I originally published this article at YMC the day after The Tragically Hip’s final concert aired on the CBC in August 2016. It went viral across Canada, with over 73,000 shares on Facebook alone. I wrote it from the heart, and it remains one of the things I’ve written that I’m most proud of. On the anniversary of that concert, I’ve decided to bring it home and have it live on my site where it belongs. And tonight, you can be sure I’ll be listening to The Hip and remembering.
None of us is getting out of here alive; there’s nothing more certain about life than our eventual death.
Some of us will have our lives ripped from our hands in an instant with nary a second to ponder our existence, while others, like Gord Downie, will be handed their death sentence and time. Months, days, and then seconds to grapple with the greatest question of all; did I live a life worth living?
For those of us who have followed The Tragically Hip from the beginning, this summer has been particularly poignant; our own mortality has been playing out on stage. It has been impossible to not draw comparisons to our own lives, with questions about how we will face our inevitable deaths. Thankfully the man (and the band) who provided us with a kick-ass soundtrack for our lives over the last three decades has also now gifted us with a roadmap for dying.
Gord Downie could have been quiet, slipping away quietly without sharing his final days with us — and there would have been no judgement if he had. But instead he handed us a gift. He pushed the demons that must have been wreaking havoc with him aside and gave us his all, right down to the very last song.
While the vast majority of us won’t have the rapt attention of a nation in our final days, we will have the focus of those who love us and as Gord showed us, our final performance is the time to leave nothing left unsaid — to be vulnerable and raw. Why wait until we are looking death square in the eyes though? Say it now.
Faced with death, Gord Downie had two choices; retreat with his loved ones or bring us all in for one final group hug. There was nothing that said he had to include us on this journey, but he respectfully and with love shared his music and poetry one last time and allowed us to say goodbye so that we might feel better.
The Tragically Hip could have used the proceeds to make sure that just their families were taken care of, because without Gord Downie, there is no Hip. Instead, they announced that some of the proceeds from ticket sales would be donated to the Sunnybrook Foundation to support cancer research, ensuring that they weren’t just taking care of themselves but of people who have some more living to do.
Finally, with an entire nation hanging on every word during his final concert, Gord demanded better for our First Nations and gave us all a call to action. Do better. There was no vanity or posturing, just a man putting the living ahead of the dying. We should all remember that in our final days, it isn’t about us at all, but about those we leave behind.
Last night I listened with a nation to The Hip’s final concert on the CBC. Canada’s most iconic band played on our national radio with not one commercial break and a few well placed fucks for three hours. It was the most Canadian thing that ever Canadianed. I could not bring myself to watch with my eyes, but instead chose to close them and listen, under the stars with a campfire. Every song suddenly had new context and meaning.
“It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.”
“No dress rehearsal, this is our life.”
“You’re going to miss me, wait and you’ll see.”
“Let’s just see what the morning brings.”
It was not a lyric that finally pushed me over the edge however, rather it was when Gord said simply, “Have a nice life.” Four simple words, so often said dripping with disdain in our modern society that it caught me off guard. There was no bitterness, anger, or resentment in those words; it was said with gut-wrenching sincerity to each and every one of us. In that moment, I was beyond grateful for the music, the band, and the man that has been part of life’s playlist since I was sixteen.
Years from now the question won’t be, “Where were you when Gord Downie died?” but rather “Where were you when he played his last concert?” Looking death squarely in the eye, Gord changed the narrative from not how he will die but how he lived. A powerful reminder to us all.
I don’t propose to know what goes on inside the head of someone facing imminent death. All I know is that a man should be judged by his actions in the face of it. Gord Downie just showed us all how to die with courage, and grace too.