He was, among other things, Canada’s most famous lip kisser. Even as the enigmatic Gord Downie transcended labels—musician, poet, activist—as he became a kind of Canadian medium, channeling the complicated mythologies of a people who celebrate the struggle against oversimplified clichés of patriotism, his spontaneous lip kissing of his bandmates, his friends, interviewers—did he really lip kiss Peter Mansbridge?—became his last riddle, as complicated and compelling as any of his lyrics: why do we wait to the end of life to talk publicly about the people we love?
I’m late to arrive at the whole lip kissing thing. My wife grew up in North Bay, Ont., which I soon discovered, was also lip kissing territory. Her father passed away last year and I vividly recall how she would kiss him on the lips as their normal habit of greeting, much as she would do with her older brother Tom. They thought nothing of it. My family are huggers, cheek kissers, talkers—saying “Bye, I love you” remains our phone sign off to each-other—but not lip kissers, which we thought was an unnecessary intimacy. “Maybe it’s a small town thing, you know, Kingston and North Bay,” my wife mused as we spoke about Gord’s kisses, but I suspect it was more a family thing. The Downies and my wife’s band of Quinns.
So she was perfectly comfortable with Gord’s gesture. The last time she saw him, when she worked on his remarkable Secret Path concert series, they held hands after the show in Ottawa as she walked him out to the bus. He was tired and fragile after the show, but then, he always was a different guy post performance, quiet, soft spoken, as if he’d left the radioactive energy he possessed on the stage, like a used Hazmat suit. This time was different. He was sick, and was genuinely drained. I haven’t asked her, because she’s still broken up about his loss all these weeks later, but I’m sure that night ended with a lip kiss. And an “I love you.” That’s the other thing to know. Gord said “I love you” a lot, in a totally unabashed way, in a way to make sure nothing was left unsaid. It wasn’t cheap, or tossed off, it was true and powerful. He ended his emails with, “love always, g.”
That’s the things that’s stayed with me these last few weeks, as tributes to Gord keep pouring out. The boldness of his gestures. The sheer fearlessness in expressing the basic emotions that matter. Love. Gratitude. I’ve spent years covering politics and in the daily political knife fights that happen on Parliament Hill the only time anyone stops and really talks about the most fundamental emotions that drive us is after someone dies. It happened recently with the death of the MP Arnold Chan. Then there’s an acceptable outpouring of love, a short, allowable period of emission, and then it’s over. That’s the way it is everywhere. We don’t seem to ever publicly tell the people in our life why we love them until they’re gone. Why is that?
Maybe love is a private matter. That’s certainly partly true. What you want to say to your wife or husband, your kids, your parents or friends ought to be between you, not served up for everyone to see. It is no one’s business really, and perhaps it is more beautiful because of its discreet nature, its secluded, specific dynamic. Who else can really understand these kinds of relationships, anyway? I accept that. I’m not talking about a Facebook world of love, or a daily blog about it. I get kind of itchy when I read personal confessions and I have a low threshold for memoirs. The line between genuine sharing and narcissistic self-indulgence has been erased by the Kardashian-ization of the world and I’m the first to get an allergic reaction to it. But if the privatization of love was such a slam dunk case, why do we have public funerals? Why do we find eulogies so healing? Why do we socialize grief as a way of healing? Why do we have weddings and engagement parties and birthdays? We do it because there’s a social aspect to love as well. It’s just these things are all so carefully packed and managed so they don’t make us uncomfortable.
I asked my immediate family about publicly expressing love to one another outside of the conventional moments—births, weddings and funerals—in, say, some letters. Instantly the conversation turned awkward. What was I thinking, like a living eulogy? Gross. Morbid. Eye rolls. Giggles.
— If you do that, people will think everyone around you is sick or secretly dying.
— Maybe you can ask Hallmark to make some cards: “You’re gonna die eventually, so just want to say I love you before you kick the bucket.” Or, “Death’s coming, so before you go, I love you… oh, and you owe me 100 bucks.”
— Seriously, don’t do it. It’s like a jinx. We’re all healthy, I just have a mild cough, I don’t need a f–kin’ eulogy.
You know, your typical family discussion. Bye. I love you.
Anyway, even though my family thinks this is a corny, possibly a strange idea, I can’t shake it. Why is expressing love such a private matter? In my line of work, everything else is public, especially suffering and death. That’s when the cameras arrive, that’s when the stories pour out. I recall being at the World Trade Centre ruins the night of September 11th and families were already wondering if their loved ones had survived. It was agonizing to talk to them over the next few days as the searches went on, as they told painful stories of who they were looking for and why this person was so wonderful. It took a tragedy to make us all care so much. It happens like this every day for some crime, and this week the terrible shooting in Texas is no different. The victims’ names emerge. We share the collective sorrow. It is news.
My kids are teenagers now, my parents are healthy but aging, and I can’t stop thinking of the line from Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things, where she describes someone as “Not old. Not young. But a viable die-able age.” Once you hit that viable, die-able age—and I have—when you’ve lost friends, when funerals are more common than weddings, when the bombs start falling close to the trench, you don’t lie awake at night thinking about Bill Morneau’s blind trust or the employment level, you start counting the summers. You start thinking of the words you’ve left unsaid. Of the gratitude you have yet to express to people who have been there for you when times were hard. You know more losses are coming so it becomes almost painful to tilt your head up and look too far ahead. But by morning you brush it off as a mid-life crisis, as goopy sentimentality, and you put on the suit of armour and go to work. But those 2 a.m. questions are probably the only ones that really matter.
I’ve just spent the last 10 days with my parents who have been visiting us in Ottawa, and frankly there are no words I haven’t said to my father or mother. I love them and admire them and have told them often, but over the years my perspective on their lives has changed. I look back on my young life from their point of view now, not from mine. It’s actually a relief to have that mono-vision of the self burn off with time, seeing life on the other side of the telescope, through the eyes of the adults, not through the prism of a child. I can see the challenges they had during those years, what they went through to keep our family together. It’s like a new and pressing story and obvious insights start flowing: Holy shit, they worked hard. They fought to build our family and hold it together. I can see the sweat, the time they spent, the mortgage worries they kept from us. We were just so damned lucky. That’s what I keep thinking. How do you thank someone for that? For the every moment being a parent requires?
I guess we get to an age and you realize that your whole life has been a search for teachers who change you and inspire and you pulled the golden ticket if your parents were part of that group of people. Mine were. And then you wonder if you are one of those teachers to your own kids or just muddling through and screwing up. That’s a real 2 a.m.’er. Anyway, usually I think of this stuff and then write about politics because it’s easier. No lip kissing involved.
WATCH: Gord Downie’s most memorable quotes
When my brother had his first kid, almost 19 years ago, I remember he kissed her on the lips and I was shocked. I thought it was strange, maybe a bit weird, but sure enough when we had our kids, I was suddenly on his side, a full convert, cheerfully kissing my kids on the lips as if I was the inventor of the idea. I was so taken in by it that I remember the day my son just stopped doing it. I knew it was coming, but one day, as I dropped him off at school, I leaned in for my kiss goodbye and he turned his head about thirty degrees, just a few centimetres, and presented his cheek. I paused. “Hey,” I said, wishing immediately I would just play it cool, like a father ought to when his son is asserting his own identity. “No kiss?” I was pathetic really, reduced to begging in half a second. My son looked at me with something approaching pity, though he couldn’t quite express it at that moment. “Come on, Dad,” he said, “I gotta go.” Trump may as well have built a wall around his lips, because since then all I’ve ever had was the cheek. “I love you,” I called out. I’m never stopping that.
Since Gord died, though, I’ve been telling more people that I love them. Usually I only say that to my family, or occasionally to a few of my dearest friends, but now I’m trying to do it more often. It’s not indiscriminate, I’m not telling the cashiers at Metro that I love them after they bag my groceries, and I’m certainly not going in for a lip kiss!—though those folks are very polite—but I’m starting to say it to people who play a role in my life. Part of this is an opening up and part a culling down. There are too many people in our lives who I call “treadmill friends,” people I spend a lot of time with, and I like, but essentially the friendship is going nowhere, like running on a treadmill. It never gets deeper or goes further, just remains the same. It’s party talking. Updates on jobs and families, a few observations on the news before someone reaches back to trot out a clearly well-worn anecdote, one guaranteed for a laugh. Can’t we cut that out and just be with people who either want to have a great time or a genuine discussion or do something interesting, or just be with people we actually love? Can’t we get off the treadmill friends who ain’t gonna be there at the funeral? That’s basically what it comes down to. If you were Gord, would these people be lip kiss worthy? No.
The argument running through much of Gord’s work, which was often deeply personal, was that a great nation can still function—must function—without a cheap sense of nationalism, that we are born into a specific place, but never have a coherent identity. The answer to why we are who we are, Gord seemed to suggest, lies in the cracks, the broken pieces, the bad answers and miscarriages of justice. Paradox as patriotism. Canada as a rock ‘n’ roll Zen Koan. But by his last glorious year—and it was glorious, as Gord flared wildly with a creative and humane force, going out like the effervescent fall leaves along the shores of his beloved Lake Ontario—he appeared to rise above those puzzles, hitting a higher note, going all in on gratitude, all in on love, all in on every moment, a state of being summed up best in those spontaneous, surprising lip kisses.
I knew Gord for many years, not well, not as part of his inner circle which was always his family, his band and the close-knit group of people he worked with, but through a series of connections and events. Back in 1999, I published a novel that Gord read and wrote to me about with his thoughts. We struck a kind of creative conversation, and he asked me if I would take a look at a series of poems he was working on that would become his album and book Coke Machine Glow. Soon he was over at our house and we got at it, pouring over his words, which had a different texture without music, kind of like lifting a rock in a forest and seeing the life on the other side of the surface. I was a huge Tragically Hip fan and had holed myself up for weeks in a friend’s little farm house in Campbellford, Ont., to edit my book, bringing a computer, a guitar and running shoes and listening endlessly to the Hip album Trouble at the Henhouse. But seeing Gord like this, so raw and so humble about his own creativity, was more inspiring.
Over the years we connected irregularly, but he always had such a specific way of being with you, as if the moments mattered as much as the arc of time. Gord had intention in every gesture and I realize now that I’ve been letting mine run loose. Only now do I see how tough that was for him, how much energy and discipline it took to be so present. He was working hard at trying to figure out how to love and how to be loved.
Since he died that’s what I’ve tried to do. Show some more intention, write a few notes of gratitude, tell those in my little world that I love them, because I do. I don’t think I’m ever going to be a lip kisser like him, to break into someone’s personal space—even writing that comes off as creepy, as if a letter from a lawyer might shows up just for thinking of it, but that’s the idea. My editor at Maclean’s said I should write some “this is why I love you” letters to the people in my life. “Call the series, ‘Before you go…’ ” she said, which is basically the whole point, but clearly she has never met my family. I can hear them groaning, so let me just say to them, DON’T WORRY, I KNOW YOU ARE HEALTHY! But still, I’m not waiting for the next birthday or illness to be the thing that opens me up to express what I feel for the people I love. It’s time to reverse-engineer a world that socializes pain and privatizes love. That doesn’t just mean writing open letters or doing something public—though arguably the world could use a lot more that—but at least taking the time to say thanks, to say I love you, in a more detailed way, to the people we love. You know, before they go…
Maclean’s is eager to hear your stories. Write the tribute for your beloved teacher, friend, spouse or friend while they’re still here to read it. What would you want them to hear you say — before they go?
Please send your submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll publish a selection of the best online.
MORE ABOUT GORD DOWNIE:
- ‘Now we get to work’: Mike Downie on his brother Gord
- Presenting our Gord Downie special commemorative issue
- Perry Bellegarde on Gord Downie: ‘He will continue to walk with us’
- The gift of Gord Downie: ‘He gave everything he had to this world’
- Gord Downie’s ‘Introduce Yerself’: What makes his last album so brave
- ‘No dress rehearsal, this is our life:’ Gord Downie and the Canadian conversation
- Remembering Gord Downie, Kingston’s king
- Powerful Gord Downie memorial fills Kingston’s Springer Market Square with light and lyrics