Let’s Take the Long Way Home: a Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell

by , under book reviews, books and reading, death, grief, women

Yesterday morning, I woke around 4am and couldn’t get back to sleep. By 445am, I’d decided to get up and start my next book. I’d first heard of Let’s Take the Long Way Home in late summer or early fall, on an episode of the Books on the Nightstand podcast, in which Michael Kindness gave it a glowing recommendation. I remember I was walking toward my mother-in-law’s house as I listened — specifically, in the area of 29th and Gage. He said it was Gail Caldwell’s memoir about her friendship with fellow writer Caroline Knapp — and I was instantly alert, because a few years ago, I bought, read, and loved a book by Knapp called Appetites: Why Women Want. I recognized Caldwell’s name, but wasn’t familiar with her. It was the chance to learn more about Knapp that drew me in, as well as Michael Kindness saying that the book was a picture of how full and all-encompassing a friendship between two women can be, and also explored the dark corners of addiction. Both Caldwell and Knapp were alcoholics, though both were sober by the time they became friends. After the podcast, Caldwell’s book was quickly added to my “must-have” list.

So, I started reading it yesterday, obscenely early in the morning, and got about thirty pages in before work. I didn’t read at work, but made some more progress on it last evening. Today, Saturday, I did some reading this morning, then cleaned the kitchen, and eventually got back to the book. This afternoon, I finished the book through copious tears. I was up in the bedroom by myself, while Jeff and the boys and Grandma watched the KU game in the living room. At one point, Jeff came up and suggested I stop reading for a while and do something else, and I said no. When he asked why not, I sobbed, “Because I don’t want to!” I felt justified in this decision: three-day weekend, kitchen already cleaned, end of the book coming ever closer. Jeff said he didn’t understand, and I agreed, he didn’t.

Since I read it so quickly, and finished it during a weekend where I have some extra time, I thought, “I need to post a blog about it, I need to write a review.” But then, the idea of writing a review of this book seemed akin to reviewing pieces of Gail Caldwell’s life — some painful, mainly her battles with alcoholism; and many precious and beautiful, memories of her friendship with Caroline, and the bonds both shared with their beloved dogs. Truly, the writing is so honest and raw, that the book feels alive, and lived in — not just recounting parts of Caldwell’s life, but opening the door on those scenes, and letting the reader into them. That’s the best review I can give of Caldwell’s memoir: I felt like I was living it with her.

Though Gail and Caroline first met at a party, it was several years later, when they happened to run into one another at a pond in Cambridge, Mass., that they began their friendship. Both single women who were independent and used to solitude, both childless, each had acquired a dog who became companion, child, best friend. When they met that day at the pond, Gail knew Caroline had been doing a lot of public appearances to promote her recently published memoir, Drinking: a Love Story. Caroline later said she was relieved that Gail “was more interested in her dog than her book sales” and Gail writes, “We were like new moms in the park, trading vital bits of information about our charges that was enthralling only to us” (p. 17).

They bonded over this shared love of their dogs, and began walking together, a “pack of four,” every day. Caldwell writes:

We ran the dogs for hours in those woods outside of town, and in other woods, searching out gorgeous reserves of forests and fields all over eastern Massachusetts. We walked the beaches that autumn, and the fire trails in winter, carrying liver snaps for the dogs and graham crackers for the humans. We walked until all four of us were dumb with fatigue. The dogs would go charging through the switchbacks while Caroline and I walked and talked – over time so much and so deeply that we began referring to our afternoon-long treks as analytic walks.

“Let’s take the long way home,” she would say when we’d gotten back to the car, and then we would wend our way through the day traffic of Somerville or Medford, in no hurry to separate. … Then we would go inside our respective houses and call each other on the phone. (p. 19)

One of my favorite scenes in the book occurs after Gail purchases her first house. Caroline had gone to open houses with her, helped her weigh the pros and cons of different locations, and offered suggestions as needed. When the purchase is made and Gail arrives at her new house,

I was standing on the front porch of what was now my house, fiddling with the keys, dumb with fatigue and vague apprehension. Inside lay a near gut job of months of renovation. I heard someone drive up behind me and turned to see Caroline and Morelli [Caroline’s boyfriend, and later her husband] at the curb in Caroline’s Toyota RAV, both of them grinning and waving at me to wait up. I got the door unlocked just as Caroline vaulted up the front steps. And while Morelli held on to the dogs and laughed, she picked me up – I outweighed her by ten pounds – and hoisted me, like a sack of grain, over the threshold. (p. 118)

Caroline was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in the spring of 2002. She was hospitalized with a second bout of pneumonia when they found the cancer, which had metastasized to her brain and liver. She went home when she was strong enough, and she and Morelli got married. Soon after, Gail had an engagement to speak at a commencement in Texas, and reluctantly left town for a four-day trip. While she was gone, Caroline suffered a series of bleeds in the brain, and could no longer speak. Gail cut her trip short to get back to Massachusetts. Caldwell writes,

We had spent years talking – talking when other people would have given up, teasing apart feelings and conversations and the intricacies of daily life. Now she couldn’t talk anymore and so I didn’t either; our narrative became a choreography of silence. I would spend hours at the end of her bed, not knowing much of the time if she even knew I was there. But Caroline and I had begun our friendship with a bond devoted to the elegant truths of nonverbal language: the physicality and hand signals and eye contact that dialogue with an animal entailed. When she had first fallen ill, I had brought to the hospital a T-shirt that she loved, from the Barking Dog Luncheonette in New York, with SIT! STAY! written on the back. I knew all about sit-stay, and how straightforward and essential it was, and so that was what I did. I sat and I stayed. (p. 141-142)

Let’s Take the Long Way Home is beautiful, and heartbreaking, and I love it.

© All the parts of my life 2008-2015.

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