I first met June Callwood in 1991. She was being honoured by the Toronto Arts Foundation with a Lifetime Achievement Award and as part of the honour, was asked to select a younger person in her field to receive a “protégé” award of $5000. I was stunned to learn she had picked me: she wanted a “female, feminist freelancer,” and perhaps there were not that many of us.

Although I was delighted, my response was somewhat complicated. I suffered the common affliction known as “imposter syndrome.” I didn’t deserve this, and awaited the call to tell me it had all been a dreadful mistake.

I told just one friend of the upcoming ceremony, and when he asked me who I was inviting to share the proud moment, he looked shocked when I said, “no one.” He didn’t think this was right, but I stood firm; it was how I wanted it.

At the presentation, I met June, and her husband, Trent Frayne, for the first time. They could not have been more gracious. I shuffled to the centre of the room to make a speech. I had wanted to be amusing and say that June Callwood was someone I had admired from afar for many years: not only was she a brilliant social activist and writer, but also she drove a snazzy sports car and had been married to the same dreamy guy for more than 40 years.

I was going to say that I hadn’t had any luck as yet with the car or the guy, but I would keep at the writing. What I said instead was stiff and unfunny, but as I looked out at the crowd of faces, I saw in the midst of them my good friend, the one I’d told not to come, smiling encouragingly. It strikes me now as a classic act of Callwoodian kindness, a lovely memory to associate with that event. My older self knows you must treasure these.

I wrote June a card of thanks, to which she responded with further eloquent encouragement. A couple of years later, I was distressed to read reports that she was being accused of racism, and that the attacks were getting vicious. I’d been listening to the Buffy Sainte-Marie album Coincidence and Other Stories, and was struck by the lyrics to one politically pointed song, The Big Ones Get Away:

    If the bad guys don’t get you
    the good guys will.

I sent June a note of support, and the Sainte-Marie cassette. She wrote back a note about kindness, and said she had been listening to the tape in her car. It was clear from the tone of her words that she had been deeply wounded by the accusations. She suggested we meet for lunch, and shortly after, we did.

I recall that June ordered a glass of wine, and that although I had work to do that afternoon, I didn’t want to seem a prude and so ordered wine too. When the glasses were empty, June ordered another, while I demurred. When the glass arrived, she said maybe she shouldn’t have. She looked at our empty glasses and poured half the new one into mine. “One’s not enough, two’s too many,” she said. “One and a half is just right.” Thus began our tradition of meeting for lunch and one and a half glasses of wine, two or three times a year, which I am amazed to say lasted for close to 14 years, until her illness intervened.

It always strikes me as off-base when people call June a “saint.” There was nothing ethereal, goody-goody or one-dimensional about her. She was a saint familiar with the “f word,” all too aware of the foibles of others, and her own, impatient with hypocrisy and lassitude, and not unacquainted with the darker corners of existence.

Once those bracingly intelligent, wide-set eyes of hers fixed like laser beams on yours, you felt called upon to rise to your best self, to banish lazy thoughts, mushy arguments and unexamined sentiment, in favour of the most rigorous truthfulness you could muster. We talked often about grief, depression and suicide. As I recall, those conversations were seasoned with a great deal of saltiness and laughter. She was fully, gloriously human, and that is what made her an inspiration.

Whenever an article of mine appeared in a magazine, it seemed June was the first (and often only) person to email with praise and thoughtful comment. In 1997, after I wrote a “Lives Lived” piece in The Globe and Mail for Jim Cormier, a dear colleague and friend who had dropped dead at the age of 39, there was June first in my in-box, saying how moved she had been by the column, and asking if I would write hers when the time came. I hurriedly wrote back that I would not look forward to that task and hoped it would be decades before it would be necessary.

Since meeting June, I’d lost my mother, my companion Daniel Jones (to suicide), and now Jim. She immediately picked up on an anxiety I wasn’t even aware I was projecting. “Oh sweetie,” she wrote back, “I’m sorry, you’ve had enough death in your life, don’t worry, I’m fine!” She continued with just the right tone of comfort, humour and understanding, and somehow I thought it would indeed be decades before we’d all be faced with her death.

June made people smile, I noticed, just her presence. Other diners would often say hello when we were having lunch and I assumed they knew her, but even if they didn’t, what they couldn’t help responding to was this radiant, laugh-lined, silver-headed beauty of a woman, whose spirit seemed to fill the room.

The summer before her cancer diagnosis, she came to The Banff Centre, as a guest speaker, part of the literary journalism program on which I serve as faculty. At the Centre, dancers, writers, artists, musicians eat in a dining hall that also serves as a conference facility for everyone from mathematicians to gastroenterologists. At one dinner, we ended up at a table with several neurologists from the Mayo Clinic. June, it turned out, had ghost-written the autobiography of Dr. Charles Mayo (son of the founder). She enthralled and charmed the doctors, who all came to hear her speak.

As time went on, I came to think of June as another among many wonderful gal pals, someone with whom to gossip and bitch — writers are so good at it — and June could hold her own when it came to dishing. The increasingly sorry treatment of writers in Canada was something that bothered her enormously. I once complained about a late cheque from a magazine notorious among freelancers for its lackadaisical payment system.

She shook her head and told me she remembered a time in the late ’50s when she drove downtown from her home in Etobicoke to drop off an assignment at Maclean’s. When she returned home, the phone was ringing; it was the editor, Ralph Allen, saying he loved the piece and had just put the cheque in the mail. A writer today would fall into a dead faint if such a thing ever happened.

She was so youthful in her attitudes and demeanour, it was easy to forget that she was in fact heading toward her 80s. When I turned 40 and grumbled that I felt “middle-aged,” she harrumphed, “You’re not middle-aged. I’ll tell you when you’re middle-aged.” (So far, so good.)

After writing a story for Chatelaine about a female aboriginal prisoner named Yvonne Johnson, whom June knew and mentored, I said I felt I should think of ways to help women prisoners. She scoffed. “Oh, it’s not up to us to decide what would help them. They know what they need. You just ask them.” Right, of course, she was.

Her writing, especially in later years, was admirably crisp, clean and, when she turned to the things she loved — flying a glider, or the beauty of a night sky — achingly lyrical. Yet she insisted she was just a plain-cook sort of stylist, and expressed more pride in her daughter Jill Frayne’s nomination for a Governor General’s Award for Non Fiction (for Starting Out in the Afternoon) than in any of her own publishing accomplishments.

I once sent her a copy of Larry McMurtry’s fabulous memoir Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at 60 and Beyond, because something about his humour, intellectual curiosity and earthiness reminded me of June. Never one to accept a gift or compliment without giving something back, she soon responded with a thank-you note and a copy of Miriam Toews’ novel, A Complicated Kindness.

In the fall of 2003, shortly after I learned that my father, at 86, had lung cancer, June told me of hers. My father’s cancer moved with grim swiftness; he died six months later. June would go on to joke about being embarrassed that having announced she was dying, she was taking a long time to do it.

One of the last times we met, for coffee, she had just come from a meeting with Ken Dryden, then the federal Minister of Social Services, in her capacity as a key figure in the campaign to end child poverty. “I have to get a new coat,” she said, as she sat down. Apparently as she left the meeting, The Honourable Ken Dryden had solicitously attempted to brush what appeared to be a piece of white fluff from her black winter coat, but found himself instead slowly pulling a large goose feather from the down lining, through the coat’s outer shell. June was mortified, but made it sound so funny. I laughed then, and can laugh now. I told her not to worry — Ken Dryden was likely the more embarrassed of the two.

June seemed to be so okay about her death, and if anyone deserves to rest in peace, it’s surely June. “My goose isn’t quite cooked, but it’s definitely in the oven,” she wrote with characteristic spikiness in one of her last emails to me.

I guess that means accepting it with grace too, but I’ll miss those pithy emails and breezy, profound, conversations over lunch about life, love and death.

There will be countless tributes to June in the coming weeks and months, she was so well loved and honoured. I hate to re-state the obvious (June would really hate me to do that.) All I know is, I’ve lost a friend and mentor like no other. And there’ll never be one like her again.