Gord Downie is dead.
This seems like an impossibilty.
For 30 years he and his four bandmates have stitched themselves into the fabric my life. At stadium shows and festivals, in hometown bars, over airwaves on road trips, around camp fires... ...the list goes on. As I sit and listen to the tributes stream out of my speakers and type these words through the tears streaming down my face, Little Bones comes on and I am immediately transported back to Johnny Worsnop's bedroom in Brockville, Ontario, my hometown, my boyfriend from age nineteen to twenty-one, him dancing the way only he could--hips thrusting, a smile beaming across his face... man, he had moves--and us singing loudly enough to make his wicked step-sister scream at us from her room across the hall to shut the fuck up.
It was my own sister that introduced me to The Hip and took me to see them play live for this first time. It was Riverfest, the annual summer festival we Brockvillians affectionately referred to as "Liverfest". It was 1990. I was twenty, standing at the edge of the beer garden near the stage, under an umbrella in the pouring rain.
And I knew.
Something special was happening right before my eyes.
The next I'd hear of them would be amidst their explosion of popularity that left Little Bones fragments deeply embedded under the skin of a nation.
So many of his lyrics became part of my lexicon, as familiar and as fluidly as if I'd written them myself. They became integrated into the essence of who and how I am in the world: fully, completely.
I could share a thousand anecdotal stories of the ways Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip touched my life. One in particular is my favourite. I'll share it.
February 6, 2011: INT. Bathhouse Recording Studio, Bath, Ontario
The boys are laying tracks in the front part of the house. I'm in the kitchen at the back. While I busy my hands prepping my mise en place, I listen to the guitars and bass flowing through the ductwork and into my workspace, bobbing my head a little as I go. The occasional vocal track finds its way through and I strain a bit to hear the lyrics, a junkie for words and infinitely curious about the creative process, privileged to find myself in its midst.
I REALLY want to get this right.
I've been functioning as the in-studio private chef for The Tragically Hip since the beginning of January when they started work on Now For Plan A. Today is Gord Downie's birthday and I am tasked with preparing him a special dinner in celebration.
As is typical for me, I've chosen menu items I've never before prepared. I do that. It's my way of pushing myself toward excellence and mitigating the pitfall of complacency. It's my way of ensuring I'm always giving it my utmost attention and my best effort.
I'm not intimidated by fame. To me those guys in the other room are just a bunch of dudes who found a way to create a really cool job out of what they loved to do best. Fame is plastic and they're more real to me than that. They're human and as flawed and fallible as the rest of us. No, the source of my nervousness is my own perfectionism and my heart-on-my-sleeve way of forever wanting to create an environment of loving kindness for the people I serve, wanting them to leave feeling better for me having been there. For me every interaction counts and is offered consciously with care.
I have Gord's gift all wrapped and ready and waiting on the side. I found an old Bobby Orr hockey card amidst my collection of sentimental memories and tucked it inside the birthday card I had the guys sign for him. It's probably silly. He's probably had his own since he was a kid. I bought him a book too. A kid's book. Called It's A Book. I think he'll get it. You know.. tactile connectivity in a digital world? Maybe he'll think I'm completely mad. God, I hope he doesn't think I'm being some kind of weird fan girl. How I loathe to be perceived as a fan girl. He won't, right? It's his birthday. Gifts are thoughtful. He loves the Bruins. And books. I'll just focus on dinner.
My timing is off tonight. I'm distracted by my nervousness.
I forgot a few essential ingredients. I've had to call my roommate in Kingston, forty minutes away, to do an emergency drop-off and to do it surreptitiously enough that none of the band members or crew is the wiser. One doesn't just invite extra people into this space.
She comes and goes without incident, giving me an extra hug of encouragement as she leaves. She can sense my anxiety.
As I stir and check and taste and temper I feel panic begin to rise up. It's not right. I'm failing. Tonight of all nights. This is going to be the worst meal any of them has ever had. I'm going to be responsible for ruining the entire evening.
Tears spring up along with a lump in my throat and I swallow hard and fight them back.
I can do this.
Oh, fuck. No. I can't.
I should just leave. They won't even know I'm gone until they break.
I can throw this disaster in the trash, clean up the mess, and order pizza to be delivered while I'm on my way home.
More tears. Inhale. Exhale. Fuck.
I want to run out that back door more than anything in life right now. I ask myself aloud, "Would Gord do that? Would Gord just walk out mid-way through?"
Keep going. You have the skills. Trust the process. You can do this.
Inhale. Exhale. Stir. Taste. Reduce. Turn down the temp.
Fuck. Nope. Nope, I can't. This sucks. Everything is off.
Everybody loves pizza, right? I'm leaving.
No. No... I can't just leave. That'll be the end of me. I'll be known hereafter as the chef that walked out on Canada's most-beloved band. Not exactly the type of testimonial I'm going for.
I ask myself, aloud again, "What would Gord do?"
I answer myself (maybe I am completely mad)...
Gord would persevere. Gord would adapt. Gord would course correct. Gord would find perfection in the imperfection.
Stand your ground. Lean in.
Do what Gord would do.
This is for him, not you.
It's time. They're wrapping up. The music stops.
I plate the meal and you know what?
It looks good. I mean, better than good.
Maybe even my best yet.
I really didn't think I was going to pull that one together.
But, I see it on their faces. I hear it in their approving "mmmms".
I did it.
I did it.
"Happy Birthday, Gord."
I've thought of this moment a thousand times since that night. Every detail of the evening is still crisp in my memory. I can feel it on my skin as though I'm still sitting in that room off the kitchen at the studio, watching him open his gifts, watching them take their first bites, feeling the breath leave my body as I exhale with relief.
I think of it in moments of self-doubt. I think about what it takes to be a master, how many failures it takes to succeed, how many times he must have experienced similar anxiety and pushed through until he found that sweet spot from which he created the magic that united millions. I think of it and I ask myself, "What would Gord do?" and I push through too.
Without even knowing he had, just by being a living example of integrity in action, in thought, word, and deed, he gave me a gift of resilience and refusal to give up on myself, to shift my maybe I cant to hell yes, I can. For that, for him, I will be forever grateful.