No dress rehearsal.
You think you're prepared for an eventuality, and yet when it arrives, your world is thrown off its axis, and it's like they moved the moon while you were looking the other way, and nothing makes sense.
When the texts started arriving Wednesday, I was wishing I had turned my phone off.
"Gord died last night" was the first one I saw, from Bruce Moser, a Buffalo promoter who had worked with the Tragically Hip from the beginning, and considered Gord Downie a friend. My reaction was shock, despite the fact that Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in December of 2015, and had already outlived his predicted life span. I already had lost a friend and family member to the same strain of cancer, and knew all along that the outlook was grim. Still, it felt like a shovel to the back of the head.
The first thing that popped into my mind after reading Moser's text was a lyric from a David Byrne tune that I haven’t listened to in years, but was apparently ensconced in my memory, waiting for the right time to emerge.
"The sun shines on the evil/The sun shines on the good/It doesn’t favor righteousness/Although you wish it would."
Despite the rapid rate at which we who live for and through music are losing the constellations in our sky, the inclination is to rage at the injustice of it all. Why do we lose the good ones, the people who bring such joy and love and light into our world? How does this make sense?
It doesn’t, of course. And we're left to make some semblance of peace with the injustice, to find a way to cling to the memories. For those of us who love the Tragically Hip, those memories are plentiful. Loving this band gained us entry into what felt like an exclusive club, and Downie was the doorman, a carnival barker with an ever-present sly smirk who lifted the velvet rope with a twinkle in his eye and said "C'mon in."
I've been lucky enough to write about the Hip for 20 years, and have been religiously attending the band's shows, and Downie's occasional solo appearances, for even longer. During that time, I got to know the man a bit, and found him to be a beautiful, kind, funny and endlessly interesting person who took his bond with Hip fans incredibly seriously.
He was a poet, an artist capable of turning abstractions into universal statements, and though he was rightly claimed as Canada's pre-eminent son, the impact of his writing, his stage presence, and his unflagging faith in the power of the concert ritual did not stop at the border to be frisked, fingerprinted and detained. Downie was ours, too. And what turns out to be the Hip's final performance, in Kingston, Ont. in August of last year, is a memory that acknowledges no artificial national divides. That concert, that triumph – Gord's triumph – belongs to all of us.
While we're grasping in the dark summoned by Downie's passing, we should cling to this: The man lived his life following his diagnosis with bravery. He didn’t meet death on bended knee, but rather, got to work, releasing a solo album, "The Secret Path," which became a book, and then a play, digging deeper into his work casting light on the plight of Canada's indigenous peoples, recording another solo album, this one a double-set now poised for release.
"Gord knew this day was coming," reads a statement on the Hip's website today.
"His response was to spend this precious time as he always had – making music, making memories and expressing deep gratitude to his family and friends for a life well lived, often sealing it with a kiss … on the lips."
There's the lifeline, for all of us who loved the man, even if we only knew him through his music: Live, full-on, with gratitude and humility and empathy and grace, too. Every day.
No dress rehearsal. This is it. Don't wait.