About a boy…climbing mountains

Donal Walsh is a young Irish boy living in County Kerry, one of the most beautiful places on this earth. He came to national prominence this Spring when a letter he wrote made a plea for an end to what has all the appearances of a suicide epidemic among young Irish people. Donal is 16. At 12, he was diagnosed with cancer. This is his letter:

A few months left, he said. There it was; I was given a timeline on the rest of my life. No choice, no say, no matter. It was given to me as easy as dinner.

 I couldn’t believe it, that all I had was 16 years here, and soon I began to pay attention to every detail that was going on in this town.

 I realised that I was fighting for my life for the third time in four years and this time I have no hope. Yet still I hear of young people committing suicide and I’m sorry but it makes me feel nothing but anger.

 I feel angry that these people choose to take their lives, to ruin their families and to leave behind a mess that no one can clean up.

 Yet I am here with no choice, trying as best I can to prepare my family and friends for what’s about to come and leave as little a mess as possible.

 I know that most of these people could be going through financial despair and have other problems in life, but I am at the depths of despair and, believe me, there is a long way to go before you get to where I am.

 For these people, no matter how bad life gets, there are no reasons bad enough to make them do this; if they slept on it or looked for help they could find a solution, and they need to think of the consequences of what they are about to do.

 So please, as a 16-year-old who has no say in his death sentence, who has no choice in the pain he is about to cause and who would take any chance at even a few more months on this planet, appreciate what you have, know that there are always other options and help is always there.

 I’ve grown fully in both body and mind by climbing God’s mountains

 I live in a part of the world that is surrounded by mountains. I can’t turn my head without finding a bloody hill or mountain and I suppose those were God’s plans for me. To have me grow up around mountains and grow climbing a few too. And that’s exactly what I’ve done, I may have grown up in body around them but I’ve fully grown and matured in mind climbing his mountains.

 He’s had me fight cancer three times, face countless deaths and losses in my life, he’s had my childhood dreams taken off me but at the end of the day, he’s made me a man.

 I am always called brave, heroic, kind, genuine, honourable and so many other kind compliments, but I have to try and explain to everyone why I seem to reject them. I have never fought for anyone but myself, therefore I cannot be brave or heroic, I’ve only been kind because my religion has taught me so.

 What impact could I ever make on the world if I was fake or how could I ever be honourable if I was not honoured to be here.

 I am me. There is no other way of putting it, little old Donal Walsh from Tralee, one body, one mind with a few other cobwebs and tales thrown in.

 I’ve climbed God’s mountains, faced many struggles for my life and dealt with so much loss. And as much as I’d love to go around to every fool on this planet and open their eyes to the mountains that surround them in life, I can’t. But maybe if I shout from mine they’ll pay attention.

 If I start to accept these compliments, I’m afraid of what I’ll become. Will I be braver than YE? Will I be kinder than YE? More genuine than YE? Or more honourable than YE? Better than YE? No. I can never accept that there is a YE. We are all the same, we are all given one body, one mind. The only difference for me is that I’m looking from the mountain.

That was impressive enough. Then, two weeks ago Irish television took the story further and last Sunday a national newspaper took up his story and Irish people were able to learn something very special, not just about one special person, but also about themselves, about life, death, and above all about friendship, human and divine.

In the Sunday Independent, Donal told practically the whole story of his life from 12 years of age to the present day, of his battle with anger and disappointment, how he won his life back, and how he has faced his terminal illness.

Every day people say I’m brave, that I’m courageous and I hate that, he wrote. I’m just doing what I have to do to survive, to live another day.

 I had a friend, Stuart Mangan. He said he wasn’t brave because he didn’t have a choice. He didn’t have a choice to be paralysed but he chose to live every day of his life with a smile on his face and even though he knew he didn’t have long to live, he spent the time he had designing technology for people who would end up like him. That to me is brave and inspirational.

 The first time they told me, I was at home, I was on the phone to my friend. It was September 11, 2008, my mom came in, she didn’t have to say anything, I knew straight away what had happened. The test results were bad and the tumor was malignant. I hung up the phone without saying anything and I felt like throwing it at the wall. But to be honest, I didn’t know what it meant. I was 12, and all I cared about was playing sport. I knew it was bad but I didn’t understand the severity of it. I had cancer, a tumor that had grown on my right femur just above my knee and little did I know it would destroy parts of my life that I had never planned on letting go of.

The first step was chemo. Donal takes us through the months of treatment. We see his mind, his mentality evolving through those months – and his maturity unfolding.

They would save my life and nearly kill me but I was doing it. I wanted to live, to play for Munster, to travel the world, to raise children and die when I’m 100, not 12.

On June 1, 2009, Donal walked out of St John’s Ward in Dublin’s Children’s Hospital a happy boy. He had finished his last chemo and he promised he would never return as a patient.

Over the next few years he collected over €10,000 for the ward. “They looked after me and I promised myself that I was going to do everything I could to look after them. They were looking to renovate the ward for the first time since the Seventies so I had to help.”

It was a promise he was able to keep. The other promise was a different story. O February 15, 2012, he went for a chest X-ray and a CT scan of my chest. He describes how he and his father waited for the result.

 There was a bin next to me and tissues on the table. He came in and told us I had a tumor in my lung. It was back. My heart sank. My world fell apart again. I was angry. This was too much. I stood up and kicked the bin. I wanted to run. I fell to my knees in tears. I couldn’t handle it. He said I would be going for surgery the week after, on February 25.

The operation was successful but more chemo had to follow. This was the hardest part for him but now his resilience and courage were beginning to reveal themselves.

 I realised I was back to where I was three years ago, he wrote. It is unreal the support I am getting. He explained: I don’t take it seriously when I’m at home because if I do, my friends will and I don’t want them to worry about me. Cancer has already ruined my life so I’m not going to let it do anything to my friends.  It’s hard to call some of them ‘friends’, when they spend every day with you, they become family. So at home I’m Donal, but in hospital I’m sick and that’s the way it’s going to stay.

Even the focus of Donal’s anger is exceptional. He describes his return to Our Lady’s Hospital for his treatment:

I walked back into that ward with a sick feeling inside me, knowing what I was walking into. The ward hadn’t changed at all. The walls were the same, the curtains were the same, the airtight windows were the same and, of course, the same empty promises given to countless dying children by countless gentlemen in suits. It really does make me ashamed of my government when they can get wages in the hundreds of thousands annually, but when one of the most important children’s wards in Ireland, for some of the sickest kids in Ireland, has to rely on charitable donations to buy a bucket of paint and a brush. That is one of the sickest things I have ever come across in my short lifetime here.

Nor was his anger a futile emotion. As a result €50,000 was raised for the hospital in Dublin and another children’s charity. He also describes how in these months his friendships deepened.

During my three-week breaks, I would have spent most of the time recovering while my friends were at school. I had one friend who came around every day after school and made me smile. That was John. He visited me in hospital and made me laugh even though it hurt like hell. We ended up like brothers throughout it all. Then there’s Cormac, Hugh and James, my three best friends from school, they supported me through everything and visited me as much as they could while studying for their exams. I was also trying to study for my Junior Cert as best as I could but I could only make it into school for one week while I was at home. This made it difficult at times but I had huge support from my school and they helped me to do as much work as I could at home.

At the end of his second bout of treatment the time came for his scan. This took place on Friday June 15, 2012, his 16th birthday. The news was good.

I couldn’t believe it, that all I had thought over the last few weeks and all I had gone through over the past few months was over. I spent the summer travelling between Bantry and Tralee. I spent the time in Bantry with my cycling coach James Cleary. I returned to school in September and had gotten into a daily routine of an early start at seven to get my food ready for the day, go to school, go straight to the gym or go for a cycle which I had reached up to 60km at the time, come and study and then some weeknights coach youth rugby. My life seemed to be perfect. I had everything I ever wanted and it couldn’t have gone any better.

One day in September Donal had an accident on one of his cycling trips. He recovered from his injuries but when some pain persisted anxiety began to increase and when eventually he returned to Dublin for his check-up his worst suspicions were confirmed. Dr Capra, the oncologist gave him and his mother the news with these words: “We’ve been on this road too many times, eh?” That was it. My heart sank. I didn’t know whether to follow them to his office or run out the front door.

 We arrived home four hours later to a house full of support, everyone had come out. That week was a blur to me. After letting the news out that the cancer was back, the amount of support that I got was crazy, I didn’t need any of that chin-up bullshit, because I had all the positivity and strength and support I needed to get through this 10 times over but it still felt like a mountain I couldn’t climb, nonetheless God had given me hiking boots so I might as well start climbing.

 We were called up for scans the following Thursday. On the way home, I stopped in Portlaoise to meet with a prayer minister, John Delaney. He has been a very strong part of my faith and on that night we prayed together. I thought to myself that if this was what God wants me to do, if he wants me to fight cancer, if he wants me to be a symbol to other people, or if he just wants me to die then I guess I’ll strap up my hiking boots and get to the top of this mountain.

The scans now revealed that the condition was terminal. Donal remained calm. At the start of his school midterm-break, he asked his parents if he could go away on a break with his friends somewhere. They did. Then, as a family, they later went to Lourdes.

While I was there, I didn’t experience much healing but I went for confession and met a South African priest. I asked him why God could give such an illness to young infants who have not had a life. His reply gave me great comfort: we are not in this life for answers, this life is for lessons and questions, it isn’t until heaven that we receive answers.

 I met for the first time with my palliative doctor and her team, after that it kind of hit me that these were the people who were going to help me die. It was like they were fluffing my pillows for a good night’s sleep and it sunk in that there was going to be an end soon. That still didn’t mean I was going anywhere without a fight. I had trips to Cork for radiotherapy which would slow the cancer down but my doctors still warned my parents to have an early Christmas but because I knew this was going to be my last Christmas, I still wanted it to be special. Nonetheless Christmas remained December 25.

 I wanted unique gifts for all the people I loved, signet rings for my four best friends and one that I would wear as well, unique pieces of jewellery for my sister and my mother and other special friends. I didn’t ask for any gifts but somehow my mom managed to bring Santa Claus to the house on Christmas Eve while my friends and cousins were here. He gave a gift to everyone and we had a good laugh.

 I got a lot of happiness out of Christmas, we had more house parties and my debs was soon after. I got to bring one of my best friends, Joanne, and went with James and his date for the night.

 Some days I would wake up and I could easily appreciate the beauty of the world that I was leaving behind, although it does make me upset that I will never get to experience the feeling of living that I had on the bike or in the gym, or that I will never get to see my sister walk up the aisle next to the love of her life, or that I will never get to travel the world and see places like New Zealand, Asia or America or that I won’t get the chance to see my four best friends do as good in life as I know they will. 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.

Donal ended what he wrote with this:

I would like to take this chance to thank the people who asked not to be named but who have made a difference to the past few months for me and my family, whether they are other family members, business men or complete strangers. Thank you.

2 thoughts on “About a boy…climbing mountains

  1. Pingback: “And wipe the tears for ever from his eyes” | Garvan Hill

  2. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something.

    I think that you can do with a few pics to drive the message home a bit, but instead of
    that, this is excellent blog. A fantastic read.
    I’ll certainly be back.

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