I wished I didn’t have to write this, but that’s not how cancer works, or at least our reaction to it.
Gord Downie, lead singer of The Tragically Hip, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer known as glioblastoma in May of last year. It shook all Canadians in different ways — for me, it followed my uncle’s cancer diagnosis. While not the same type, it was equally as fatal. In both cases, hope overpowered logic. I spent my time convincing myself that the word “terminal” didn’t mean what it did, but when both fights were over, I was reminded of the harsh realities of fighting cancer. Terminal means the fight is over before it has begun; palliative care signals the end, not the future. Stranger things don’t happen.
I took his diagnosis as just another shitty thing to happen, even though I, at that point, was not that into The Hip. I only knew their song “New Orleans is Sinking,” and I didn’t like it all that much. I missed the last time they came to Edmonton because I thought I wasn’t a fan. I’ve regretted it ever since.
The day after their last show here, I listened to Sonic’s description of what sounded like an amazing and emotional show as I drove to work and felt somewhat bitter. I arrived to see my friend Zac, who went the night prior. I asked him how the concert was, and he asked me how I missed it. When he found out I only knew one song, he pulled out his phone and played a quick playlist of songs that I knew and liked, but never knew were created by The Tragically Hip. This re-education ended with the song “In a World Possessed by the Human Mind,” and we both sat in contemplative silence as the opening lines reminded us of not only Downie’s tragedy, but the tragedies in our own lives.
I missed Downie’s last concert in August as I was driving back from my hometown after visiting my uncle for one of the last times. I listened to the few songs from The Hip on Spotify on repeat. The road trip no longer had a cancerous elephant in the room, and I finally understood what other Canadians saw in them.
In November, I returned for them to see my uncle for the final time. At that point, I couldn’t stand to listen to The Hip — their music gave me both an unhealthy hope and realization of the end. Their music just charged that elephant back into the room, and I wasn’t ready to deal with at that point. I still had hope. During one ride to the hospital, I found myself angrily switching off “In a World Possessed by the Human Mind.” The songs opening sentiment of knowing the reality, but wanting a hopeful lie. Deep down, I knew the fight was over. I wanted the lie that it wasn’t. The opening lines cut. My uncle died on November 12, 2016. He was 44.
Gord Downie dedicated the last year of his life to everything he loved. He gave fans of The Tragically Hip fans one last great tour. He told the story of Chanie Wenjack and was an advocate for reconciliation. He was a poet and through his musical poetry told stories about the country, and the people in it that he cherished. While I have had The Tragically Hip on repeat on Spotify, I have yet to watch Long Time Running or Secret Path. I can’t — at least not now. It makes everything real. Gord died on October 17, 2017. He was 53.
I wish I had this great, momentous idea to end my thoughts on my experience with The Hip, Gord Downie, and my uncle. In the end, Justin Trudeau put it best: “We all knew this day was coming. We just hoped it wouldn’t.”