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sylvia nickerson The Globe and Mail

I wore them today, those beautiful shoes. Cream leather, ivory hand stitching, distinctive European style, just-right heels. I wore Shelagh's shoes, for Shelagh is dead.

We bought shoes in the same store in Florence, six years ago in April - Nancy, Shelagh and I. Having looked in so many shops at so many pointy-toed, outrageous styles, we despaired. Then we found the perfect place - reasonable prices, styles that would suit our less-than-teenaged feet. That it was a Bata outlet, available to us at home, made us chuckle. We vowed secrecy. Too bad that the Bata bag appeared in photos of our shared room in a historic hotel. Our cover was blown.

Our two-week Italian adventure became known as "Under the Tuscan Umbrella." The weather was cooler and wetter than usual. Even the locals were complaining. We didn't. Four days in Rome, three in Florence and a week in a Tuscan villa with a rental car. We had a blast! Three fiftysomething women, sleeping within arm's reach in miniature hotel rooms for a week, then sharing accommodation, cooking and planning in a country villa for a second week.

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This proximity meant either that we would never again speak, or would remain true friends. It turned out to be the latter. Every day was an occasion, exploring ancient walled cities, drinking great wine. Amazed by the Colosseum, humbled by the spiritual grandeur of the Sistine Chapel. We were overwhelmed to stumble on a service delivered by Pope John Paul in St. Peter's Square. Yes, the real Pope!

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The magic of the piazza in Siena, the impossibility of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, made us pinch ourselves. But we still managed to shop. We drooled over Tuscan pottery, the rainbow of silk scarves, the luscious leather gloves, purses and jackets in the shops and straw markets. Whenever Nancy and I lost Shelagh, we were sure to find her in the closest enoteca (wine shop), sizing up the vintages for the evening's sipping.

When we feigned annoyance at her shopping habits, she snorted. She always snorted. We continued to amble from shop to shop while she trailed behind us. She limped heavily with a sore leg, but she didn't complain.

The dreadful diagnosis came a few months later. Bone cancer. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation followed. Her life upended, work an impossibility, pain and fear, and yet there were no complaints.

I would not have wanted to walk in Shelagh's shoes. She was a senior administrator at our local community college, every minute of her days and nights crammed with management responsibilities. The list of accomplishments in her obituary spoke of a life much longer than her 53 years. In the hospital, she talked of the difference it made to her day when a student nurse was assigned to her personal care. She did not mention that she had pioneered the concept of the collaborative nursing degree program that the student attended.

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An enterprising and organized friend recruited others, myself included, to first provide daily dinners at her home, then to take shifts by Shelagh's bedside to spell off her family. We became known as Team Shelagh. Many were long-time friends but several of us met for the first time at one of her favourite restaurants. Together we ate, talked, laughed and cried. We realized that she had organized and managed us, as was her ultimate skill. We had all been sent home, dismissed really, at some point during our bedside visit. She was a manager to the end.

She hoped for remission. In vain. Seven weeks in a palliative-care hospital. The roommates disappeared at a frightful rate. There was little to do but be there, water her flowers, cut her toenails, massage her legs, anything. I spent a lot of time gazing at her feet. It was simply the position of the chair, but perhaps it was apt. She was a giant of a personality. But such dainty feet! At least, they looked small to me.

Painful as it was to watch her decline, there was no matching the agony she endured as her life ebbed away. Still, she didn't complain.

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A few weeks after her death, I helped her sister-in-law sort her bedroom closets, a task too painful to be done alone. As I loaded the orphan containers into the car, my eyes fixed on the clear plastic bag of shoes. There they were, those glorious Italian shoes. A women's shelter was to receive this sartorial bounty, but as I unloaded the trunk, I knew those shoes would go no further. Like a professional thief, I slid them from the bag.

At home in my own closet, I felt a fool. Why did I take them? Clothing can be altered, seams taken in or let out, but shoes? They must fit. My own Italian beauties were in their place of honour. I turned them over. The European size was imprinted in the arch, size 39. I turned over Shelagh's shoes - size 39. It was meant to be.

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I wear them often, those beautiful shoes. But my deportment is constantly compromised. I can't manage more than three or four steps without sneaking a peek at my elegant feet, and with each stubbed toe and minor collision, I hear Shelagh laugh. Or is that a snort?

Katharine Edmonds lives in Hamilton.

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