Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell

If I die, survive me with such force 
that you waken the furies of the pallid and the cold,
from south to south lift your indelible eyes,
from sun to sun dream through your singing mouth.
I dont want your laughter or your steps to waver, 
I don't want my heritage of joy to die.
Don't call up my person. I am absent.
Live in my absence as if in a house. 
Absence is a house so vast
that inside you will pass through its walls
and hang pictures on the air
Absence is a house so transparent
that I, lifeless, will see you, living,
and if you suffer, my love, I will die again.  
Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XCIV

Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship (2010), by Gail Caldwell, reminds me of this beautiful poem by Pablo Neruda. The author, in fact, quotes a couple of its lines when recalling the death of her dear friend, Caroline Knapp, and describing her process of healing from that loss.

The memoir is the story of a deep friendship - a bond in which two women are linked by their love of family, literature, writing, dogs, and the outdoors. They had other similarities,too - these of a darker nature. Both had struggled with and overcome the addiction of alcoholism.

Caldwell talks candidly about her own family history with this disease and how drinking was very much a part of the culture of her birthplace - Amarillo, Texas.

Because my tolerance allowed me to drink hugely but functionally for years - I survived most of graduate school with a cache of scotch," she recounts.  I cultivated an image that waffled between tragedy and liberation. The self-perception was constructed to fit the need: With alcohol the mandatory elixir, I would erect a stage set to justify its presence. I would be the sensitive heroine, or doomed romantic, or radical bohemian - I was Hamlet, Icarus, Edith Wharton's Lily Bart. God forbid that I simply face who I was, which was somebody drunk and scared and on my way to being no one at all... (p. 50)

Early on, Caldwell acknowledged her love of writing, which co-existed with her drinking. Studying for her doctoral oral exams in Austin, she would sit at her typewriter, "primed with a glass of scotch and a pack of Winstons. "The writing was the life force and the whiskey was the snake in the grass. For as long as I could, I chose them both." (p. 52).

What changed everything was a series of alcohol-related accidents, culminating in memory problems. Caldwell's drinking began to influence her ability to write. A life without writing was unimaginable. She was now living in Massachusetts and working as a freelance writer. It was the summer of 1984. Six months into being sober and with the help of AA meetings, she was hired by The Boston Globe as its underling book critic.

By the time she and Knapp became friends, Caroline had been sober a couple of years and was trying to keep balanced after publication of her book, Drinking, a Love Story. Caldwell, nine years her senior, had been sober for 15. The had initially met at a literary event, but cemented their friendship while out walking their dogs. Their shared love of rowing and long walks in the forest created a deep bond that grew stronger as time passed.

Caldwell's description of those walks is evocative. Her purchase of a home and joy of decorating it are life events that the author recalls as grounding and joyful. Carolyn's carrying her over the threshold evokes a smile, and the reader shares this happy moment with both women.

Clementine, Caldwell's beautiful Samoyed, plays a key role in this memoir. Her energy is matched only by the author's love for her.

In describing Let's Take the Long Way Home, Julie Myerson of the New York Times concludes:

This may be a book about death and loss, but Caldwell's greatest achievement is to rise above all that to describe 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.

(The New York Times Book Review, August 20, 2010)

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