She was amazing and I don’t think I ever saw her feel pressure. One Christmas week, Melody sent some bourbon hotdogs with me to the league’s Christmas bowling night. Donna had a little extra “Christmas cheer” that night and became a bit tipsy. She blamed her condition on the bourbon hotdogs but the entire league gathered around as she finished her last game with a score of 299. She shrugged off the single pin that remained and said that she would have enjoyed her first perfect game if we had not run out of hotdogs. That was Donna.
It was after we moved to Florida that I learned that she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Melody and I made it a point to see her when we went back to Memphis that year. I don’t think she wanted to see us because of the cancer. We found her at the clinic and spent some time getting caught up. I don’t think either of us ever mentioned the cancer. The pain in my heart was palpable as we visited. I knew her prognosis much better than she. It would be the last time I could hug her, she was already pale and thin. My heart was breaking for her but on the outside I tried to act like all was well. I hope she knew how much she meant to me, what a profound part of my life she had been.
Death took her on Good Friday. Brave and caring about the welfare of others until the end I am told. I am not surprised.
Her smile, her laugh, and most of all, her way of kindly interrupting and saying “Awwwe” with such wonder and sincere compassion whenever I told her a story about life, love or animals. Hearts of all those who came to know her are broken. Of that I am sure. Her life and the message she left behind was elegantly simple. Live, love, and respect all with heartfelt compassion.
I will always love you Donna. I envy those with you now who feel the warmth of your big heart and happy smile. Left behind are leagues of us who came to know and love you. May God hold you close. I am sure He is proud to have you home.