This has been a mixed week — attended a writers’ conference and hung out with other writers moaning together about publishers and draconian contracts and writers’ block, laughed a great deal and forgot about my ailing computer and stuck piece of writing. Then heard last night that a recovering alcoholic woman I have known on and off for two years died the other day. She had been drinking all alone, began vomiting blood and was found dead by her landlord. Another reminder that alcoholism is a killer.
On a lighter note, Gail Caldwell has written a memoir of her friendship with Caroline Knapp, a tribute to the strength of sober women friends. I owe more to my women friends in recovery that I can say — we share at depth about our struggles and successes in life, listen hard, play hard, dare to disagree and help one another to keep trudging one day at a time.
Although there was nothing sexual about their friendship, it was in many crucial ways a love affair. Here were all the markers of a lifelong passion: their initial wariness of each other (they’d met at a party a few years earlier but had hardly hit it off); their shy, outdoor courtship (“Let’s take the long way home,” Knapp would say after a walk, so they could chat some more in the car); and finally Caldwell’s touchingly naked declaration, not far into the friendship, of “Oh no — I need you.” When Caldwell eventually manages to buy a house, it’s both amusing and somehow inevitable that Knapp rushes up and hoists her “like a sack of grain” over the threshold.
All the best qualities of the happiest and most resilient marriages are here. The in-jokes that no one else will get. The women’s willingness to take each other’s fears and neuroses seriously while at the same time gently demolishing them. The constant, fervent competition (“We named the cruel inner taskmaster we each possessed the Inner Marine”) tempered with the kinder knowledge that “when it came to matters of the soul and the psyche, we each knew how to tend to the other.” And the fact that both women ultimately shared and feared the “empty room in the heart that is the essence of addiction.”
But this was to be a romance without a happy ending. We learn right from the start that Knapp fell gravely ill with Stage IV lung cancer at 42, and that she had a sickeningly swift death. Maybe more startling, her dying doesn’t even form the book’s real dramatic climax. We’re still well short of the end when Caldwell grapples with “the suck and force of death,” sitting in Knapp’s cold and empty living room: “Here, in all its subcomfort temperatures and museumlike stillness, was Caroline, gone.”