I discovered Gail Caldwell’s first book, the memoir A Strong West Wind, in a rare moment of serendipitous book-buying in an old-fashioned bookstore. Reading other people’s memoirs that year while writing my own, I selected A Strong West Wind because I was intrigued to find out how a conservative Texas childhood shaped a young woman who protested the Vietnam War and later won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. It did not matter that I’d never heard of her, though her professional distinctions bestowed a halo effect on an otherwise impulse book purchase. (Unfortunately those impulse buys become less frequent the more I purchase books online.) I remember being so struck by her writing that I had to put down the book at times and chew over a sentence or a metaphor. The end of the book was so moving, I wept as I sat in bed, willing the reading experience not to end yet consumed with the need to finish.
So I was thrilled to discover that Gail Caldwell’s second book, Let’s Take the Long Way Home, is as full of compassion, insight, wit and love as her first. Julie Myerson’s review in the New York Times covers the themes of Caldwell’s memoir – the intimacy of friendship between the author and her friend Caroline Knapp, the women’s relationship with their dogs, their shared recovery from addiction – which provide depth and texture to her chronicle of Knapp’s quick death from cancer at 42.
As a way of celebrating the gift of this book, I wanted to list some of the sentences Caldwell wrote that grabbed me by the throat and struck me, as someone who knows grief too well, with the shock of recognition:
I remember it all because I remember it all. In crisis with someone you love, the dialogue is as burnished as a scar on a tree.
We had entered a subterranean culture of extremis, where people were dying or trying to live and the heart was laid bare.
Accepting a death sentence is like falling down a flight of stairs in slow motion. You take it in one bruise at a time – a blow, a landing, another short descent.
Death is a divorce nobody asked for; to live through it is to find a way to disengage from what you thought you couldn’t stand to lose.
Caroline’s death had left me with a great and terrible gift: how to live in a world where loss, some of it unbearable, is as common as dust or moonlight.
The dead protect us. I feel this now with an almost fierce relief. Caroline’s dying had forced me into courage under fire; now I had her inside me as a silent sentinel. And whether one attributes this attachment to memory or to God, it is a consolation unlike any I have known.
I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures.
To recognize your own experience in a stranger’s phrasing, as I did on countless occasions throughout Let’s Take the Long Way Home, is a testament to the universality of grief and a tribute to the power of good writing.