There are times in our lives when we're open to new friendships: moving to a new town, starting a new job and of coursem the friendships forged in childhood. But what about later, when you least expect it?
Gail Caldwell, a Texan transplant feeling very at home in Boston, Massachusetts, was happily living her life - writing book reviews for the Boston Globe, training a new dog. She was in her early 40s then and not looking for friendships, thank you very much. And then she met Caroline Knapp, also a writer in Boston.
And once Gail Caldwell let Caroline Knapp into her life, their lives became thoroughly intertwined. And then, Caroline died.
Gail Caldwell has written a memoir of their friendship, "Let's Take the Long Way Home," and she joins us from WBUR in Boston. Welcome to the show, Gail Caldwell.
Ms. GAIL CALDWELL (Author, "Let's Take the Long Way Home"): Thank you, Jacki. It's nice to be here.
LYDEN: This is such a lovely, lovely story, I have to tell you.
Ms. CALDWELL: Oh, I appreciate it.
LYDEN: Would you please begin it for us - right at the beginning?
Ms. CALDWELL: Sure.
It's an old, old story. I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too. The year after she was gone, when I thought I had passed through the madness of early grief, I was on the path at the Cambridge reservoir where Caroline and I had walked the dogs for years.
It was a winter afternoon, and the place was empty. There was a bend in the road with no one ahead of or behind me, and I felt a desolation so great that for a moment, my knees wouldn't work. What am I supposed to do here? I asked her aloud, by now accustomed to conversations with a dead best friend. Am I just supposed to keep going?
My life had made so much sense alongside hers. For years, we had played the easy, daily game of catch that intimate connection implies. One ball, two gloves, equal joy in the throw and the return. Now, I was in the field without her, one glove, no game. Grief is what tells you who are you alone.
LYDEN: How long after your friend died did you write that?
Ms. CALDWELL: Well, it's an interesting question. I wrote the first sentence probably four years or three years after she died. But it was all I could write of this book. I left it on a legal pad, and went on to other things. It was all I could write for at least a year. And then when I began the book, I was able to write the rest of it.
LYDEN: And she passed away in 2002, so it has been a while. When the two of you met, neither of you was looking for a friend. She had just broken up with someone; you had been through a lot of hurdles yourself. You're both very self-sufficient women.
Ms. CALDWELL: And we both had new puppies, which was essential to the connection.
LYDEN: I've never had a new puppy, so you must draw me completely into this world.
Ms. CALDWELL: Well, imagine being two moms in the park who - for which the dialogue is fascinating only to them, whether they're talking about, you know, insomnia or diaper changes. I mean, we had these two bundles of energy and had met and been reintroduced through a mutual dog trainer and friend of ours. And someone had said to us, you know, you and Caroline remind me of each other. You should really get together - which was an odd comment because, in fact, I think we look nothing alike, but there was something oddly and spookily familiar about the two of us.
Once we had taken the first walk, which probably lasted five hours, we both were sort of done. It was like, OK, we know what we have here.
LYDEN: This is such a rich friendship, Gail Caldwell. I mean, she teaches you to row a skull; you teach her to swim. You are both writers. You share that, that you speak to each other at the end of the writing day, or sometimes during it. You have this passionate love of canines. But part of what you also shared is that both of your were recovering alcoholics.
Ms. CALDWELL: Caroline had just published her memoir, "Drinking: A Love Story," when I met her.
LYDEN: To great acclaim, we might add. That was a...
Ms. CALDWELL: Yes, to great acclaim.
LYDEN: ...very popular book.
Ms. CALDWELL: And so she was reeling from the public status that she had achieved very quickly. One of the things that always made me laugh, in retrospect, was that we had met years earlier and when - I think I'd been sober, probably, five years. And I asked her later, after we were friends, what she had thought about me the night we met. Because I remembered her hands; she had beautiful hands.
LYDEN: And this is at a literary - a gathering for her book.
Ms. CALDWELL: Yes, it was at a very bookish party that we were both enduring ,as it turned out. And somebody had said, oh, you - you know, had introduced us and we were very polite, and then kind of moved away. And I asked her what she thought of me, and she said: I remember thinking that here was a woman who could probably drink and get away with it. And of course, I was holding club soda, so she had no idea. But it was, in fact, one of the wellsprings of connection between us, though we didn't know it when we first became friends.
LYDEN: I didn't let you finish your comment about her hands.
Ms. CALDWELL: She had these - you know, it was funny because she was the strongest, physically strongest. I mean, she could pick me up. She could pick up Morelli(ph).
LYDEN: Her boyfriend.
Ms. CALDWELL: And she weighed about 108 pounds. And she was, I used to call her Brutita(ph), for little brute. But she had these hands that were always French manicured and elegant, and I just - I think of it as a wonderful anomaly to the brute within.
LYDEN: A good part of this book takes place after this diagnosis. And I have to say, there's such - by then such clarity, such force, and such agonizing beauty. Could I get you, please, to read a bit? Let's go to page 158.
Ms. CALDWELL: Memento mori, reminders of the dead. I think we must long for these signatures of history - the baseballs and ornaments and playing cards left on people's graves - because they take up the space left by the departed. The physical void after she was gone seemed alarmingly like a thing of physics, as if daylight had shifted or a house on the street had disappeared.
Yesterday, I found a note I had written to myself in the piles of outlines and narrative maps that are a writer's building blocks. Let her die, I had written at the top of a legal pad - a shorthand reminder to get to that part of the story.
Then I saw it the next day and half-gasped. For a moment it was as though someone else had given me the instruction: let her die - a three-word definition of the arc of grief if ever I heard one, and it takes a long time.
LYDEN: You've turned to a lot of friends and acquaintances, who gave you important words to carry you through your grief. I particularly loved a scene where you and a very famous writer-friend of yours - you are a longtime book critic -are reading poetry together over the phone. She's in Minnesota; you're in Cambridge. When people turn to you now, now that you have come through this very great grief, what do you tell them about the experience and the journey?
Ms. CALDWELL: The thing that I suppose I've learned - and this is one of the most humbling lessons of all about losing someone as essential as Caroline was to me - is that often, there are no words that you can say. I was talking to a recent widow in my neighborhood, whom I've very fond of, and all of the well-intentioned sayings that we have - are you better, are you - at least he's not suffering anymore - all the things that I think people often say - sometimes the best thing you can do is say nothing, and to be able to stand to be inside that grief with another person or respect it, because there are no shortcuts.
LYDEN: Gail Caldwell is the author of "Let's Take the Long Way Home," and she joined us from WBUR in Boston. The book is her memoir of her friendship with the writer Caroline Knapp. Gail, it's been a real pleasure.
Ms. CALDWELL: Thank you so much, Jacki.
LYDEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
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