by Sarah Banks
This past May, Canada was sucker-punched with the news that Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Since that sad day, I’ve been somewhat numb with a touch of sub-conscious denial. But recently, a delayed emotional response set in, due in no small part to the fact that I lucked into 2nd row, floor seats at The Tragically Hip’s August 10th concert in Toronto.
As I watched Gord, from that sublimely prime location where I stood, I kept thinking to myself–Who does he remind me of? That face looks so familiar, so recognizable. But I couldn’t arrive at an answer.
And then it came to me. Gord Downie looks like Gord Downie. There’s only one of him. He’s been a fixture in my life since 1989, and for me personally, his is the comfort food of faces. It is forever boyish, yet unmistakably wise. You feel like you’ve known him for years. And you’re better for having known him. It’s a face I’m always happy to see.
My first Tragically Hip concert was at Federation Hall on the campus of the University of Waterloo in the fall of 1991. It was their Road Apples tour. I will never forget being so close to the stage that a bead of Gord’s sweat landed on my face. These guys were going places. I just knew it.
Time in many ways stood still that night in Toronto at the Air Canada Centre. While a feather-adorned fedora had replaced his 1991 frenetic, sweaty mop of hair, Gord was still Gord. Prancing and preening, growling and gallivanting – all with a resolute glint in his eye that said “This is no dress rehearsal. This is our life.” As I reveled in his thoroughly thespian ways on stage, I was struck by the intermingling of gravity with levity. This was an undeniably heavy night, and yet there was light and magic in the air.
In the jaws of cancer, bravery, or more fittingly Courage, is a badge that many are bestowing upon our unofficial Ambassador Downie. As someone who generally abhors the pressure put on cancer patients to muster strength and optimism in the face of mortality, I prefer to see Gord’s resilience and stamina as a reflection of his innate zest for life and all it has to offer. He is eating life up while he can.
In an obvious act of gratitude and closure, Gord was left alone on stage after the band’s first of two encores. With a dewy-eyed, fixed gaze on left stage audience, then centre stage, then right stage, he extended his arms, patted his heart and blew kisses that said in no uncertain terms, I love you and I thank you. And that he did. “Thank you, Toronto”, he said. “Thank you, forever.”
There was a palpable awareness of what we were bearing witness to, and it wasn’t sombre in the least. It was a packed stadium brimming with love and respect for a man who has enriched our country and ourselves. Paradoxically, he speaks our language and yet we happily struggle with the often-cryptic meaning behind his words.
He is smart and clever, gentle and kind. And unflinchingly Canadian.
Gord is loved.
Sarah Banks (@sillpillow on Twitter) lives in Ottawa and has listened to the Tragically Hip since she was 17. She’s now 44.