Caroline, Clementine, Cody, and Lucille in NH, 1998.
The two of us rowed, together and in tandem, for five years after that first summer. We both lived near the Charles River, a rower's Mecca that winds its way through Greater Boston for nine miles. Because Caroline was small in stature and could body-press more than her own weight, I got to calling her Brutita, or "little brute." The boathouses we rowed out of were a couple of miles apart, and I could recognize Caroline's stroke from a hundred yards away—I'd be there waiting for her near the bridges by Harvard, ready to ply her with questions about form and speed and where to position one's thumbs. When she went out hours ahead of me, she fired off unpunctuated e-mails as soon as she got home: "hurry up the water is flat." We logged hundreds of miles from April to November, and she endured my calls to discuss the mechanics of rowing: "I want to talk about thrust," I would say, with insane intensity. "Ummmm-hmmmm?" she'd answer, and soon I would hear a soft click-click in the background—evidence that she had begun a game of computer solitaire, her equivalent of a telephonic yawn. At the end of the day, when we walked the dogs, we compared hand and finger calluses (the battle scars of good rowing) the way teenage girls compare tans or charm bracelets; because she was and always would be the better rower, I accepted her smugness and vowed to get even in the pool. One year for Christmas I gave her a photograph from the 1940s of two women rowers in a double at Oxford. She hung it on a wall near her bed, above a framed banner that read ZEAL IS A USEFUL FIRE.
Both hang in my bedroom now, next to the photograph of the dogs. Caroline died in early June of 2002, when she was 42, seven weeks after she was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. In the first few weeks in the hospital, when she was trying to write a will, she told me she wanted me to have her boat, the old Van Dusen in which I'd learned to row and that she had cared for over the years as though it were a beloved horse. I was sitting on her hospital bed when she said it, during one of those early death talks when you know what is coming and are trying to muscle your way through. So I told her I'd take the boat only if I could follow rowing tradition and have her name painted on the bow: It would be the Caroline Knapp. No way, she said, the same light in her eyes as on that first day she had taught me to row. You have to call it Brutita.
Before one enters this spectrum of sorrow, which changes even the color of trees, there is a blind and daringly wrong assumption that probably allows us to blunder through the days. There is a way one thinks that the show will never end—or that loss, when it comes, will be toward the end of the road, not in its middle. I was 51 when Caroline died, and by that point in life you should have gone to enough funerals to be able to quote the verses from Ecclesiastes by heart. But the day we found out that Caroline was ill—the day the doctors used those dreaded words "We can make her more comfortable"—I remember walking down the street, on a bright April day glimmering with life, and saying aloud to myself, with a sort of shocked innocence, "You really thought you were going to get away with it, didn't you?" By which I meant that I might somehow sidestep the cruelty of an intolerable loss, one rendered without the willful or natural exit signs of drug overdose, suicide, or old age. 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. No one had gotten the bad lab report, lost the hair, been told to get her affairs in order. More important, not Caroline. Not the best friend, the kid sister, the one who had joked for years that she would bring me soup decades down the line, when I was too aged and frail to cook.
We Hear You!