Let’s Take the Long Way Home

A Memoir of Friendship
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They met over their dogs. Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp (author of Drinking: A Love Story) became best friends, talking about everything from their love of books and their shared history of a struggle with alcohol to their relationships with men. Walking the woods of New England and rowing on the Charles River, these two private, self-reliant women created an attachment more profound than either of them could ever have foreseen. Then, several years into this remarkable connection, Knapp was diagnosed with cancer. With her signature exquisite prose, Caldwell mines the deepest levels of devotion, and courage in this gorgeous memoir about treasuring a best friend, and coming of age in midlife. Let’s Take the Long Way Home is a celebration of the profound transformations that come from intimate connection—and it affirms, once again, why Gail Caldwell is recognized as one of our bravest and most honest literary voices.


“A near-perfect memoir: beautiful, humble, intimate and filled with piercing insights.  Meant to be savored and shared.”—Time

“Stunning . . . gorgeous . . . intense and moving . . . A book of such crystalline truth that it makes the heart ache.”—The Boston Globe
“Female friendships is the beating heart of this book. . . . [Gail Caldwell describes] both the very best that women can be together and the precious things they can, if they wish, give back to one another: power, humor, love and self-respect.”—Julie Myerson, The New York Times Book Review, Editor’s Choice
“[A] beautiful book . . . The losing isn’t the exceptional part of this story; everyone loses something, sooner or later.  The wonder lies in finding it in the first place.”—Salon
“A tribute to the enduring power of friendship . . . You can shelve Let’s Take the Long Way Home . . . next to The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s searing memoir about losing her husband to heart failure. But that’s assuming it makes it to your shelf: This is a book you’ll want to share with your own ‘necessary pillars of life,’ as Caldwell refers to her nearest and dearest. . . . A lovely gift to readers.”—Washington Post
“[Their] relationship nurtured and inspired Caldwell and Knapp, and in reading about it, we feel enriched as well.”—Chicago Tribune, Editor’s Choice

“Universal . . . [Caldwell] taps the joys of communion with a soulmate.”—Los Angeles Times
“A heartbreaker of a memoir . . . With humor and sadness . . . Caldwell gracefully weaves a thread of stories that describe and ponder friendship and loss.”—USA Today

“High-spirited and heartrending.”—People

“Caldwell’s graceful account ensures that Knapp will be remembered not just for her tragic death but for her vigorous, rich life.”—Parade

The Washington PostLos Angeles TimesUSA TodaySan Francisco ChronicleO: The Oprah MagazineThe Christian Science MonitorPublishers Weekly


Chapter One

I can still see her standing on the shore, a towel around her neck and a post-workout cigarette in her hand—half Gidget and half splendid splinter, her rower’s arms in defiant contrast to the awful pink bathing suit she’d found somewhere. It was the summer of 1997, and Caroline and I had decided to swap sports: I would give her swimming lessons and she would teach me how to row. This arrangement explained why I was crouched in my closest friend’s needle-thin racing shell, twelve inches across at its widest span, looking less like a rower than a drunken spider. We were on New Hampshire’s Chocorua Lake, a pristine mile-long body of water near the White Mountains, and the only other person there to watch my exploits was our friend Tom, who was with us on vacation.

“Excellent!” Caroline called out to me every time I made the slightest maneuver, however feeble; I was clinging to the oars with a white- knuckled grip. At thirty-seven, Caroline had been rowing for more than a decade; I was nearly nine years older, a lifelong swimmer, and figured I still had the physical wherewithal to grasp the basics of a scull upon the water. But as much as I longed to imitate Caroline, whose stroke had the precision of a metronome, I hadn’t realized that merely sitting in the boat would feel as unstable as balancing on a floating leaf. How had I let her talk me into this?

Novice scullers usually learn in a boat three times the width and weight of Caroline’s Van Dusen; later, she confessed that she couldn’t wait to see me flip. But poised there on water’s edge, hollering instructions, she was all good cheer and steely enthusiasm. And she might as well have been timing my success, fleeting as it was, with a stopwatch. The oars my only leverage, I started listing toward the water and then froze at a precarious sixty-degree angle, held there more by paralysis than by any sense of balance. Tom was belly-laughing from the dock; the farther I tipped, the harder he laughed.

“I’m going in!” I cried.

“No, you’re not,” said Caroline, her face as deadpan as a coach’s in a losing season. “No you’re not. Keep your hands together. Stay still— don’t look at the water, look at your hands. Now look at me.” The voice consoled and instructed long enough for me to straighten into position, and I managed five or six strokes across flat water before I went flying out of the boat and into the lake. By the time I came up, a few seconds later and ten yards out, Caroline was laughing, and I had been given a glimpse of the rapture.

The three of us had gone to Chocorua for the month of August after Tom had placed an ad for a summer rental: “Three writers with dogs seek house near water and hiking trails.” The result of his search was a ramshackle nineteenth-century farmhouse that we would return to for years. Surrounded by rolling meadows, the place had everything we could have wanted: cavernous rooms with old quilts and spinning wheels, a camp kitchen and massive stone fireplace, tall windows that looked out on the White Mountains. The lake was a few hundred yards away. Mornings and some evenings, Caroline and I would leave behind the dogs, watching from the front windows, and walk down to the water, where she rowed the length of the lake and I swam its perimeter. I was the otter and she was the dragonfly, and I’d stop every so often to watch her flight, back and forth for six certain miles. Sometimes she pulled over into the marshes so that she could scrutinize my flip turns in the water. We had been friends for a couple of years by then, and we had the competitive spirit that belongs to sisters, or adolescent girls—each of us wanted whatever prowess the other possessed.

The golden hues of the place and the easy days it offered—river walks and wildflowers and rhubarb pie—were far loftier than what Caroline had anticipated: She considered most vacations forced marches out of town. I was only slightly more adventurous, wishing I could parachute into summer trips without having to fret about the dog or shop for forty pounds of produce. Both writers who lived alone, Caroline and I shared a general intractability at disrupting our routines: the daily walks in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the exercise regimens we shared or compared, the meals and phone calls and hours of solitary work that we referred to as “our little lives.” “Paris is overrated,” Caroline liked to claim, partly to make me laugh; when she met a friend of mine one evening who was familiar with her books, he asked if she spent a lot of time in New York. “Are you kidding?” she said. “I hardly even get to Somerville.” Wedded to the sanctity of the familiar, we made ourselves leave town just to check the vacation off the list, then return to the joys and terrors of ordinary life.

I have a photograph from one of those summers at Chocorua, framing the backs of my dog and Caroline’s, Clementine and Lucille, who are silhouetted in the window seat and looking outside. It is the classic dog photo, capturing vigilance and loyalty: two tails resting side by side, two animals glued to their post. What I didn’t realize for years is that in the middle distance of the picture, through the window and out to the fields beyond, you can make out the smallest of figures—an outline of Caroline and me walking down the hill. We must have been on our way to the lake, and the dogs, by now familiar with our routine, had assumed their positions. Caroline’s boyfriend Morelli, a photographer, had seen the beauty of the shot and grabbed his camera.

I discovered this image the year after she died, and it has always seemed like a clue in a painting—a secret garden revealed only after it is gone. Chocorua itself has taken on an idyllic glow: I remember the night Caroline nearly beat Tom at arm wrestling; the mouse that sent me onto the dining room table while she howled with laughter; the Best Camper awards we instituted (and that she always won). I have glossed over the mosquitoes, the day Caroline got angry when I left her in a slower-moving kayak and rowed off into the fog alone. Like most memories tinged with the final chapter, mine carry a physical weight of sadness. What they never tell you about grief is that missing someone is the simple part.

The two of us rowed, together and in tandem, for five years after that first summer. We both lived near the Charles River, a labyrinthine body of water that winds its way through Greater Boston for nine miles, from upper Newton through Cambridge and into Boston Harbor, with enough curves and consistently flat water to be a mecca for rowers. Because Caroline was small in stature and could body-press more than her own weight, I got to calling her Brutita, or “little brute.” The boathouses we rowed out of were a couple of miles apart, and I could recognize Caroline’s stroke from a hundred yards away—I’d be there waiting for her near the Eliot Bridge or the Weeks Footbridge by Harvard, ready to ply her with questions about form and speed and where to position one’s thumbs. When she went out hours ahead of me, she fired off unpunctuated e-mails as soon as she got home: “hurry up the water is flat.” We logged hundreds of miles, together and solo, from April to November; she endured my calls, in those first couple of summers, to discuss the mechanics of rowing: “I want to talk about thrust,” I would say, with insane intensity, or, “Did you know the human head weighs thirteen pounds?” “Ummmm-hmmmm?” she’d answer, and soon I would hear a soft click-click in the background—evidence that she had begun a game of computer solitaire, her equivalent of a telephonic yawn. At the end of the day, when we walked the dogs, we compared hand and finger calluses (the battle scars of good rowing) the way teenage girls used to compare tans or charm bracelets; because she was and always would be the better rower, I accepted her continual smugness and vowed to get even in the pool. One year for Christmas I gave her a photograph from the 1940s of two women rowers in a double at Oxford, England. She hung it on a wall near her bed, above a framed banner that read zeal is a useful fire.

Both pictures hang in my bedroom now, next to the photograph of the dogs. Caroline died in early June of 2002, when she was forty-two, seven weeks after she was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. In the first few weeks in the hospital, when she was trying to write a will, she told me she wanted me to have her boat, the old Van Dusen in which I’d learned to row and that she had cared for over the years as though it were a beloved horse. I was sitting on her hospital bed when she said it, during one of those early death talks when you know what is coming and are trying to muscle your way through. So I told her I’d take the boat only if I could follow rowing tradition and have her name painted on the bow: It would be the Caroline Knapp. No way, she said, the same light in her eyes as the day she had taught me to row. You have to call it Brutita.


Before one enters this spectrum of sorrow, which changes even the color of trees, there is a blind and daringly wrong assumption that probably allows us to blunder through the days. There is a way one thinks that the show will never end—or that loss, when it comes, will be toward the end of the road, not in its middle. I was fifty-one when Caroline died, and by that point in life you should have gone to enough funerals to be able to quote the verses from Ecclesiastes by heart. But the day we found out that Caroline was ill—the day the doctors used those dreaded words “We can make her more comfortable”—I remember walking down the street, a bright April street glimmering with life, and saying aloud to myself, with a sort of shocked innocence, “You really thought you were going to get away with it, didn’t you?”

By which I meant that I might somehow sidestep the cruelty of an intolerable loss, one rendered without the willful or natural exit signs of drug overdose, suicide, or old age. These I had encountered, and there had been the common theme of tragic agency (if only he’d taken the lithium; if only he hadn’t tried to smuggle the cocaine) or rueful acceptance (she had a good long life). But no one I had loved— no one I counted among the necessary pillars of life—had died suddenly, too young, full of determination not to go. No one had gotten the bad lab report, lost the hair, been told to get her affairs in order. More important, not Caroline. Not the best friend, the kid sister, the one who had joked for years that she would bring me soup decades down the line, when I was too aged and frail to cook.

From the beginning there was something intangible and even spooky between us that could make strangers mistake us as sisters or lovers, and that sometimes had friends refer to us by each other’s name: A year after Caroline’s death, a mutual friend called out to me at Fresh Pond, the reservoir where we had walked, “Caroline!”, then burst into tears at her mistake. The friendship must have announced its depth by its obvious affection, but also by our similarities, muted or apparent. That our life stories had wound their way toward each other on corresponding paths was part of the early connection. Finding Caroline was like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived. Apart, we had each been frightened drunks and aspiring writers and dog lovers; together, we became a small corporation.

We had a lot of dreams, some of them silly, all part of the private code shared by people who plan to be around for the luxuries of time. One was the tatting center we thought we’d open in western Massachusetts, populated by Border collies and corgis, because we’d be too old to have dogs that were big or unruly. The Border collies would train the corgis, we declared, and the corgis would be what we fondly called the purse dogs. The tatting notion came about during one of our endless conversations about whether we were living our lives correctly— an ongoing dialogue that ranged from the serious (writing, solitude, loneliness) to the mundane (wasted time, the idiocies of urban life, trash TV). “Oh, don’t worry,” I’d said to Caroline one day when she asked if I thought she spent too much time with Law and Order reruns. “Just think—if we were living two hundred years ago, we’d be playing whist, or tatting, instead of watching television, and we’d be worrying about that.” There was a long pause. “What is tatting?” she had asked shyly, as though the old lace-making craft were something of great importance, and so that too became part of the private lexicon —“tatting” was the code word for the time wasters we, and probably everyone else, engaged in.

These were the sort of rag-and-bone markers that came flying back to me, in a high wind of anguish, when she was dying: I remember trying to explain the tatting center to someone who knew us, then realizing how absurd it sounded, and breaking down. Of course no one would understand the tatting center; like most codes of intimacy, it resisted translation. Part of what made it funny was that it was ours alone.

One of the things we loved about rowing was its near mystical beauty— the strokes cresting across the water, the shimmering quiet of the row itself. Days after her death, I dreamed that the two of us were standing together in a dark boathouse, its only light source a line of incandescent blue sculls that hung above us like a wash of constellations. In the dream I knew she was dead, and I reached out for her and said, “But you’re coming back, right?” She smiled but shook her head; her face was a well of sadness.

From the Hardcover edition.

Q & A

Q & A for Let’s Take the Long Way Home
Kelly Corrigan: I cried a lot reading this book, thinking about people I couldn't stand to lose, my necessary pillars, as you say.   I can imagine how much it hurt to write and rewrite it and then open the bound manuscript for the first time and not be able to hand it to Caroline.    But I also know this book keeps her alive in some ways, keeps her name in conversation.  How has all this—writing, publishing, reading—affected your grieving?
Gail Caldwell: The jury’s still out on this one. I’ve finally accepted after all these years, having lost both my father and mother as well, that grief itself is a lifelong process.  That’s not really bad news.  Loss reshapes you, and I think if you can bear staying inside it for a time, there are great blessings on the other side of all that sorrow.

I do know one palpable victory that all this has given me: a record, if you will, of Caroline and me that lives outside of my own shifting interiors.  I can look at the book or read from it, or hear readers respond to it, and think, “Well, there we are.”  It’s a great consolation.
KC: I'm a big fan of fighting— if that's what it takes to keep a relationship real.  There's nothing more depressing to me than falseness and niceties and the unspoken.  I think you feel the same way, and I think this is exactly what distinguished your friendship with Caroline.  Is that right?
GC: There were so many things, in retrospect, that distinguished our friendship that they’ve all blurred together into one mosaic: humor, intensity, shared loves.  I do think that each of us had a commitment to emotional honesty in relationships that matter, and we acknowledged early on that this one mattered to us, and that we would do what was necessary to keep it real, keep it free of the baggage of the unspoken, as you put it.  Probably the fallout of years of therapy on both our parts.  Not everyone wants to “communicate” this way, but we were evenly matched.  It might have driven some people crazy, but in our case I think it was liberating—it helped to establish and maintain the trust between us.
KC: I think it's hard to find something new to say about love and friendship.  Your first line all but acknowledges that you agree.  How anxious were you about crossing the line between familiar and trite?
GC: That wasn’t really a concern for me. Eudora Welty once said that there are something like seven stories in the world, and that we just keep retelling them. I was less worried about saying something new than I was about saying something real. I think that the truth, or success, of any writer’s story lies partly in its specificity and its emotional honesty.  I wanted to deliver the depth of the connection I had with Caroline, as well as the loss of her, and convey those things to the reader without sentimentality.

When I wrote that first line that you mention—“It’s an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too”—it was all I could write of the book for a year.   I left it lying on a legal pad until I was able to go back and begin to tell the story.   It seemed to me then, as now, that the oldest stories are sometimes the simplest and the most universal.
KC: I was so knocked out by your observations—not wanting to throw out your friend's spare keys, for example.  Was it hard for you to revisit those moments?
GC: The most meaningful passages for me were also, not surprisingly, the most difficult, or at least bittersweet, to write.  I love the memory of us in the woods together, and the sound of Caroline’s voice, and how funny she was.  The wrenching parts, from after she got sick—they belong to another country.

One thing I realized as soon as I began the book was that all the memories, good and bad, seem to have been there waiting for me to unearth and articulate.  That’s the beauty of the unconscious, and the heart’s archive: nothing ever really goes away.
KC: I don't have a dog.  And I never did.  What am I missing?
GC: Oh good, now I get to quote Caroline, from Pack of Two:  “wildness and nurturance and trust and joy.”  I’m writing about dogs in my next book, and I spend huge swatches of time watching and thinking about what they give us and evoke from us. Clementine, my first Samoyed, had such grace and equanimity that I used to refer to her as my better half. 

Living in the company of another species (particularly Samoyeds, who are great clowns) teaches me enormous things: humility, patience, great love, the mystery of connection, much of it nonverbal.  Plus you get to play in the snow, walk in the woods, continually make a fool of yourself.  And you have a built-in social excuse: “Sorry, I have to walk the dog.”
KC: I know from my own experiences that illness is humbling.  It's hard to need so much help, even for the most comfortable among us. Those who suffer from alcoholism need a lot of help.  Do you think your personal histories with alcohol informed the way you cared for Caroline and the way she responded?
GC: I never thought about our shared history as having this effect, but I’m sure there’s some truth to it, at least from my end.  Illness is the great equalizer, isn’t it?   You can’t go through something as searing as facing alcoholism, which brought each of us to our knees, without some sense of having broken open that last private space of autonomy and trust.   In AA they call it the gift of desperation, because you’re forced to let people in.

My caring for Caroline, to the small degree that I was able, was unthinking and automatic.  But her illness and its trajectory were so brutally swift that we were doing everything on the run. I think it was probably easier for Caroline to worry about me than about herself; certainly I know the reverse was true.
KC: Over the course of a year, because of the topics of my own books, I end up talking an unnatural amount about dying and crisis.  I wonder sometimes if I am becoming less sensitive—like a doctor who has lost her bedside manner.  Have any calluses grown where you used to be tender?  
GC: Maybe I’m a little tougher.  Not harder, but hardier. At readings and signings, I’ve been moved and astonished by the commonality of this experience, and by what readers have been willing to share with me. It’s a universal language.
I hope I understand other people’s losses a little better, and don’t feel the need to rush in and fix things.   I love Annie Proulx’s line on this: “If you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.”

From the Hardcover edition.

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