When Gord Downie announced this past summer’s Tragically Hip tour in the wake of his terminal brain cancer diagnosis, he still seemed invincible.
Untouchable to the disease.
In the rare photo that surfaced, he still looked like himself. When he graced the country’s stages this summer to the screams of sold-out crowds, he seemed larger-than-life. And, as we do with all heroes, we all wanted to believe he was.
But it was impossible not to notice the odd time that he forgot the words to some of his classics.
And, in the joy of watching that final concert broadcast from Kingston, those moments felt like punches in the gut, sickeningly raw reminders that nobody – even the beloved frontman of one of Canada’s most influential and inspiring bands – is immune to cancer.
Sadly, the effects of the cancer are becoming more pronounced in Downie, who sat down with Peter Mansbridge on “The National” for a heartbreaking interview that aired last night.
The interview, filled with long pauses, marked the first time Gord Downie discussed his condition publicly.
Downie said his memory – which used to be his ‘forte’ – is fading as he battles the disease. He even had “Peter” written on his hand for the interview, despite knowing Mansbridge for 25 years. He said he also forgets the names of his children.
Downie said he hopes he “can get more time” in his battle with the terminal illness. But he’s accepted it.
When Mansbridge asked if he’s “resigned to the direction this is heading,” Downie said, “Yes, I am.”
“I really am, and because I can see it and feel it doing some … not doing some good, but it’s creating, it’s creating something.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s slowing down and retreated into the shadows as the brutal disease runs its course on him.
Downie is keeping busy with projects, including a solo album and a concert in both Ottawa and Toronto for his Secret Path project.
The project includes a set of 10 songs and a novel by award-winning author Jeff Lemire honouring Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Ojibway boy who died fifty years ago from hunger and exposure after running away from a residential school near Kenora, Ontario.
“Chanie haunts me. His story is Canada’s story,” said Downie in a statement when the project was revealed. He reiterated his passion and commitment to indigenous rights to Mansbridge in the interview.
Saying that “just doing things” brings him peace, Downie revealed that the Tragically Hip are working on another record.
“I’m doing good. I say that on purpose — ‘I’m doing good!’ — because I am,” said Downie. “Everything sort of seems to make sense. I am learning how to do it, because I’ve never done it before. And it’s tricky. But I have beautiful friends … I’ve been so lucky, living here in Toronto, being in the business I’m in. I’m a very lucky guy.”
Of course, a positive outlook helps, but it doesn’t take away from the harsh realities of the deadly disease, and Downie discussed his pain in leaving behind his family.
“I don’t want to die cause my youngest son is 10,” said Downie. “I want my kids to be good. I want them to be safe and have a great long life.”
As Downie’s journey continues, the country will continue to support him like family. Canada will collectively cry at his eventual passing, and we’ll all unite in our grief in its wake, posting pictures and memories, accompanied by the hashtag #fuckcancer.
But seriously, fuck cancer. If it wasn’t a heartbreaking reality for so many Hip fans before, the interview definitely made its effects very real.