Gail Caldwell on Surviving Her Best Friend's Death

The writer talks about how telling the story of their friendship helped her grieve

There’s no manual for shepherding a friend through a terminal illness and then coping with her death. In her new memoir Let’s Take the Long Way Home, Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Gail Caldwell suggests that writing about her best friend Caroline Knapp, author of the acclaimed memoir Drinking: A Love Story, both prolonged and eased her grief over Knapp’s death from lung cancer at 42.

Caldwell prepares us immediately: “It’s an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too,” she writes in the book’s first sentence. Caldwell seems to be warning herself as much as her readers. She knows she’s telling this story to keep Knapp alive. To finish it will mean letting her dear friend go.

The two writers, both recovering alcoholics, dog lovers and athletes (Knapp was a competitive rower who once coaxed Caldwell, a swimmer, into her boat on the Charles River) connect on their second meeting when Knapp is in an extended separation from the boyfriend who eventually became her husband. They fall into an accelerated, intense friendship Caldwell likens to a kind of romance, “intangible and spooky that could make strangers mistake us for sisters or lovers ... 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."

We spoke with Caldwell by phone from her home in Cambridge, Mass., about her friendship with Caroline and what it took to write this book. Her dog Tula, 2, occasionally barked in the background.

What motivated you to write this deeply personal book, which delves into not only your relationship with Caroline, but your battle with alcoholism?
For years I thought I would not, could not, write about Caroline, and I didn’t. Then I began thinking about a second memoir and she was so central to my adult life.

I could not write this book and not talk about my drinking. You get to a point where you are not so worried about what people think and you have a greater sense of, "everybody’s got it hard in a different way."

How did you overcome alcoholism?
I got sober in ’84 and Caroline was about 10 years after me. For both of us there came a point where the rewards of alcohol -- however fleeting they are -- become superseded by the destructive behavior.

There was an isolation chamber that I found myself in. I was 33 and I thought, “My God, I have to save my life.”

Caroline -- I love this story -- drove herself to rehab and checked her lipstick before she walked in. It was a refusal to lay down the last control.

You’d been concerned about Caroline’s cigarette smoking, but it sounds like her lung cancer diagnosis in 2002 came out of left field.
Totally left field. You go into shock. The light gets brighter in the universe for a few days, and I don’t mean in a happy way. There’s a sort of glaring, otherworldliness to it.

The emotions are so wild and swift and transient. There were times in the hospital in the first few weeks of great hilarity. Only after she was gone was I afforded the luxury of the horror of what had happened.

It doesn’t sound like there was a question of whether you’d be there for Caroline, but not all friends would necessarily respond that way. What enabled you to be there for her?
I can’t imagine not doing it. There was never any question because anything else would have been so much worse.

I know there are people who are overwhelmed and want to flee. Flight really doesn’t get you far across the savannah. To be able to be there with her and care in whatever ways I could, it’s probably one of the most important passages of my life.

Would you say it was healing?
Healing takes years. It gave me the building in which to grieve.

Does it not occur to people how devastating it is to lose a friend?
It is so true. It was startling. I think people are well intentioned, but over and over I would get these sort of assumptions, as though it was really sad but not life affecting.

Since I wrote this book, I’ve talked to a few audiences, and a wonderful man said to me, "Your friendship really made me envy women because men don’t have this kind of friendship." There was an intimacy itself that was not all that common.

An experience can change when it gets put onto paper. Did you worry that writing this memoir would alter the reality of your friendship with Caroline?
Yes. I did not ever want the narrative to supersede the reality. That’s the emotional contract you make: The story has to be a product of the truth and not the truth itself. So there was a way I felt protective of me and Caroline as I was working on the book.

What do you think Caroline would make of it?
She’s been my compass all the way through. The great irony is that people will go, “Oh, Caroline would be so proud of you.” It’s an absurdism because it’s only in the loss of Caroline that this story existed.

The thing I feel most unequivocally is how joyful she’d feel at the capture of our friendship and the love that we had for each other and our dogs.

Since finishing the book, how have you coped with Caroline’s death?
It’s now been eight years since she died, and I continually think, “I can’t believe Caroline isn’t here,” because we raised puppies together. Doing it again without her, I’m very conscious of this missing presence. But I’ve gone on to this burst of life that drags me forward, and I both wish Caroline were here and also feel that she is. So that’s the next chapter.

Have you lost a close friend? Chime in below!

Like This? Read These:
- 7 Ways to Help a Friend Through a Crisis
- Your Girlfriends Can Help You Live Longer
- Key Factors Define 'Prolonged Grief'

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