By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Aug 9, 2010
If you have tears, prepare to shed them.
Caroline Knapp was the author of Drinking: A Love Story. I wrote about it because some of you surely have issues with alcohol, and I thought it might be of use. And because it’s acutely observed and beautifully written. And because there’s a painful irony here: Caroline got sober, only to die in June of 2002, when she was forty-two, seven weeks after she was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer.
Caroline Knapp had a best friend. Gail Caldwell. Also a writer. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2001. She too had alcohol issues.
Two women writers. Both dog lovers. Both recovering alcoholics. Both living alone, and liking it. Both athletes. Near-neighbors in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Friends. Best friends. One died. The other wrote a book: “Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship.” [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
There are men and women I love, and I think they know it, and I hope they know how incredibly lucky I feel that I’m in their lives, but we’re talking about something else here, something deeper and more precious and, certainly, scarier.
“It’s an old story,” Caldwell begins. “I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that.’’
Define everything. Well, rowing on the Charles River. Writing. Alcoholism. And, most of all, afternoon-long walks with their dogs:
“Let’s take the long way home,” she would say once we had gotten to the car, and then we would wend our way through the day traffic of Somerville or Medford, in no hurry to separate. At the end of the drive, with Clementine [Caldwell’s dog] snoring softly in the back seat, we would sit outside the house of whoever was being dropped off, and keep talking. Then we would go inside our respective houses and call each other on the phone.
This is a grief memoir, but that descent into deepest sadness is also, by definition, an exploration of peak experiences. Everything’s heightened, brighter, sharper in lives lived this acutely. This is a 190-page book --- we don’t get to Caroline’s illness until page 125. What comes before? This great friendship, detailed. But also a condensed biography of Caroline Knapp. And a lacerating autobiography of Gail Caldwell:
I’ve always remembered one thing Rich [Caldwell’s AA adviser] said one day, when I was buried in fear and shame at the idea that I had drunk my way into alcoholism. He asked me why I was so frightened, and I told him, weeping, the first thing that came into my mind: “I’m afraid that no one will ever love me again.” He leaned toward me with a smile of great kindness on his face, his hands clasped in front of him. “Don’t you know?” he asked gently. “The flaw is the thing we love.”
Eventually --- you dread it --- Caldwell gets to Caroline’s fatal illness. The disbelief. The stoicism. And then, as Caroline begins her final descent, the combination of love and pride and hurt --- the recognition moment of what there was and what will be lost.
Near the end, I asked him [Caroline’s former therapist] what he thought was happening, and he said, “Tell her everything you haven’t said,” and I smiled with relief. “There’s nothing,” I said. “I’ve already told her everything.”
Can you imagine that? I can’t.
I’ve always had a weakness for damaged women --- they’re so much more beautiful than the perfect ones. From her own book, I found Caroline Knapp to be ravishing. Now, here, I add Gail Caldwell.
What an astonishing friendship. What great women. What a stellar, unforgettable book.