Book review: Let’s Take the Long Way Home

Just finished reading “Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship” by Gail Caldwell. It’s the story of her close friendship with Caroline Knapp and of her grief after she lost her to cancer. I started reading it shortly before the third anniversary of my best friend’s passing and finished it last night. Am still not over it. Her relationship was vastly different from mine but the way she wrote about her grief really struck a chord. I’ve never been able to put my feelings into words but recognized them in Caldwell’s writing.

The same shock and feeling of unpreparedness (felt like getting the wind knocked out of me – every single time I thought of what had happened):

The only education in grief that any of us ever gets is a crash course.

The same disbelief:

But no one I had loved—no one I counted among the necessary pillars of life—had died suddenly, too young, full of determination not to go.

The same dreams, reaching out for them in vain, imploring the dead to come back (in one of my dreams, she looked annoyed because I was making her late for her lunch date with God and his girlfriend):

In the dream I knew she was dead, and I reached out for her and said, “But you’re coming back, right?” She smiled but shook her head; her face was a well of sadness.

The same fierce attachment to material things that belonged to them (I have a pair of her shoes that’s half a size too small and a sweater that itches awfully – they’re treasures):

I wanted to claim whatever of her was left. I’d always heard stories about grief-stricken families arguing over ugly lamps or cheap coffeemakers; now I understood. The frantic hunger I felt was not trivial or greedy; it was possessive, in the most primal sense. I still have her gym bag and her rain jacket, and for a while I even tried to wear her winter boots, an entire size too big, which was absurd but comforting. Memento mori: reminders of the dead. I think we must long for these signatures of history (…) because they take up the space left by the departed.

The same perspective and outlook shift:

What if dying weren’t a bad thing? 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 same inner transformation (The day she passed was like having my drive formatted. For the following months, I was a blank slate with all my limitations temporarily wiped away):

Grief is what tells you who you are alone.

The same hole in the heart:

Caroline’s death was a vacancy in the heart, a place I neither could nor wished to fill. (…) her goneness was a thing unto itself, a memory outlined by crime tape it would be an outrage to remove. Now here was Neruda, entreating mourners to inhabit death as though it were a dwelling: Absence is a house so vast that inside you will pass through its walls and hang pictures on the air.

The same reification of her death, now an integral component of life:

I knew I would never have another friend like Caroline (…). That she was irreplaceable became a bittersweet loyalty: Her death was what I had now instead of her.

I’m quoting the book extensively because I still don’t feel comfortable writing about all this. My life still feels split in two parts: the one before her death and the one after. Processing the fact that she’s gone is a continual work in progress.

I’ve read a whole bunch of books about loss and grieving but none hit the mark like this one. The other books tell you pseudo-scientifically what you’re supposed to feel with the caveat that everyone feels things differently. This book is raw: the author puts all her thoughts and emotions out there and you can’t help but connect and relate. Self-help books make you think grieving is a set of phases you have to go through in order to heal; this author shows you there is no such thing as healing because there is no sickness to heal from. The pain may ease with time but you will continue to grieve because it is now part of your life. And that is okay.

The book will also appeal to dog lovers, recovering alcoholics and people who simply enjoy beautiful writing.

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