Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp were athletes, sisterly competitors, best friends. Then Caroline died, leaving Gail to untangle their intangible, spooky bond.
I can still see her standing on the shore, a towel around her neck and a postworkout cigarette in her hand—half Gidget and half Splendid Splinter, her rower's arms in defiant contrast to the awful pink bathing suit she'd found somewhere. It was the summer of 1997, and Caroline and I had decided to swap sports: I would give her swimming lessons and she would teach me how to row. This arrangement explained why I was crouched in my closest friend's needle-thin racing shell, 12 inches across at its widest span, looking less like a rower than a drunken spider. We were on New Hampshire's Chocorua Lake, a pristine mile-long body of water near the White Mountains, and the only other person there to watch my exploits was our friend Tom, who was with us on vacation.
"Excellent!" Caroline called out to me every time I made the slightest maneuver, however feeble; I was clinging to the oars with a white-knuckled grip. At 37, Caroline had been rowing for more than a decade; I was nearly nine years older, a lifelong swimmer, and figured I still had the physical wherewithal to grasp the basics of a scull upon the water. But as much as I longed to imitate Caroline, whose stroke had the precision of a metronome, I hadn't realized that merely sitting in the boat would feel as unstable as balancing on a floating leaf. How had I let her talk me into this?
Novice scullers usually learn in a boat twice the width and weight of Caroline's Van Dusen; later, she confessed that she couldn't wait to see me flip. But poised there on water's edge, hollering instructions, she was all steely enthusiasm. And she might as well have been timing my success, fleeting as it was, with a stopwatch. The oars my only leverage, I started listing toward the water and then froze at a precarious 60-degree angle, held there more by paralysis than by any sense of balance. Tom was belly-laughing from the dock; the farther I tipped, the harder he laughed.
"I'm going in!" I cried.
"No, you're not," said Caroline, her face now as deadpan as a coach's in a losing season. "No, you're not. Keep your hands together. Stay still—don't look at the water, look at your hands. Now look at me." The voice consoled and instructed long enough for me to straighten into position, and I managed five or six strokes across flat water before I went flying out of the boat and into the lake. By the time I came up, a few seconds later and ten yards out, Caroline was laughing, and I had been given a glimpse of the rapture.
We had gone to Chocorua for the month of August after Tom had placed an ad for a summer rental: "Three writers with dogs seek house near water and hiking trails." The result of his search was a ramshackle 19th-century farmhouse that we would return to for years. Surrounded by rolling meadows, the place had everything we could have wanted: cavernous rooms with old quilts and spinning wheels, a camp kitchen and massive stone fireplace, tall windows that looked out on the White Mountains. The lake was a few hundred yards away. Mornings and some evenings, Caroline and I would leave the dogs and walk down to the water, where she rowed the length of the lake and I swam its perimeter. I was the otter and she was the dragonfly, and I'd stop every so often to watch her flight, back and forth for six certain miles. Sometimes she pulled over into the marshes so that she could scrutinize my free-form flip turns in the water. We had been friends for a couple of years by then, and we shared the competitive spirit that belongs to sisters, or adolescent girls—each of us wanted whatever prowess the other possessed.
I have a photograph from another one of those summers at Chocorua, framing the backs of my dog and Caroline's, Clementine and Lucille, who are silhouetted in the window seat and looking outside. It is the classic dog photo, capturing vigilance and loyalty: two tails resting side by side, two animals glued to their post. What I didn't realize for years is that in the middle distance of the picture, you can make out the smallest of figures—an outline of Caroline and me walking down the hill. We must have been on our way to the lake, and the dogs, by now familiar with our routine, had assumed their positions.
I discovered this image the year after she died, and it has always seemed like a clue in a painting—a secret garden revealed only after it is gone. Chocorua itself has taken on an idyllic glow: I remember the night Caroline nearly beat Tom at arm wrestling; the mouse that sent me onto the dining room table while she howled with laughter; the Best Camper awards we instituted (and that she always won). I have glossed over the mosquitoes, the day Caroline got angry when I left her in a slower-moving kayak and rowed off into the fog alone. Like most memories tinged with finality, mine carry a physical weight of sadness. What they never tell you about grief is that missing someone is the simple part.
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.
From the beginning, there was something intangible and even spooky between us that could make strangers mistake us for sisters or lovers, and that sometimes had friends refer to us by each other's name: A year after Caroline's death, a mutual friend called out to me at Fresh Pond, the reservoir where we had walked, "Caroline!," then burst into tears at her mistake. The friendship must have announced its depth by its obvious affection, but also by our similarities. That our life stories had wound their way toward each other on corresponding paths was part of the early connection. The summer before we became friends, I had read Caroline's memoir about her struggle with alcoholism, Drinking: A Love Story, in a rain-soaked cabin on Cape Cod. I knew the book was wrenching; because I'd poured my last quart of Jack Daniel's down the sink 12 years earlier, I also knew it was true. Apart, we had each been frightened drunks and single women and dog lovers; together, we became a small corporation. 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 could have conceived.
We had a lot of dreams, some of them silly, all part of the private code shared by people who plan to be around for the luxuries of time. One was the tatting center we thought we'd open in Western Massachusetts, a notion that came about during one of our endless conversations about whether we were living our lives correctly—an ongoing dialogue on topics that ranged from the serious (writing, solitude, loneliness) to the mundane (wasted time, the idiocies of urban life, trash TV). "Oh, don't worry," I'd said to Caroline one day when she asked if I thought she spent too much time with Law & Order reruns. "Just think—if we were living 200 years ago, we'd be playing whist, or tatting, instead of watching television, and we'd be worrying about that." There was a long pause. "What is tatting?" she had asked hesitantly, as though the old lace-making craft were something of great importance, and so that too became part of the private lexicon—"tatting" was the code word for the time wasters we, and probably everyone else, engaged in. These were the sort of rag-and-bone markers that came flying back to me, in a high wind of anguish, when she was dying: I remember trying to explain the tatting center to someone who knew us, then realizing how absurd it sounded, and breaking down. Of course no one would understand the tatting center; like most codes of intimacy, it resisted translation. Part of what made it funny was that it was ours alone.
One of the things we loved about rowing was its near mystical beauty—the strokes cresting across the water, the shimmering quiet of the row itself. Days after her death, I dreamed that the two of us were standing together in a dark boathouse, its only light source a line of incandescent blue sculls that hung above us like a wash of constellations. In the dream I knew she was dead, and I reached out for her and said, "You're coming back, right?"
Her face was a well of sadness.
She smiled, but shook her head.
Keep ReadingAdapted from Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship (Random House), by Gail Caldwell, published August, 2010.
Printed from Oprah.com on Sunday, March 9, 2014
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