Friday, June 25, 2010

Tracy Wright: The light that will never go out.

On June 23rd, 2010, I received an email I'd been hoping was a long way off. Tracy Wright, the brilliant, beloved Canadian stage and screen actress, had passed away the day before. While it was far preferable and much kinder to hear it from Don McKellar, her husband and frequent collaborator, than to see it on the news (as so many others did), there was simply no way to dull the pain of hearing that she had lost the fight against cancer, and that we in turn had lost her.

I've long neglected this blog for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that I've not had a lot to say. It's still too raw, too surreal, to say much of substance, but if anything could move me to write again, it's Tracy. I'll never do her justice, but that won't stop me from trying.

Back when I was just a little kid, Tracy lived in the third bedroom of our apartment. She and my uncle had been dating for some time, and my family adored her, though perhaps nobody more than me. She had a crazy way of doing things, and was a constant source of laughter and music and cheer in our household; she was a fantastic playmate for me, too, and was certainly creative when it came time to watch over me for an afternoon. One of my mother's favourite examples of this took place when I was only three years old: Upon returning to our apartment from an afternoon out, my mother greeted Tracy and me, and asked how we'd spent the day.

"Oh, we did some singing," Tracy replied. Mom naturally assumed that I'd been giving ever-patient Tracy the preschool version of opera by way of Sesame Street, until Tracy added, "Heather, sing the song I taught you for your mom!"

My mother smiled and waited to hear some familiar kids' show tunes, but instead, she was surprised - and endlessly amused - when I opened my mouth and began to sing Ronnie Hawkins' "Who Do You Love," just the way Tracy had shown me to belt it out.

For anyone who doesn't know the song, and isn't sure why hearing it sung by a three year old would be hilarious, have a listen:

Yep. Tracy was the best kind of zany. She was the poster child for the saying, "To know her is to love her." And I did. We all did. Had she and my uncle chosen to get married, I couldn't have asked for a better aunt. And, marriage or not, she had already become very much a part of our family.

[ Above: My Uncle Dan and Tracy, circa 1981 - I'll ask around to see if I can verify the date - on one of our many trips to High Park. ]

1982 letter

1981 letter

[ Above: Letters to me from my Uncle Dan, who never neglected to tell me somewhere in there that "Tracy says hi!" Click to enlarge. ]

As it turned out, marriage wasn't in the cards for Tracy and my uncle, and over time we all lost touch with her. We knew she had gone to pursue a career in acting, and every so often we would catch a glimpse of her in a movie or on TV, and we would wonder aloud how she was doing, if she was happy, and I always wondered if she ever thought of me, or even remembered me. Even as a young girl I knew she was one of the funniest people I would ever meet.

Fast forward many years. After taking a couple of film classes in university, I began watching movies more critically, and it wasn't long before I discovered the genius that is Don McKellar. When I first saw his 1998 masterpiece, "Last Night", it shot straight up into my Top 10 Favourite Movies Of All Time, and has never lost its spot. Of course, there was an added bonus to the film, too: Tracy was one of the stars. I loved her role; I loved the way Don wrote it, and I loved the way Tracy brought it to life. She had a sweetness and a vulnerability to her that made the audience connect to her, and she carried those qualities with her into other roles. Even now, when I mention an indie film in which Tracy appeared, friends who aren't as familiar with her work will ask which part she played, and invariably they'll follow it up with, "Oh, wow - she was my favourite character!"

In the summer of 2005, I happened to catch a movie after work one night. It was called "Me And You And Everyone We Know", and I knew nothing about it aside from having heard that it was being very well received by audiences and critics alike. Imagine my surprise when, only a few scenes in, there was Tracy, larger than life on the big screen in front of me. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, but the performance that really stood out for me (and made me cry right there in the theatre) was hers. It was then that I decided to roll the dice and write her a letter, telling her how much I'd loved her portrayal of Nancy, who has what I and many others feel is the most poignant scene in the film. I figured that, even if she had no recollection of who I was, she deserved to get accolades for a job so very well done. I took a shot in the dark with the address I chose, enclosed a photo of a family wedding in which she'd been a bridesmaid and I'd been the flower girl (cheesily circling each of us and scrawling, "There's me...and you...and...well, you know how it goes!" on the back), and sent it off.

A few months later, having very nearly forgotten that I'd posted that letter, I came home from work one evening and - lo and behold! - there was an email awaiting me, what she called a "long overdue reply" to my letter. She had even put "tracy wright - thanking you for your letter" in the subject line; that was how unassuming she was. She never expected me to remember her (!!!), and said that she was so happy to hear from me: "i thank you again for your kind words and for making the effort to write. i remember you very fondly as a little girl. i am amazed if you remember me at all were pretty young. but, i always thought you were a special kid. [...] i didnt have a lot of experience with kids ... but, in any case, it was something i felt. so there." I couldn't help but smile. She also made mention of the current happy state of her life, and once again she showed how completely modest and unassuming she was: "i am in a relationship with don mckellar (he's the guy who directed 'last night')and we live together in a nice house with our adorable little cat pinky. [...] is pretty good."

Yeah, I was fairly sure I'd heard of that McKellar guy. And to find out that they were living contentedly in a lovely part of the city made me very happy. She'd always been so good to me, and she - the queen of the understatement! - deserved to have her life being "pretty good," at the very least.

We stayed in touch over the following five years, and I was lucky enough to see her perform Daniel MacIvor's fantastic play, "A Beautiful View", with Caroline Gillis.

[ Caroline and Tracy in "A Beautiful View" ]

It was lovely to see one another again after so many years, and it was an honour to meet Caroline and Don, both of whom were very important people in her life. With Tracy, you always got the feeling that, if someone had gotten her stamp of approval, they must be pretty extraordinary. When she introduced me to Don, I considered that proof positive. They were a match that was a delight to behold.

And this is where the story turns tragic.

I happened to catch an interview with Don on "The Hour" one evening at the start of 2010, and noticed that he was wearing a wedding ring. Intrigued, I did a quick Google search, and was over the moon when I read that he and Tracy had tied the knot after so many years together. I immediately sent her a sappy email brimming with my congratulations and wishing them both nothing but the best.

The email I got in response, only hours later, was devastating. Yes, she said, she and Don had gotten married, and it had been a very happy occasion...but she added that she wanted to tell me something before I heard it from anyone else. She'd been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few weeks earlier, and the prognosis was not good. I felt as though someone had kicked me in the gut. This wasn't fair. She was so young and healthy and happy. And, selfishly, I wanted more time with her, more chances to see her perform, more everything.

I set about doing the only thing I knew how to do: I started sending her little things in the mail. Postcards from my travels. A chocolate bar with the wartime slogan "Keep Calm And Carry On" emblazoned across its package, which, as she pointed out in her thank-you email, made it "not only delicious, but inspirational." I happened to meet up with her friend Bruce McDonald, another great Canadian director, while acting as an extra in his upcoming film project, and I asked him to pose for a photo with me where we'd wave at the camera and I'd email it to Tracy to make her smile. It worked; I got a message back the next morning thanking me for thinking of her.

She fought hard right up to the end. She finished more than one project while she was still well enough to do so, and has therefore left us with things to which we can look forward. Hundreds upon hundreds of people turned up to her visitation yesterday - so many, in fact, that the messages of love from her friends and family in the condolence book drained the ink out of two pens in 3 hours, and I'm sure the third pen (which was the one I left for others to use before heading out) was well on its way to running dry, too. As I said to Don and several others, it was a true testament to Tracy's impact on the lives of everyone she touched, that so many words of love, kindness and sorrow were being left that they were demanding a fresh supply of writing implements.

That's just the kind of woman Tracy was.

Whether you had the great fortune of meeting her, or have enjoyed seeing her on stage or on screen, consider yourselves lucky. It's rare for a Tracy Wright to come along in life. I'll be forever grateful that she was a part of mine, and whenever I miss her - which will be often, I know - I can put in one of her movies and remember everything about her that was talented, and lovable, and completely, thoroughly unique.

I can remember her, Tracy Lauren Wright, as the light that will never go out on the Canadian stages she graced, and in my heart.

In lieu of flowers, a donation in her honour may be made online to the Toronto Arts Council Foundation, or in person/by mail at 141 Bathurst Street, Toronto M5V 2R2.

ETA: Another big loss for Canada befell us when the great Maury Chaykin passed away on July 27th, 2010, his 61st birthday. For a beautiful piece written by Daniel MacIvor about both Tracy and Maury, please check out "Blue/This Is Was".

Also worth noting: "TRIGGER," Tracy's project with Daniel, Don, Molly Parker, and Bruce McDonald, will be screening at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 12th, 2010 and will open in other theatres two weeks later. It will be a lovely way to remember her.

1 comment:

sheila said...

I just saw Last Night and researching the movie learned a lot about Tracy Wright. I can not believe how much I had seen her in. She was wonderful and your blog post was beautiful. Thank you for it.