It is a question booksellers and book lovers ask each other often, “What book has changed your life?” The answer, of course, changes with age, with what we’ve read, and with life experience. Occasionally, or maybe not even that often, there is a book that you want to push from your mind and can’t seem to move from your nightstand at the same time. For me that book has been Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home. It is subtitled “A Memoir of Friendship” which is pretty innocuous at first glance. A memoir of friendship to be sure, but the level of this friendship is spiritual and as committed as the best of marriages. It is the gorgeous story of Gail’s friendship with fellow writer Caroline Knapp (author of the two classics: Drinking A Love Story and Pack of Two ). The book begins with these lines: “It’s an old , old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that , too.” As women we are bombarded with false reports and bullshit polls that women don’t get along, and of course the media loves to portray us with our “claws” out – after each others' men or jobs...or are we simply jealous of each others' boobs? It is such a lie, such a crappy lie, but worrisome that some of us are buying into it. Women do have lifelong, meaningful, important friendships; we always have. Gail and Carol’s story is just one of many, as is mine.
I’ve lived with this book for the better part of two years now; I can not shake it, but it has weighed most heavily on my mind this past month.
I have a very close friend; she in fact was my first girlfriend. I was 18 years old when I met her; she told me I wasn’t funny and of course…I was smitten. About four years ago she was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer. And as that diagnosis does – it takes your breath away – but we live in a time where this is often called a manageable disease. And it is. It’s not fun, but it is a constant battle. And then like metastasized breast cancer does…that little fucker spreads. Sometimes to the liver, lungs, bones, or the brain among a zillion other nooks and crannies, and for us we got bones. My friend took it in stride, fought on, chemo and radiation ,and just carried on. Recently tumors were found in her brain. So then came radiation on her entire brain, and more chemo of course. Things looked good, the doctors were still talking managed care, so we started planning a road trip from her home in Florida to Las Vegas, stopping here in Austin for a few days to rest. My friend has a small gambling issue – she won’t admit it – but, you know, it’s all she loves to do anymore. She’s no good at it and I’ve never actually known her to win…but that’s another story. Anyway, we began planning. Then, just a few weeks ago, her Johnny-on-the-spot doctor didn’t like the way she was walking, ordered a CAT scan, and there you have it …more tumors.
I flew out again as soon as I could – our mutual best friend had to leave for a work trip so I would be in charge of caring for her. My friend is a lot to be in charge of without cancer by the way – she is a bit of trouble; add cancer to the mix and I had my hands full. We had scheduled an MRI and I have never been as nervous sitting in that doctor's office with her and our mutual friend (who had come back from her business trip) waiting for the results. We were positive, however; we thought from the CAT scan that we were dealing with one very treatable tumor. Turns out, CAT scans are so inferior to MRI’s that it shocked us when the sheer number of actual brain tumors was revealed. Numerous very small tumors all over her brain, and a few larger (but still small) tumors were also in the mix and these would be our focus. So we march on.
Today my friend is headed in for her fourth day in a row of Gamma Knife radiation – it's what it sounds like, extremely precise – you have a mask made of your face and are pinned down while you get zapped. I was with her when her mask was made and I at that moment thought How does she doe this – day in – day out? How? Anyway, so day four is today and she is in Florida and I am back in Texas and all I can think about every moment is how to get back to Florida – to get back to being useful. I miss making her meals (I am a terrible cook but she’s kind about it), bitching at her to drink more water, reminding her to take her pills (okay so once I forgot to remind her and claimed I did tell her but her chemo brain made her forget – not proud but it’s the truth), and it turns out….she thinks I am pretty funny. So I miss not only making her laugh, because I can do that on the phone, but making her laugh in person because sometimes she comes really close to peeing her pants and that stuff is best in person.
So this is friendship, the entire thing. It’s about how we spend our time, and I am sorry for being corny but it is about taking the long way home.