On August 20th, 2016 I woke up on a friend’s couch, toward the end of a summer of drifting precipitated by the close of a relationship that lost me an apartment, a dog, and many hours sleep.
Then, a wedding. Two friends since six years exchanging vows at St. Mary’s Basilica in Halifax, Nova Scotia, beaming at each other in spite of the priest cautioning the inevitable fade of romantic love. The many faces smiling back at them.
Speeches were made later that afternoon aboard the Tall Ship Silva in Halifax Harbour to honour the bride and groom, and their families. The parents first, the bride’s sister, and finally, the groom’s brother, who choked back tears uttering his last few words, having been otherwise composed, and shook any remaining tears from the eyes of all those aboard.
It was sunshine on the water, a cool breeze, and dozens eating, drinking, and dancing together.
The boat docked, and I headed to the library to meet a woman for our second date. We drove to Lawrencetown Beach, sat on the rocks and talked a while, then walked through the sand as the tide came in and slowly soaked higher up the rolled cuffs of my jeans. She came home with me, which is a strange euphemism when you don’t have one.
At the end of the night, I took her back to her sister’s house where she was staying, waiting for a call down to the Caribbean for work. It would come soon, and when it did, I would be gone.
I spent the final hours of the day watching Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip close their Man Machine Poem tour in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario in front of what felt like the whole of Canada.
I had denied The Hip’s influence on me until that night, only to have my denial dismantled piece by piece as I watched and listened to the band play songs I came to recognize as the background, or soundtrack, or soundscape to so much of my life.
Songs that were my father, and summers playing in bands of my own. Songs that were road trips from Winnipeg to Gander, and from Edmonton to Vancouver. Songs that were the silver bleeding moon on the still waters of Lake Ontario. Songs that echoed in so many memories from my nearly three decades alive, rediscovered in the triumphant finale of a band that was a man and a country in the same glorious hour.
Tears for Gord, during “Grace, Too” as he howled and railed in face of the unknown, dropped the microphone, and trembled, embracing himself stood sideways in the middle of the stage, surrounded by tens of thousands, and felt by so many more, yet alone in that moment. A man so powerful, and so possessed, offering his frailty and his fear to us amid the grandeur and spectacle he stood at the centre of.
I thought of my parents, and the time I have left with them. I thought of my own death. I thought of the poet Dylan Thomas:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
This was courage. A man proclaiming his mortality to the world, shaking under the spotlight for all to see, and striking the coup de grâce himself on a career that spanned nearly three decades in length.
There will never be another band that cuts to the quick of our country the way The Tragically Hip has in bidding us farewell. Flags should hang at half-mast in their wake.