On the surface, Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell shouldn't be a book I would like. Two of its main topics are dogs (we all know that I am not a dog person!) and alcoholics, and honestly: I have no patience for alcoholics. But it is also about death, and friendship; there are bits of poems, too, and writing that made me wish I had bought my own copy so I could annotate instead of politely sticking bits of paper by the spots I wanted to remember.
This book insists it is "a memoir of friendship," and, in a way, it is. "It's an old, old story," the book begins, "I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too." Before she gets too involved in the friendship, however, Gail has to work through another topic: her alcoholism.
I said before that I have no patience for alcoholics. Perhaps by saying that I am tempting fate to turn me into one, but I don't think so. This is because I did my stint. I ran the personal course of my own addiction (and it wasn't drinking, although I tried that) as a teenager, but what I finally discovered is that all your addiction exists for is to make it so you don't have to feel whatever bad thing it is you don't want to feel. It doesn't make the bad thing go away. It doesn't solve the bad thing, or make you face it so you can move past it. It just numbs you to the feeling. And once the numbness goes away—it always does—you are left with two choices: more numbness or dealing with the bad thing.
And that's why alcoholics frustrate me: they choose not to deal. They think they get to be immune. Their magic bullet speeds them away from whatever aches. And I know: things ache. Bad things happen. Life, to borrow a Princess Bride quote, is pain. But you cannot always be a turtle, head tucked into the drunken blankness of your shell.You have to feel your bad things, hard as they are. That alcoholics (or other addicts, no matter the poison) decide to never feel it makes me think less of them. Eventually you have to deal, or ruin your life with not dealing, and if you choose the not-dealing choice, you cannot expect the rest of us—the ones walking around dealing, the ones moving forward despite—to have pity for you.
I don't know if I should be ashamed and embarrassed by this lack of empathy I have for addicts. I do think, however, that the author (to go back to the book!) might agree with me. "What I couldn't have known in my drinking years, was that alcohol was my shortcut to the stars, and that there are no shortcuts. . . The drink had salved, not solved the problems." She comes, through a long process, out from the shell, and what is waiting for her, in addition to the bad things she must deal with, is a new friend.
Caroline Knapp, also a writer, is this friend. They meet through a mutual acquaintance while training their new dogs. Their friendship is instant, based on the dogs and the writing and the past addictions and the need to be physically active. Carolyn teaches Gail to row; Gail teaches Caroline to swim. This is one of those instant friendships; tentative at first but only out of the need for self-protection. Once they feel safe they are fastened to each other. Their friendship makes them stronger in unexpected ways. "After all this," Gail realizes, "I don't think that any man could ever treat me badly again."
But it cannot make them psychically immune, and Caroline's smoking catches up to her. You know, because the book opens by telling you, that she will die. We cannot experience this through Caroline's point of view, only Gail's. But, as writers do, she tells this devastating part of the story with a rich, detailed accuracy. Not details like weight loss and hair loss and loss of brain function. But the losses the heart suffers. It is beautiful writing about death, which is a startling contradiction. Some annotations: "Like a starfish, the heart endures its amputation," and "Her arms became her eloquence" and "She couldn't talk anymore and so I didn't either; our narrative became a choreography of silence." "Suffering witnessed is a cloudy and impotent world," Gail writes. She is witnessing Caroline's suffering but we, as readers, witness hers. So we know this is also true: suffering is "the only thing large enough to bully you into holding the door for death."
Ultimately, while the book is about friendship and dogs and dying and drinking and writing, what it really does is make a statement about change. Or about dealing with change. That is another thing an addict has to learn: things will change. This pain won't be your only one. There will be others, harder than you can imagine, or smaller yet still excruciating. You don't only have to deal with your current bad thing, but with knowing that there are myriad bad things change will foist into your life. Drinking—escaping—cannot be the way to deal. Sometimes it is story that helps you deal: "Grief and memory create their own narrative . . . we tell the story to get them back, to capture the traces of footfalls through the snow." Or it is letting time work on healing your amputation, no matter how its phantoms taunt. It is also discovering knowledge, like the necessity to "embrace the core sadness of life without toppling headlong into it, or assuming it will define your life."
The only way to deal is by dealing.
And Gail manages. Caroline's death is not her only sorrow. But she manages to deal with the changes. "We never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures." The pain the alcoholic avoids is the same thing that, experienced, deepens and gives meaning to our lives. That is, of course, a platitude and a cliché. It is also the truth, one this book explores with a lyric, unflinching approach.