Sixteen-year-old Donal Walsh woke up one May morning just two weeks before he died and roared for his mother. Elma Walsh ran upstairs thinking something awful had happened, but found him smiling and triumphant.
“Do you know what day it is? It’s the 1st of May, the first day of summer. I made it. F… the doctors,” he said, delighted to have outlived his cancer prognosis by six months.
“You can put in dots,” his mother says, laughing at her son’s forthright choice of language.
That same refreshing directness, coupled with his ability to celebrate every moment in a life cut short by cancer, impressed a nation when he spoke so eloquently against suicide on Brendan O’Connor’s Saturday Night Show in 2013.
He was on air for just 19 minutes, but his impassioned plea to young people not to take their own lives had a far-reaching and lasting effect.
Two years on, the letters are still arriving. There are boxes of them at his home in Blennerville outside Tralee, Co Kerry.
His mother misses him — “and everything about him” — every single day.
The feeling is made even more acute when she sees teenagers getting their Leaving Cert results and going on to college.
“You wonder what might have been,” she says.
Then again, she adds, maybe he did reach his potential: “A lot of people are getting a lot of comfort and inspiration from him throughout the country.”
There are so many examples, such as the Leaving Cert student who presented her with an essay she had written about Donal during a cancer-awareness event on Mount Leinster in Carlow.
She said she had been inspired by Donal’s message to cherish life and that he would always be embedded in her soul.
In the same week, Elma got a letter from an 85-year-old Augustinian brother living in France who said he was impressed, in his old age, by all that was being done in the light of Donal’s departure.
Donal’s message was simple — live life to the full no matter what. It crystalised for him after going to the funerals of two young people who had committed suicide in relatively quick succession.
I’ll never forget the look on their grandparents’ faces, he told his mother. It was the summer of 2012 and the following October he was fighting cancer for the third time in four years. This time, though, he had been given months to live.
“There was,” he wrote, “no choice, no say, no matter. It was given to me as easy as dinner.”
In a remarkably moving and eloquent letter, he said that he felt nothing but anger when he heard of young people committing suicide and he pleaded with them to seek help, or to stop and consider the consequences of their actions.
“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,” he wrote.
The letter wasn’t meant to be published until after his death but it came to light after his teacher Ruairi O’Rahilly, a teacher at CBS in Tralee, nominated him for the Kerry’s Eye/Radio Kerry Local Hero Award.
It must have been heartening to see his words make such an impact while he was alive, but if his mother has one regret it is that she didn’t bring forward her 50th birthday party.
Donal had wanted to celebrate his mother’s Big-O on July 26 but he died at home on May 12, 2013.
Yet when the day came around, something remarkable happened. Elma had planned to climb Mangerton mountain, just south of Killarney, to take her mind off the sadness.
She was going out and as she passed the living room, she noticed something. It was a robin, perched on a photo of Donal. When she went into the room, it sat there calmly.
Then it sat on Donal’s chair and stayed long enough for her to take several photographs. She pulls out her iPhone to present the evidence. After that, she opened the window and it just flew out.
A coincidence? Perhaps. Whatever the explanation, it brought a sliver of comfort to Elma Walsh and her family, husband Fionnbar and daughter Jema, 21.
And while it has been unspeakably difficult to live without Donal, the support has been overwhelming.
When he died, one man drove from Tipperary to Tralee just to give Elma a hug. He dispensed his bear hug, said very little, then turned on his heel to drive home again.
There have been letters, phonecalls, visits and requests to speak at schools and church events. Elma works three days a week for Casey Accountants in Tralee and “gives Thursdays and Fridays to the road”, as she puts it.
That road has brought her to Knock where she was greeted by unprecedented crowds. She has spoken in schools and churches all over the country and, this spring, will speak in England for a second time.
At every talk, she starts by saying that Donal was a normal teenager. She talks about his illness, his faith and his legacy. There is huge interest in his faith, particularly in boys’ schools, she says.
“The first five questions will always be about his faith; how he prayed, why he prayed. I think young people are definitely looking for something to hold on to,”says Elma.
The #LifeLive Foundation set up in Donal’s name has raised €300,000. The Teen Room he campaigned to have built at Crumlin Hospital is up and running.
Four months after his death, the coroner for south Kerry Terence Casey said his appeal to young people had “considerably reduced” suicides in Kerry.
“Donal speaking out in the way he did has made a huge difference. I usually deal with 18 suicides a year, about one-and-a-half a month on average. But since Donal spoke out against suicide, I have had no suicides from March to August,” he said at the time.
That September, he was posthumously awarded Joint Young Person of the Year for his courage, strength, determination and for being an inspiration for so many.
“It was humbling,” his mother says now just before nominations close for the 2015 Rehab awards on September 14.
“It’s a fantastic award to get,” she says pointing to a substantial trophy not unlike an Oscar on the kitchen dresser. “Feel the weight of it,” she says. It’s rock solid, a little like the outstanding achievements of the ordinary people honoured since the awards were established in 1974.
You could sit and talk to Elma Walsh all day. She is entertaining, uplifting, down-to-earth and self-effacing. “I’ll be like a bodhran going around in your head,” she says. Not at all. If she has any drum to beat, it is to spread her late son’s message: get out there and live your life to the full.
Nominations for the 2015 Rehab People of the Year Awards are open until September 14. See www.peopleoftheyear.com