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A man of courage, and grace too

Many Canadians are in mourning after hearing the news that Gord Downie, the lead singer of the Canadian rock band, The Tragically Hip, had passed away at the age of 53 on Oct. 17 after a lengthy fight with brain cancer. (Photos by Paul McKinnon/Shutterstock.com)

By Joel Wittnebel

Since the news of Gord Downie’s death took the breath out of this country like a gut punch, I’ve spent the last few days trying to read everything I can about his life. As if by keeping my eyes on those words, it can perhaps keep him front of mind for a little while longer, and perhaps prevent him from fading from our collective memories.

My earliest encounters with The Tragically Hip are sepia-toned, summer-time memories filled with good feelings and the smells of home cooking. My dad had the habit of rocking out to the Hip while he cooked. I can still see him chopping and frying as the warm sunlight poured in through the kitchen windows. In the years since, my parents have knocked one of the walls out of the kitchen, but at that time, it was pretty closed off, meaning my dad needed to crank the stereo in the other room to hear it over the sizzling pans. It filled the main floor of the house, and every time me and my brothers came running inside, our worlds were filled with Fifty-Mission Cap, or perhaps New Orleans is Sinking, or one of my now favourite Hip songs, My Music at Work.

At my young age, I didn’t appreciate the music, but those songs and those lyrics must have connected with something deep inside me, planting a seed that in my teenage years would bloom into full blown fandom.

So, the news of Downie’s death at the young age of 53 struck me just as hard as the rest of Canada, but at the same time, I’m filled with admiration and a feeling close to love for this man I never even met.

Downie’s vibrant stage presence was something that caught many fans attention, even when the band was starting out 30 years ago.

You see, we all knew it was coming. After the cancer diagnosis, it was only a matter of time, yet we all clung to the fact that perhaps he would continue to push through, especially after his Terry Foxian effort during the band’s final tour.

I think that final tour is only a microcosm of the man’s life. That passion that drove him through that final tour was exactly what fuelled him his entire career, and personified itself on stage as one of the most memorable and energetic stage presences known to modern music. Nobody rocked the stage like Gord, ask anyone who has seen him live, they’ll tell ya.

However, he also used that passion to make the world a better place, a long-time member of the Lake Ontario Waterkeepers, and especially in his latter years when he dedicated much of his efforts to improving this country for our First Nations and ensuring that Canadians are aware of our not so perfect past, and how we can make a better future.

Now, it’s been said a lot over the past week that the Hip’s lyrics are what connected with so many Canadians over their more than 30-year run, and I won’t disagree. Algonquin Park,  Tom Thompson, countless hockey references, Bobcaygeon, and that’s grabbing the low-hanging fruit.

Yet, I think there is something else that made Downie’s death so hard for this country. The Kingston native connected with us on a much deeper level. The Hip’s music can get to those parts of us that only art is able to reach, those part of us that believe the world really is a good place, the part of us that believes human beings really are great, and the part of us that believes we really are great and can do great things. The music also tends to push away the bad stuff. Give me a beer and the Hip and my night is instantly improved.

We all felt this almost ineffable effect, and that’s exactly how this band, and this man’s music was able to connect an entire country, and it’s why we now collectively mourn the loss of one of our greatest citizens.

In the coming days, I’ll continue to read and to listen and to remember those days long ago in my parent’s kitchen, and the many times later on that I saw them with my own eyes.

I’m comforted by the fact that while the man may be gone, he’s left this world a better place than it was before; something we should all strive to do.

Thanks for everything Gord, rest easy.