Brendan O'Connor: He took what life he had and made it matter
Donal Walsh's death carried a profound and life-affirming message for the nation, reawakening lost values, writes Brendan O'Connor
Published 19/05/2013 | 05:00
When I heard Donal Walsh had died, I couldn't help thinking of Spike Milligan's line: I told you I was sick. For those of us who didn't know Donal, who didn't live with his illness and see its progress, there was a strange sense of surprise that he had really died, that his young life was actually snuffed out in the end. Obviously everyone knew Donal was dying. His imminent death was central to the life-affirming message he brought to the nation. But somehow, when the inevitable came, it was a shock. I suppose this young man, whom none of us really knew but we all felt we knew, didn't seem like the type to die.
We could be forgiven for not realising the truth. The first time I met Donal Walsh he talked about preparing for his death. I asked him what those preparations involved and it turned out I had misunderstood what he meant by preparing for death. Donal wasn't preparing himself for death. He was preparing other people, his friends and family, for his death. He was talking to them about after he was gone and, I guess, making sure he left his affairs in order, his affairs being not financial ones but those of friendship and familial love. He explained to me that he knew that a lot of his friends did not really realise fully that he was going to die. I guess they knew it but on some unconscious level they didn't believe it.
He explained that he looked fine and he still hung out with them and did stuff with them so it might have been hard for them to grasp the reality of what was going on. So it's understandable then that those of us who didn't know him well might not grasp the reality either. I even heard his mother Elma mention hope too. Obviously she knew her son was dying, but perhaps she had some precious hope of a miracle too. Or perhaps the hope she spoke of was just the hope that Donal expressed, for peace in his final days.
The word 'inspirational' is overused these days and a lot of us are uncomfortable with the phenomenon of public grief, those internet- and media-based outpourings for people that none of us knew. The extraordinary reaction to Donal Walsh in the final months of his life, and now in his death, is different. This is not some mawkish, ghoulish jumping on a family's private grief. This is a very real reaction to a young man who embodied many values that we maybe feel are lost, values we had lost ourselves, values that Donal Walsh reawakened in many of us.
Ostensibly Donal's public message in the last months of his life was about suicide. But in fact the message that we all took from Donal was broader than that; it was that we should value our life, every minute of it, and that we should be thankful, be thankful for all the small everyday things we take for granted.
Donal's message was so true that it could sound like a cliche. But when that truth becomes real to us and penetrates our cynicism in the form of someone like Donal, it represents that moment where words that had lost all meaning suddenly become illuminated with reality. At least we have our health. It's good to be alive. Make the most of your life. Your health is your wealth. Where there is life there is hope.
We all know we are mortal but it maybe takes a Donal Walsh to make us truly realise that this is it, that we have limited time and it is precious. That is why how he chose to live his final months was as important as his death or his message. I couldn't get Nuala O'Faolain out of my head when I met Donal. I have always been haunted by her saying bluntly to Marian Finucane that once she found out she was dying the good went out of life. I have always wondered if that will be how I feel. And if so, because I know I'm going to die anyway, does that take the good out of life?
Donal's response to imminent death was to live. He lived more and lived larger. The first thing he did on getting what he called his death sentence was to give up school and go on holidays with his friends, his brothers he called them. And when I met him a couple of months ago he was still sucking the marrow out of things. There was some question over whether he could walk on to the set on the Saturday Night Show. I told him he might find it a good buzz to have his moment, to walk out and take his applause and that he might not be on a live talk show too many other times. And that was that. He was determined. Wheelchair to the side of the stage but he would walk on and have his entrance and get the buzz, music and all.
I couldn't begin to tell you about all the people I've met in the last few months on whom Donal Walsh had a profound and very real effect. They range from women of a certain age who talk about the beauty and serenity of Donal's face when he came on TV with me to talk about his death and his life, to sporty guys who can't even convey sometimes why Donal jarred them out of their everyday complacency.
It ranged from men who didn't know why but found that Donal stayed on their minds for weeks after seeing him, to young people who could fully articulate why Donal had changed their outlook on everything and who would explain why they had decided to do good things, why they had become less cynical. One thing I've learnt is that many young people don't want to be cynical. They just want to be cool. And maybe in some small way Donal Walsh showed people that it is cool to be real and to be philosophical and positive and to value your life. Maybe part of Donal's message was that it is not twee to be a good person.
Because he was pretty cool. Girls seemed to love him from what I could see. He was a guy's guy too, a sportsman and a social animal who seemed to have a gift for friendship. He was confident and intelligent too, and he was good crack. It's hard enough to have a sense of humour in this life but he had one under the most extraordinary circumstances.
He had a faith that was important to him but he didn't ram it down anyone's throat in his public life. He did quietly testify to his faith though and it seemed that it was the underpinning for his extraordinary poise and for the character he showed in the final months of his life to 'his public', and I'm sure, always to those who knew him, as his father Fionnbar says, before he was famous.
Just before I saw the text about Donal's death I was having a morn-ing swim on my holidays. And I was doing what I now do every morning when I swim, I was being grateful, listing all the things I had to be grateful for, feeding the good wolf in me instead of the bad. I know it sounds like bullshit but this is something I have done since I met Donal Walsh those few times.
For years I have read and heard from various creeds and philosophies about the importance of being grateful. But it was actually Donal's example that finally made me practise some gratitude. And it changes you slightly. And I think Donal Walsh actually changed lots of us who didn't know him. He threw a few stones in the water and they rippled out and out. And they still ripple. You'd like to think that those ripples will continue. I hope those ripples continue in my life, that a simple message taught by example by a boy who was less that half my age but far, far wiser in ways, might stick with me.
Like most people I guess I don't think enough about the meaning of life but I rely on getting lucky and on different people coming along at different times and teaching me the lessons that have to be learnt. And maybe Donal Walsh came along at the right time for this country in a way and made us think a little bit about who we are and what we want out of life.
The impact Donal had on people, the selflessness of his final months, the grace with which he carried himself, are probably small comfort to his family now, but in time to come hopefully it will be more comfort to them to know his short life was not wasted. Donal probably did more in his short life than most do who have multiples of his time on earth. I said to him once he would have been a great writer, but of course I meant he was a great writer. He wrote more of value than any of us could hope to do in a whole career. But still, it's not fair that he didn't get to achieve that potential and that he didn't get to travel the world and that he didn't get to see how everything turned out for all his friends and for his sister. And for himself.
But he took what life he had and he wanted it to matter and he wanted his death to mean something and he believed, where many would have just got angry with God or stopped believing, that God had a purpose for him. And he placed himself, as he put it, in God's hands. And yes, he died in the end, but there was a miracle of some kind in Donal Walsh's life and death.
Donal Walsh Memorial Fund: http://www.cmrf.org/
Tributes to Donal can be found on a new dedicated website at: www.donalwalshtribute.ie