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facts & arguments

All dressed up like a lady, in a nice dark suit, I hardly recognize myself on this day of grief.

This is the time, this is the day, that tells me I am old.

It's not the wrinkles, nor the grey hair. Not the thinning lips, or the disappearing eyelashes, that bring me to age. It is this, the death of old friends and lovers.

This must be what I have been searching for, scanning the obituaries every morning, wondering who would be the first. If not Steve, some other person from the past; another friend, another lover.

There aren't many advantages to being a little old lady, as you might guess.

I have managed to slide past my 84th birthday and many old friends, old acquaintances, old loves are dead. Sometimes, I feel like an elephant in mourning, standing around swaying and moaning, stomping the earth, with a wordless rumble deep in my body, deep in the earth, vibrating across the planet.

My friends are dying. In the past couple of years, six of them went. Actually, five friends and a husband. I feel as though it's my job just to be here, just to grieve, and to spread the news among the herd.

Here in front of the doors of the Arts and Letters Club, standing stiffly in the middle of the sidewalk, is a thin, pale, already-cadaverous old man. Here's his bony frame, Ichabod Crane on the streets of Toronto. Staring at the door, eyes intense and fearful, his head swivels on the stalk of neck and he comes, at last, to resemble Henry. I watch how long it takes for my name to say itself in his mind. Is it his age or mine?

The door is dark old wood, deeply carved with a pattern of acorns and oak leaves. Steve would have liked that, a little William Morris at the venerable old club.

Behind me, ascending the staircase inside the big front doors, an elderly gentleman leans on a silver-topped cane that matches his own silver head. A prosperous European businessman, he seems, struggling up the stairs in his black coat with a velvet collar.

There is, as he moves, a moment of seeing a stranger, of looking at him without memory or connections. But the fluff of hair, the fullness of face, there's something about the jowls, the way the eyes move – and suddenly he is Fred, and could be no other, and all that's past comes to the present and I can't imagine why I did not know him.

We pass the afternoon of the remembrance ceremony this way, all of us. We are people who have shared a level of love or friendship or acquaintance, now seeing people as strangers for a moment, until suddenly they become themselves.

The men, except for Henry, are heavy, prosperous, corpulent. The women are lean or plump, as old as Steve's first wife, as young as his last girlfriend.

We develop a ritual in the crowd, meandering among these unfamiliar ghosts. I put out my hand and say my name, hoping to get one in return. We nod, smile, nod again and become ourselves.

I'm afraid of getting too good at this. It's a skill I don't want to learn, this funeral thing, this weeping, this laughing, this hugging friends.

We come together to do this thing. To weep, to hug. But restraint is a basic requirement in the halls, in the chapels, attending to the funeral meats.

Our mutterings drift up to the high ceilings, settle into the panelled walls, welcomed by the old, mellow wood. Is this grief?

Bodies planted on the oak floor stiffly, like trees. Is this age?

Among us, the old ones here, friends and colleagues, we know it is only a matter of time.

We try not to wonder who will be next, when we will next meet. We try not to look at each other with these thoughts. Is this life?

In memory of Steve, we are drinking gin and tonics, his favourite tipple: in memory of lunches, or parties or afternoons in his garden or his bed.

The G-and-Ts don't taste the way they used to. I switch to chardonnay and wander about, bewildered by chronology, hoping to recognize myself, my life.

Hoping to go on living it, at least for a time.

Laurie Lewis lives in Kingston.