Remembering Shawn and The Tragically Hip

Children of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley at the grave of their father

As the second anniversary of Shawn’s death approached, I knew I needed to be more proactive than I had been on the first anniversary. That day, exactly one year after Shawn died, I decided that I would go to work and teach my high school classes.

I mean, what was I thinking? I only had two classes that morning, but I cried in both of them, including while I was lecturing to my seniors about something like state sovereignty. (To be fair, this was one of those times when a terrible mistake leads to a real life lesson. Many of the students reached out to me afterwards and later that year, they chose me as their speaker for graduation. I talked about crying in front of them, and the importance of connection. So, really, it was probably something that was good for all of us. But…once was enough.)

This year, I decided I was going to take a solo hike in the morning. I am not sure I’ve ever actually been on a solo hike, or if I have, it’s been years. But I wanted a chance to really separate from the world and think only about Shawn and not have to hide my tears for fear of making someone else uncomfortable. So I chose a spot near Washington and drove out there early in the morning. The trailhead was deserted, and I put on my headphones after reading the map.

I spent the entire hike listening to The Tragically Hip, Shawn’s favorite band. I hadn’t listened to anything from “The Hip” in two years, even though it was such a staple in our house before that. The first time I heard this band, which Shawn described as “the Beatles of Canada,” it was 2001 and I was sitting in Shawn’s apartment in Japan. We listened to them every day for years and then tearfully watched their final concert together, before the lead singer died from cancer just a few months before Shawn. The Hip is arguably the most important Canadian band ever, and the fact that I haven’t listened to them in two years is something close to a tragedy. How are my kids supposed to know good music if I don’t listen to it?

Within 30 seconds of beginning my hike, I was crying. No one was around, so I made no effort to clean up my tears. Instead, I walked and walked and walked. The sun was bright and after about an hour, I stopped at an overlook to write a bit.

And I cried. A lot. Not because I feel lonely, even though I sometimes do. Not because my kids miss their father, although they certainly do. I cried because I just missed Shawn. He was so fun and witty and smart and sometimes – especially in moments when I get a chance to breathe – I realize how insanely lucky I was to have him for a brief period of time. And how terrible it is that I’ll never see his face again.

The hike took me almost three hours. I stopped a number of times to think or write or cry and by the end I was completely exhausted. As I got to the very end, there was a single man who was entering. “Excuse me,” he said to me, “the trail – is it icy?”

“Um, not really,” I said. “I mean, I don’t know what kind of climbing you’re going to do. I stayed mostly on the main path, as I’m not much of a hiker. I’m out here doing…um…actually, I’m on a pilgrimage of sorts.”

“Huh, a pilgrimage,” he said, looking at my headphones which were audibly playing music from The Hip. I think he was trying to figure out what band it was. “That’s cool,” he said, and smiled.

I started walking the other direction, putting my headphones back on for the last bit of trail, and then I went back to DC to pick up my kids. We were headed to the cemetery.

The night before, I told Claire that I wanted to make a short video of her and her brothers talking about the things they loved about their father, so they would remember him when they were all grown up. She looked at me strangely. “Did you forget your mom after she died?”

I paused. “No,” I said, “but over time, some of the memories aren’t as clear. But I remember all the important stuff about her, just like you’ll remember that about your dad.”

I said it confidently, though I wasn’t really sure. How can I know what they’ll remember?

The kids were happy to get pulled early from school, and they sat across the middle row in the back seat. As we always do on the road trips, they took turns each playing a song from my Spotify account. Austin played various songs he deemed “clean rap,” Claire played mostly country music, and Tommy played songs that had the word “Minecraft” in them, which were all terrible. I mean, honestly, most of the songs the three of them picked were terrible, but Tommy’s choices didn’t even qualify as music.

Mercifully, we made it to the cemetery relatively quickly. The kids easily found Shawn’s grave and we talked about their dad, the memories we had of him, and the body’s process of decomposition, because they are children who don’t know that it’s odd to ask about that sort of thing at a cemetery. Then we watched the videos Shawn made for each of the kids the day before he died. They are private – just for my kids – and aren’t that long, but in them, he talks to each of them about his love for them and thoughts about their future. The kids were mesmerized, slumped all over his gravestone with a laser-like focus on the videos as they played. When they finished, Austin and Tommy ran off to play.

Claire and I sat and talked for a while and she cried a bit. “I worry that I’m going to forget dad,” she said.

“You won’t,” I said. “You might forget tiny things, but you won’t forget how he made you feel. He made you feel loved, and special. And you have so much of him in you. Remember, you like rollercoasters, and I hate them. Guess who else loved them?”

“Dad!” she said.

At that point, the boys ran up. “You know, kids, Daddy really wished he had been here to see you grow up. He didn’t want to leave.”

“Leave?” Tommy said. “Can we leave? I’m tired.”

The big kids laughed. “That’s not what mom meant,” Claire said to Tommy, but we decided it actually was time to head home. As we walked to the car, Claire tried to explain death to Tommy.

“Hey, maybe Dad could re-spawn, like on Minecraft!” Tommy said as he got in the car.

“Tommy, people can’t do that when they are dead,” Austin said.

“But they can in Minecraft!” Tommy said, and then he buckled his seat belt and looked at me. “Mom, can I play my Minecraft music now?”

“No!” Austin and Claire said at the same time, and the three of us laughed while Tommy scowled.

“Actually, I have a better idea,” I said. “Your dad would be horrified that you three haven’t listened to much good music lately. He loved music. So I’m going to play you one of his favorite bands right now. They are called The Tragically Hip.”

I put it on shuffle, and “Ahead By a Century” came on. I smiled as it began with somewhat familiar words, and I thought about hearing it for the first time almost two decades ago:

First thing we’d climb a tree
And maybe then we’d talk
Or sit silently
And listen to our thoughts
With illusions of someday
Cast in a golden light
No dress rehearsal
This is our life

From the backseat, the kids swayed to the music and I sang as much of the song as I could remember.

Turns out, I hadn’t forgotten all the words.

9 Replies to “Remembering Shawn and The Tragically Hip”

  1. My husband passed away 5 months ago. We are coming up on 6 months on the 23rd of this month. He was 37 and had a widow maker heart attack. I woke up to a loud noise at 3 a.m. that morning and he had fallen. When I got downstairs he was sitting on the floor saying he thought he had a panic attack. I told him that I was going to call an ambulance and he said, no, let me just re-compose myself and asked for a glass of water. I got him a glass and he took a sip and spit it out. I asked him why he would do that and he said that he meant to. Little did I know, that he could not swallow. He said, “Lau, I am dying.” I said, “no you most definitely are not! Not on my watch.” I love you and your son (19 months at the time) needs you. He said, “no I am dying. I just went to the bathroom on myself. ” I said, “so what we will clean it up.” He tried to get up and pulled himself up on the kitchen table and then just went down like a tree in a forest. I dialed 911 and they asked if his chest was going up and down and I said it was, but there was a loud gurgle almost as if he was trying to say something, but couldn’t. I learned to find out that it was the death rattle where the oxygen left in your body comes out. Once that gurgle stopped, I knew he was gone and there was no chance of him coming back. I did compressions and the EMTs were there within minutes. They never got a heartbeat back. I sit here and type this out a.) because I need to talk about it, b.) because I still feel like I am dead knowing that I will never see him again. Our son will never have a living memory of his father. Sure, I have photos and videos, but it isn’t the same. We were together for 17 years and married for 10. You are a warrior and I am so happy to have come across your blog because it gives me hope. Hope that one day, I will be a few years in and be somewhat okay. Each day is a struggle for me and sometimes I feel like my son isn’t enough for me to go on. I want to be with him so badly, but the gift that Anthony left to me is that little boy. I know he is watching over us and I will see him again, but not yet. I just can’t help but think why would God make him a father and then take him away after only 19 months?

    1. Oh, Lauren, I’m so terribly sorry to hear this story. It is the worst to lose your husband, and especially to watch him die right in front of you. My heart goes out to you, and while I don’t have any answers, I can provide a space for you to read about my life and interact with others. Take care.

  2. You know this, but every time my band plays Ahead By A Century, I look up to the sky and wink really quick for Shawn. I’ve literally done this dozens of times since he died and will continue to do so every time it gets called. He was the guy who brought me out of my shell as a guitar player and who gave me the courage to play in front of people for the very first time. I’ll always remember this and be thankful.

    Shawn was exactly what the song describes: fundamentally ahead of his time, out in front and showing all of us how to lead lives of intense curiosity, chance taking and reminding us to keep humor and relationships at the forefront of our lives. Goes without saying that he’s irreplaceable.

    Thanks for sharing this day with us. As hard as it was, it was obviously, totally time well spent.

    Love you guys.

    PS – You know Shawn is up there laugh-crying at “re-spawning.” Absolutely classic.

    1. I love that, so much. And yes, I think he would have liked “re-spawning”!

  3. As a Canadian I can say that The Hip were true legends in this country, well loved and well respected especially for bringing awareness to the plight of Aboriginal people in the residential school system, a definite black mark in Canadian history. While I must admit their music was never really my cup of tea, I did watch their final concert as they had reached iconic status in part because of Gord Downie’s illness. The chilling thing of course was that a few months after he passed away from glioblastoma my husband was diagnosed with the same thing. When we had to inform everyone we knew about the cancer, most people already knew what was going to happen based on Gord Downie’s illness and eventual death. I became interested in the progression of his disease as a road map of what my husband’s cancer journey was going to be like. This sounds ridiculous to say now but I was always questioning to myself if my husband was receiving equivalent care and support in the medical system even though he was not a famous musician. They were not treated at the same hospital in Toronto, but I think some of the medical staff may have been the same. In the end though I suppose it doesn’t really matter as glioblastoma is a death sentence with an average life expectancy of 15 months which is what my husband got.

    I am glad that you and your family were able to mark the anniversary of your husband’s death in a way that was meaningful to you. The first anniversary of my husband’s passing will be in April. Like you, my tendency would be to just try and push through that day and carry on with normal routine. However, based on your experience maybe instead I will try to think of a good ritual of some sort to make it more meaningful for my family too. So thank you for sharing that idea with us.

    1. I think we all just do the best we can at these anniversaries. I was actually telling someone last night at a party that the reason I pull my kids from school (rather than going after school) is because I want them to know that the anniversary is an important event – important enough to leave school early. I like the ritual of it…and the fact that we can all get home for a nice dinner together.

  4. I lost my beloved husband almost three months ago. Sometimes i think i cannot bear this. Almost 16 years together now seems like two days. He was my rock, my viking and died suddenly of a heart attack with only 41 years old.
    I’ve been reading you because no one seems to understand the pain I live with. I have our beautiful girls, and it doesn’t seems enough. Of course I love them and I absolutely know that without them this would be worse, but He was my soul mate and I miss him terribly. Thank you for writing, it give me hope.

    1. I’m not sure if it’s helpful, but it took a few months after Shawn died before I reached rock bottom. It DID get better, so please know that if you feel like you cannot go on….you can. I promise. Hang in there, and go easy on yourself. These are early days. There is light ahead.

  5. Thank you so much. God bless you and your Family.

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