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Gord Downie Reminded Us Not To Save A Thing For Later

The hard work he put into every part of his life is yet another lesson.

10/18/2017 17:45 EDT | Updated 10/20/2017 11:48 EDT
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Gord Downie blows a kiss to the audience during a ceremony honouring the Canadian singer at the AFN Special Chiefs assembly in Gatineau, Que., Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016.

Let's start with how he kissed his bandmates smack on the lips as if to say there wasn't time for anything less.

It was one more lesson, perhaps, for those of us in the nosebleeds who gathered those loving evenings to say goodbye, though we dared not say so.

"See you down the road somewheres, alright?" Gord Downie told us in words as piercing as they were plain.

It was another gift to take home with us from someone who'd long felt like a friend, if only because his poetry always seemed to get to the heart of what it means to live here.

After he passed away Tuesday night at the age of 53, that beast of brain cancer stealing him from us for good, The Tragically Hip frontman's family released a statement saying that Downie knew this day was coming. We all knew, of course.

"His response was to spend his precious time as he always had — making music, making memories and expressing deep gratitude to his family and friends," it read.

At home, he worked just as tirelessly at being a good father, son, brother, husband and friend. No one worked harder on every part of their life than Gord. No one.Downie's family

It was hard not to harken back to the urgency we felt in the summer of 2016, after we learned Downie was fatally sick.

There wasn't a moment to waste. It would be the last tour, most likely. The last opportunity to hear that strange, special voice. The last chance to watch him up there in those shiny, metallic suits — courage and grace personified — demanding that each of us walk like a matador.

"It was a lot of fun. That is the main idea," Downie told the audience at the end of a show in Hamilton, Ont., one steamy night in August.

To those snapping photos and videos, trying to soak up and preserve whatever they could get from him, Downie offered that "none of it will last much longer than the particular phone you're shooting on."

And that's OK, he said.

"It will be the little feelings here and there that pop up. OK?"

OK.

A little later, with the eyes of a country fixed upon him, Downie again seized the moment to tell our prime minister — and all of us — to do right by Indigenous peoples "we were trained our entire lives to ignore."

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As that summer turned to fall, he hit us again with an ambitious solo project telling the story of Chanie Wenjack, an Indigenous boy who died trying to escape from his residential school.

In one particularly gutting song, Downie describes Wenjack walking alone in the cold, carefully keeping track of his matches in a jar and dreaming of his mother, mile after mile.

"On the chick-chick chick-chick sound of the matches," Downie wrote. "On the memory of her smile."

See, that was the thing about Downie. He could paint eclectic pictures with his words or cook with simplest of ingredients and break you just the same.

That was the thing about Downie — you never knew where he'd go next. Another new solo album, called "Introduce Yerself," will be released this month.

But as Canada mourns the artist, there was another part of the statement the Downie family released that is worth reflection.

Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Gord Downie at an undated Tragically Hip show.

"At home, he worked just as tirelessly at being a good father, son, brother, husband and friend," they said. "No one worked harder on every part of their life than Gord. No one."

It's yet another lesson for us.

Back in that summer of Downie, my older sister came to Toronto with her husband, her daughter and her son for what was both a beginning and an end — the first Hip concert for the kids, the last for the parents.

I was there that night with my wife. We all met up before the show and afterwards to drink and laugh and talk about music. My brother-in-law is the reason I love this band in the first place. I will remember the joy and sadness of that night, always.

What we couldn't have known then was how quickly life would change.

On Christmas Eve last year, my sister suffered a stroke. I had just seen her at mass, hours earlier, and I remember thinking how pretty she looked. For reasons that confound me, I didn't say so.

I thought about all the other things I didn't say enough. The phone calls I owed her, the times I wasn't the brother and friend that she deserved.

Hours later, as she lay in her hospital bed with tubes in her mouth, we were forced to confront the possibility of losing her. And I thought about all the other things I didn't say enough. The phone calls I owed her, the times I wasn't the brother and friend that she deserved.

I should have told her I loved her more, I thought. I should have told her she looked pretty.

In the end, my sister would fight her way back. The music of The Tragically Hip would provide some comfort for us all along the way.

Like many fans, I'm sure, I received some texts Wednesday from people lamenting that Downie was gone. True to form, my sister reached out to ask how I was feeling.

So sad, I told her. And so distracted.

"I know, honey, I bet you are," she wrote. "I'm sorry."

I let her know, right away, that I loved her.

Don't save a thing for later.

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