Books

Governor General's Literary Award winner Don Gillmor writes about losing his brother to the Yukon River

Gillmor's memoir To the River tells the story of his brother's death by suicide.
To the River is a memoir by Don Gillmor. (Ryan Szulc, Random House Canada)

The Yukon River runs from Whitehorse to the west coast of Alaska and it was near the start of that river that David Gillmor's life came to an end. After David's death, his brother Don Gillmor travelled to Whitehorse to reconstruct those final days.

Gillmor wrote about this trip in the book, To the Riverwhich won the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction. In it, he writes about his quest to understand David's death and the growing number of suicides among baby boomers.

Gillmor spoke to CBC's Metro Morning about his book in January of 2019.

Remembering David

"David was an extraordinary musician. He was one of those guys who could pick up any instrument and, in a couple of hours, he could figure it out and get something out of it. He was also one of those relentlessly social people. As a kid, he could never be alone and, as an adult, he almost never was alone. He was an incredibly outgoing guy. He kept his musician experience well into his 40s. He played late and slept late.

You could see that he was able to compartmentalize and present versions of himself to different people.- Don Gillmor

"When I was up there I was talking to all kinds of people — bands he'd played in, people he knew. One of the things that was interesting was that I'd talk to people who'd known him for a decade and they'd have a completely different perspective from the next person I'd talk to. Someone would say he was clean and sober and happy. The next person would say he was neither of these things and he was very unhappy. You could see that he was able to compartmentalize and present versions of himself to different people. It was hard to get past all that and find what was at the core."

Childhood memories

"I remember at one point we'd gone to see a prison movie when we were kids. I was 12, my cousin Peter was 12 and my brother was 10. We got back to my grandmother's house and we thought we'd reenact the movie, so we tied bedsheets together to a cot in the sun-room on the second floor. We lowered my 10-year-old brother out the window. The sheets weren't long enough, just as it hadn't been in the movie, actually. He was dangling from the sheets and my grandmother was in the living room serving tea to a group of Presbyterians. There was my brother, dangling into view, hanging onto this sheet.

He couldn't hang on so he sort of swayed in front of these church ladies, descended from heaven.- Don Gillmor

"We couldn't pull him up because we didn't have the strength. He couldn't hang on so he swayed in front of these church ladies, descended from heaven and finally let go. He landed in my grandmother's flowers. She was a flinty, old Scot. She came out and yelled at him for ruining her flowers, as opposed to finding out whether he was hurt. Our parents gave us this lecture, which always started with, 'What were you thinking?'"

No firm answers

"I wrote a piece in The Walrus about my brother's death and I thought it would get it out of my system. It didn't happen that way. I kept gravitating back to literature on suicide and trying to figure this out. Every suicide leaves that question: Why did they do it? I think a lot of people that are left behind end up pursuing that question, even though there's often no rational answer. We want to get closer to finding out what happened.

Every suicide leaves that question: Why did they do it?- Don Gillmor

"There were no firm answers. But I did get much closer and I think I came to a much better understanding of him and why he took his own life, as well as a better understanding of other people who have taken their own lives."

Don Gillmor's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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