Thankful to the very end

‘Do you know you’re dying?’ ‘Now?’ she replied, in surprise. Don McKellar on Tracy Wright’s final hours.


Guntar Kravis

Toronto actress Tracy Wright died on June 22, almost seven months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She was 50. Known for gem-like character parts in film, TV and theatre, Wright worked with directors such as Bruce McDonald, Daniel MacIvor, Daniel Brooks—and her long-time partner, actor and filmmaker Don McKellar. Four weeks after her diagnosis last December, McKellar married Wright. And in her final months, MacIvor wrote a starring role for her in a feature film called Trigger, which McDonald directed. (Inspired by My Dinner With André, and co-starring Molly Parker, it unfolds as a dialogue between two old friends who cross paths at a rock concert.) The morning after Wright’s death, Mc­Kellar sent out a group email to those close to her. In response to a request from Maclean’s, he agreed that it be published.

Dear friends and family,
On Tuesday morning at 7:30, my beautiful wife, our beautiful Tracy, died. She was at home, as she wanted to be. She was lucid and free of pain and fear. She was surrounded by love. She knew she was loved, and she echoed the love back. If it hadn’t have been for her shocking young age, it would have been an enviable death.

On Monday it became clear her body was closing down. Her breathing was laboured and her feet and hands were cold. Speech was difficult, so every word she worked for was memorable.

“Do you know you’re dying?” I asked her
“Now?” she replied, in surprise.

“No. When you’re ready.”

Hours later we had all gathered around her bed. She asked me who was there and I told her.
“It’s time to start,” she said.

“Start what?”

“The proceedings.”

“For what?” I asked.

“For my dying. I have to go. It’s too hard. But I’ll be here. I’ll be watching.”

She let this sink in for a moment, and then—“Okay. Now I feel really lousy.”

We all laughed. And she said, “No. I’m serious.”

A friend came to give her a massage and when it was over she said, “Take it all away. Take the bowl away . . . ”

I’m still not sure what bowl she was referring to exactly, but I assured her everything was cleared and ready. She went to sleep, seemingly content. Her sister was beside her, curled on the couch. Her brother slept in the spare bedroom (Pinky’s room) and a personal care worker sat watch. [Pinky is the cat.]

In the morning at around 5:30, I woke, put on my housecoat and went down to see her. She took her regular long-term painkiller at six every day, so I was used to waking then. I gave her her pill and she drank it down with water. Then I asked Fay, the care worker, to leave the room and I slipped into bed with her. I held her. The feel of our skin touching again was sublime. I rested my head on her shoulder. She rested her head against my forehead and we lay for a long time feeling our breath against each other.
Then I told her that I loved her.

She said, “I know,” almost cursorily, as if disappointed that I felt I had to say it again.

I said, “Thank you.”

She said, “For what?”

“For everything,” I said.

She said, “Hold my hand.” And then, “Thank you, Honey.”

She seemed to relax and then started to move her head from side to side. I got up and tried to prop it against a pillow, then asked her sister Gloria to help me readjust her in the bed. She calmed again and I went upstairs to dress. At around 7:15, Gloria knocked on my door and said I should come down. Paul, Tracy’s brother, was already up and at the bedside. And then, as we held her, she gradually stopped breathing. There were no death moans, no signs of struggle.

A pain pump had been sent the night before, and I am so grateful we never had to use it. In the last couple of days she took less pain killers than she had for months. She knew exactly where she was going, and it occurred to me that none of us will die as well as she did.

The support we received in these last months was heartbreaking and magnificent. Tracy was thankful to the very end. She loved her family and friends and her capacity for love was immense. When I see you all in person, I hope I can convey at least a remnant of that love. She tried to show me how. I hope I can do her memory justice.

With gratitude, Don


Thankful to the very end

  1. wow. powerful stuff. thank you.

    • echoed

  2. Very, very moving. Thanks to Don McKellar for agreeing to share this moment with us.

  3. I cried as I read this. It's beautiful. I didn't know Tracy well, only enough to say 'hi' to if I happened to run into her, which didn't happen very often. But I liked her all the same. There was an empathy about her that came across, even in casual association. I once did her make-up for a film. It was fairly dramatic make-up, and she looked great, like an Italian movie star. I especially enjoyed making up her eyes. After the day's shooting was over she was anxious to get home. I thought she anxious to wash off the make-up, but that wasn't the case. She wanted to get home to surprise Don, her partner who was returning home that evening from someplace, with her dramatic look (I don't think she wore make-up very often, so I suppose it would have been a fun way to appear on his arrival). I thought it was so sweet and so endearing . Even though they had been together for some time, she was still excited to see him return and to surprise him with something fun.

    A very sad loss. The best ending one could hope for, but an ending that came way too soon.

  4. beautiful, humbling, inspiring.
    peace to you Don xo

  5. As a stage IV cancer surviver (7+ yrs) there's not a day that goes by that I don't think about how fortunate I am. But, at the same time, I dread each scan and its results. Have gone through chemo twice and have decided I won't go through it again. I just hope I can die in my own bed without too much pain.

  6. Thank you for such a powerful testament to a woman who was obviously very special, and very loved. Your words were intensely moving. God bless you and your family, and the woman you love.

  7. I’ve been saddened by the news. My love and sympathies go out to Don, Tracy’s family, friends and those lucky enough have been a part of her life. I will always remember our So You Think You Can Dance talks. I wish I had the chance to get to know Tracy better. It’s a huge loss. xo

  8. Life's a bowl of cherries.

  9. sigh, weep…

  10. very touching… thank you for sharing….and remind us what is important..

  11. Thank you so much for sharing this. It brought back powerful memories of my own wife's similar struggle last year. I continue to be amazed at the strength a person can find when facing the ultimate challenge and only hope that I can meet the same challenge with such dignity when the time comes.

  12. Very touching, my deepest sympathies.

  13. beautiful but heartbreaking. my condolences.

  14. This is an incredibly sad and yet touching document of your final hours together.

    And it touched my heart.

  15. Wow, very touching. This truly reminds of how valuable life is. My condolences to the entire family

  16. Don, that is a touching recount of your final hours. Thank you for sharing.
    You're right, Tracy was blessed, Rick Rose.

  17. My father died at home almost a year ago. He died with courage and grace and no day goes by without a thought of what a magnificent man he was. This letter is such a tribute to your lovely Tracy and I thank you for sharing it~ I feel as though you are expressing my own thoughts and deepest emotions.

  18. I am so sad to hear this news. I had the honor of working with Don and Tracy on two films and witnessed a truly inspiring connection of love and creativity. Thank you both for joining together and making the world a better place.

    Oliver Olsen

  19. She was a brave and wonderful woman, and she has left you with a huge responsibility, To live now for two. Your days are now that much more precious.

  20. Don, thank you. I can't believe she's gone. Tracy was such an extraordinary person – so glad she could leave in all your embraces.

  21. So moving, so sad. Thank you for sharing, Don.

  22. Dear Don,
    I loved working with Tracy in Paul Bettis's production of The Freud Project. Tracy was a smart and generous performer and did something different every night. No phoning in the lines for her! I imagine Paul and Tracy working on a new play now, in a new place.

  23. Thank you Don. You are a kind, brave and honest man for sharing these precious and personal moments….no doubt why Tracy loved you.

  24. Very very moving, Thank you for sharing.

  25. My thoughts, my soul is with Tracy and Don, eternal couple, extraordinary people who (unfortunately) I never met personally, but they have been always close to my heart and soul through their art. Dear Don, my condolences…

    David L
    Czech Republic, Prague

  26. My deepest sympathies to Don McKellar and her brother, Paul. I never knew Tracy's husband but I was grew up with her brother and even dated Tracy for a short period in high school. Even then she had a warm, wonderful sense of humour and a great zest for life. She was one of those people you remember and smile, having warm thoughts of what a special person she truly was.

  27. this hurt to read. :(

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