'Thank you, Donal, for all you have taught us about life, you're our hero'
Teen's mum Elma vows to continue her son's fight to 'eradicate cancer'
ON Friday afternoon, the sun blazed down on the Slieve Mish mountains range outside the window of Donal Walsh's home in the village of Blennerville.
His parents, Elma and Fionnbar Walsh, sit in the conservatory looking out on the vast peaks. These were the mountains Donal looked out on every day from his bedroom window, constantly changing colour as the clouds shift and sunlight wanes. When Donal talked of climbing God's mountain, they said, it was these peaks ranged outside his window that inspired him. "I can't turn my head without finding a bloody hill or mountain," he wrote before he died.
It is two days since thousands of people thronged St John's Church in Tralee for his extraordinary funeral, having lost his four-year battle with cancer, a month shy of his 17th birthday. For most of those four years, he fought that long battle in private, away from the public gaze. The witnesses to his fortitude and determination were those immediately around him: his parents, sister Jema, friends, relatives, the doctors and nurses who treated him, the hospitals for whom he tirelessly fundraised, his sporting pals and his teachers.
When faced with the realisation that the cancer was terminal, the message he intended for the loved ones that he would leave behind was so powerful that it resonated far beyond the community in which he lived. He urged people to live the life that he couldn't, to savour the moment and as someone who desperately wanted to live, that suicide is not the answer.
At his funeral Mass, Fr Francis Nolan, concluded his homily by saying, "Thank you Donal, for all you have taught us about life, you are our hero and we are truly proud of you."
Boxes packed with hundreds of Mass cards and letters in the Walsh's kitchen are testament to the impact of Donal's legacy. One is from a parent writing to say that her teenage son watched Donal's interview on the Saturday Night Show weeks before he died, that he cried and opened up to them about his suicidal feelings. There are dozens more like that.
Elma and Fionnbar's grief is palpable, and they are numb and disbelieving that he is gone. But if there is any solace to be had, it is from letters such as this that show how their son made a difference.
They can also take solace from their community. A neighbour drops in freshly made cakes and buns. There is chat and some laughter, and much talk of the many kindnesses shown to them by friends and neighbours, who took over in the past few days. Local businesses sent up trays of sandwiches and cakes and cold meats to make sure that at least they didn't have to worry about feeding the masses streaming through the house over the two days Donal was waked at home.
Elma and Fionnbar want to continue Donal's legacy. They want to continue fundraising, not just for cancer facilities but for research into the eradication of the disease.
They plan to donate the funds that poured in since Donal's death to go to local palliative care services in Tralee General Hospital – there is no hospice in Kerry, and Donal, who hated being away from home, had to travel to a hospice in Cork.
They want those in difficulty to learn from Donal who, although only a child, tapped deep into his own spiritual resources to help him face inevitable death.
"Donal was very strong on his stance on suicide but, at the end of the day, Donal died and suffered badly from cancer over four years," says Elma. "There are a lot of children, adults, every single day that are told bad news. It's heartbreaking, not just for them, for their families, their brothers, their sisters, their aunts and uncles, their friends. They have to go through a lot. If they survive it, they are still going to suffer a lot. If they die from it, it's tragic."
More than €120,000 was raised in Donal's name for Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin over the four years he fought cancer.
brendan o'connor, page 22
"He was passionate about raising money. It was particularly for the ward there, because of the conditions in St John's ward. But he would also stress the awareness of trying to eradicate cancer, to find a cure for it," says Elma. The forthcoming G8 summit in June is an opportunity for Ireland to "shout about it" she says, and the family is looking at ways of setting up an online facility to petition world leaders on putting more resources into eradicating the disease.
Donal told his own story of living with cancer in a moving essay that was later published in this newspaper, weeks before he died. He was diagnosed with a tumour in his leg when he was 12. He wrote about the months of chemotherapy, how he had to carry his vomiting bowl around with him, the searing pain when the tubes in his body were ripped out after the operation on his leg. At the time he thought it the worst pain he had ever encountered, but worse was to come. However, he was determined to walk within six weeks – defying doctors' expectations that it would take six months. When the cancer returned, he beat it, for a while, seizing the opportunity to get fit, go to the gym, start cycling and return to school. He couldn't play rugby any more, so he coached the youth team instead. Last October, the cancer had returned, aggressive tumours that were immune to treatment and he knew that it would eventually kill him.
He wrote of his pain at leaving the beauty of the world behind, the things he would never get to do, the places he would never see: "But I have to remember that God is using me, whether he is using me as a symbol for people to appreciate life more or whether His first two mountains weren't high enough for me, all I know is that I am walking with Him even though it is along His path."
In March, Donal was nominated by his teacher for a Local Hero award and he won. Radio Kerry and Kerry's Eye came to the house to interview him. "One of them said, 'Donal you have a great way with words, have you written anything else?'" says Elma. So she informed them he had written a piece on suicide – "you know it's very powerful". Elma adds: "If looks could kill he would have stabbed me there and then."
His article was published locally and broadcast on Radio Kerry. The strength of his message reverberated across the country, and in April, he was invited to appear on the Saturday Night Show with Brendan O'Connor.
He had been reluctant at first to share his plea against teen suicide. He had intended it as a letter to his friends, to be read after he had gone. His father, Fionnbar, explains: "He had spoken to me about it at one stage, and his actual reason for writing it, he wanted to leave it as a message for his friends in school . . . He was worried about his own peers when he was gone and he wanted to leave them a message, that he didn't want people despairing when he was gone . . . But it was a universal message. It was powerful."
Donal was very sick by then. He had to start using a wheelchair. The cancer had spread to his lungs. He was on oxygen, "on and off initially but then he was going on it full time", says Elma. His muscles had weakened and his parents noticed even the slightest difference in his movements. They noticed how it became harder for him to go upstairs or how he couldn't stand up for as long he used to. A fortnight before he died, it was apparent that Donal wouldn't make it. Elma started preparing the letter to Donal that she read to mourners at his funeral last Wednesday. She wrote about how he had to be better at spelling, reading, running, football and on and on; how he wouldn't let cancer deprive him of rugby, so he coached the under 13s and the under 15s; how he couldn't sit still, always going, organising outings with "the lads", his close friends; but, most of all, his kind and loyal nature, even in the depths of his pain and suffering.
"He never, ever let anyone know how bad he was," says Elma. When he needed an outlet, he turned to Elma. "That's what a parent is for," she says.
For those last days with Donal, his family never left his side, loving him, caring for him, doing everything how he wanted it. "You know, he had a TV in his room and we'd go up there and watch a DVD with him, things like that. He'd want time on his own as well," says Elma. "He got what he wanted. If he wanted friends over, they came over. We did what he wanted. It was all Donal for the past six months. And I make no apologies for that," she adds.
"Everything was around him. Everything was around Donal," says Fionnbar. They took him out every day. His friends came over. They went out for Sunday lunch the week before he died. On the Wednesday evening, he watched a film with a friend who had come down from boarding school to be with him. On the Friday night, three of his friends called over from 6pm to 9pm, and they sat watching television and chatting, "shooting the breeze, as they call it", says Fionnbar.
Fr Nolan later said that one of the most powerful acts of love he had experienced in his life was to witness Elma bringing Communion each evening to her son. "He wanted to receive Communion every day. And he did," Elma says. She would go to Mass and carry Communion home with her in a special receptacle, a pyx. She would give it to Donal in the morning and again at night, after he had said his prayers.
On Saturday, the day before he died, Donal had been too sick to receive Communion. The house was bustling with people that weekend, the doctor, the nurse, their families, friends and neighbours calling in with food and comfort.
Then at 4pm on Sunday afternoon, it stopped, says Fionnbar, "and it was just the three of us in the house with Donal". They talked to him constantly, telling him that they loved him. "All day long, we love you," says Elma. "And he kept saying that he loved us back, and that he would look after us all."
Elma went to lie down for a couple of hours and Fionnbar sat with Donal. Elma rose at 6pm and took her place at Donal's bedside.
"So, Sunday evening, around 7.30, I said 'Donal we'll say our prayers now. And I said the usual prayers with
him: the Divine Mercy, a Memorare and Jesus Mary and Joseph. And then I said, 'Donal you won't be able to receive your Communion now today but I said I'll receive it for you now. And at ten-past-eight he died."
She could sense that he was passing. So she shouted downstairs for Jema and Fionnbar. Just as they got to the top of the stairs, Donal's Uncle Brian, his favourite uncle, walked through the front door. "And he just crossed the threshold into Donal's room as he took his last breath. He had us all. He had everyone he wanted," says Elma. "It was peaceful, it was beautiful. He slipped away in the way that he would have liked. No fuss. There wasn't any big crowd of people around. Just the four of us," says Fionnbar.
Donal used to say to Elma that he wasn't afraid of dying but he wanted to live. But when death came, she believes he was ready for it. He had wanted to be buried in his debs outfit and he wanted his ear-ring taken out. He wanted two songs in particular to be sung at his funeral: Raglan Road and Will Ye Go Lassie, Go.
Over the two days he was waked at home, uncles and cousins stayed up with him throughout each night. On Monday night, word came through from the Munster rugby team that they wanted to attend his funeral. They asked if it was possible for them to participate as pallbearers of Donal's coffin.
And so, on Wednesday morning, after a moving homily by Fr Nolan and Elma's heartbreaking farewell to her son, Donal's heroes, his family and friends, and members of the Munster rugby team shouldered his coffin past the crowds and into the waiting hearse. "He'd have loved it," says Fionnbar. "He'd have been a bit embarrassed by it, but he'd have loved it."
According to Elma, Donal's faith kept him going. "He always had a strong faith. He wouldn't have been a great one for going to Mass every Sunday. He was no Holy Joe. But, at the same time, he always said his prayers and he would go into the church and he would meditate in the church on his own," says Elma.
"If there is one message that I would like to get out there, it is just for people to go into a church and meditate, on their own, and to consider going to confession because it's free, it can be seen as a free counselling service. Nobody will take notes, the priests have to adhere to the seal of confession and no priest will take notes, and it's just between you and God, and nobody else. It's just a weight that can be lifted off your shoulders."
In the end, Donal died the way he wanted to, as his father said it was without fuss or pomp or drama and at home, which is where he wanted to be. They did not expect the throngs of people who turned out to stand shoulder to shoulder with them at St John's Church on Wednesday.
Their loss is an intensely private burden that they must bear alone but they are grateful that the public display of support was done with "great dignity". "I don't think anybody could have envisaged what happened on Wednesday. It was a town, it was a county, it was a province and it was a country that decided to say goodbye to our son," says Fionnbar.
Donations to Donal's Funds for Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin, can be made by telephoning: 1890 507 508