Life teaches many lessons, but what can we learn from death? In April 2021, at the age of 51, David Moclair was diagnosed with a Grade 4 Glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. In conversation with his friend Bernadette Fallon, he shares what the journey so far has taught him.
Life deals unexpected blows, and you rarely see them coming.
It was Holy Thursday. I had just cleaned the house from top to bottom. The next thing I knew I was surrounded by an ambulance crew on my way to the emergency department. I’d had a seizure. By Good Friday I was in hospital bed, thinking this is how Jesus must have felt, wrapped in a white sheet. I had an MRI scan and a doctor came to see me afterwards; the scan had showed something on my brain. I wanted to ask her more, but I was too afraid.
I was discharged from hospital a few days later and sent for a neuro oncology appointment. The doctor told me I had a brain tumour. They would do tests to find out how aggressive it was. Surgery was highly likely, followed by a course of chemo and radiotherapy. I didn’t ask how much time I had, even though I was thinking it. For some reason, I no longer felt afraid.
In times of crisis, you need people to be honest.
When the doctor said, “I need to be clear with you, this is not curable”, I got a jolt. But I also realised his straightforward approach was much better for me than a sugar-coating.
“The surgery is basically a Black and Decker job,” he said, and that’s the best way to describe it. They would take a disc out of my skull – like taking a cork out of a bottle – remove as much of the tumour as possible and put the disc back in.
It all felt a bit unreal. Every so often I’d think to myself, “Oh God, I have a brain tumour”, then I’d go back to watching Nicole Kidman in The Undoing, or making another 1980s playlist.
Whatever situation you find yourself in, don’t spend too much time on Google.
After talking to the doctor, I did a Google search on “brain cancer” – and had to close it down immediately. The internet was full of advice, like how eating cauliflower non-stop could be helpful.
There is always hope even when it seems there isn’t, unless you’re actually dead.
I had radiotherapy and chemotherapy through the summer. I remember walking through the park on the way back from the hospital one lovely sunny day, and I suddenly thought to myself, I have no idea of my time frame here. I hadn’t asked.
So my husband Jonathan and I made an appointment with the oncologist. I remember walking into the room thinking, if they told me today I had five years left, I’d be thrilled. He said I had 15 months. “15 months from now?” I asked. “No, 15 months from the diagnosis.” The diagnosis had been four months ago.
At first we were in shock, crying, thinking about the future – we couldn’t listen to music at all for a while, it would just set us off. I thought about all the things I’d never get to do. I wouldn’t see my niece and nephews get married, and I’d never see Mylène Farmer in concert again.
But then it evaporated. What the oncologist told us wasn’t affecting life; we were still living, at home and happily doing our usual routine. I was never hopeless; for some reason I always felt hopeful. Not hopeful of recovery, I totally trusted their diagnosis – but I just had a hopeful feeling in me.
I learned quite quickly that you’re always better knowing bad news than not knowing it, because once you know you can start to make plans.
You may find comfort in the most unexpected places.
My mother phoned me one day – she sounded a bit wary – and said, “David, I want you to do something for me”. She had told a healer about my condition, and he said, “tell David to go to Confession and Communion”. I was inwardly rolling my eyes, but I knew it would give my mother some comfort. And so I found myself back in the church for the first time in several decades saying, “Bless me father for I have sinned, it is 35 years since my last confession”. I had totally forgotten the Act of Contrition, but the priest talked me through it.
I wasn’t keen on going back to Mass either, but when I got there, it felt like a bit of the jigsaw was slipping back into place. I decided to go or listen to Mass every day. I find it really helpful, which I didn’t expect.
I had this dream afterwards. I could see a piece of rope coming out of the sea and that rope was pulling a boat back into shore. That’s what Mass felt like for me.
Sometimes you’ll be given exactly what you need to get through the tough times.
After we got the news from the oncologist, we went home to visit my parents in Ballinasloe. My father and I went out walking every morning, all over Derrymullen. The days were so lovely and sunny, and I realised I was brought up in a beautiful part of Ireland, even though people often don’t rate Ballinasloe that highly.
One day we found a miraculous medal glittering in the grass at the side of the road. We never would have seen it, only the sun was shining directly on it. My father told me that my granny when she was alive had a great faith in miraculous medals and I felt that this was a gift I had been given. I’ve worn it every day since.
Another day I found pictures of Jesus and Our Lady in an old derelict house we walked past; the owner had been a psychiatric nurse, like me. They were just cheap plastic things in frames, but there was something about them I found comforting.
There’s a tradition of hanging holy pictures at the front door to see people safely home, so I hung them in our hallway, and every night Jonathan lights candles in front of them. When I see them flickering in the darkness, they look like healing rays of light.
I’ve had to move into a hospital bed downstairs now and Jonathan also lights a candle in a lantern that hangs in the window beside my bed. If I wake up suddenly in the middle of the night, not sure where I am, the light brings me back and I know I’m home.
There is a force in the universe that’s more powerful than we are. Call it what you want.
There is something out there that’s more powerful than us and that’s what pushes the grass through the ground. There is a life force that surrounds us that drives everything. Maybe that’s what faith is, I’m not sure.
The danger we get into is trying to see everything through a human lens – and it’s hard to believe in God solely with human eyes or human understanding. It’s a bit like trying to make deals with God, that’s not how it works. If you go down the road of trying to humanise your faith and you want proof all the time, you’re on to a loser.
I do wonder if all the different religions are just shopfronts for the same thing. They all give the same message, which is basically, try to be a good person and try to be forgiving. Forgiveness is a big part of life.
It’s good to remember what we have and feel grateful.
Every day I wake up I say thank you God for letting me take the first breath of the day, and with a bit of luck I’ll do it again tomorrow. Being grateful for what we have is so important in life. So many people don’t realise it. We often look at what we don’t have. The opposite of gratitude is envy, and that’s a very negative emotion.
There doesn’t have to be fear in dying – but there is a huge sadness.
People often ask me am I afraid of dying, and the answer is always no. And that’s such a peaceful state of mind to be in. I’m not unhappy, I’m not afraid of anything, I’m not depressed.
But sometimes I feel huge sadness. A few weeks ago, Jonathan was making tea and I got this overwhelming sadness, thinking a time will come in a few months when he will be doing all this on his own and I won’t be here. There’ll be no more David and Jonathan, there’ll be no more us, he’ll be doing stuff on his own and that just made me incredibly sad.
I burst into tears, and I was kind of begging in my head, I said can someone please come and just take this sadness out of me because it’s unbearable. But I was able to talk to Jonathan about it and that helped. He’s very resilient and he has lots of good friends, I know he will get through what’s to come. Bereavement is part of living, and people eventually start to rebuild their lives.
There is sadness in life and in death, but I’ve learned that sadness can be good for us, it can help us reflect and take stock. Sometimes going through a profound sadness is necessary to come out the other side. And sadness will always lessen with time. I really believe that.