You have heard that he has died. He had been, in the last years, doing so well fighting his personal devils. He had lost weight, stopped drinking I think, toned up. They were blindsided by this cancer as everyone who experiences it is, and poof. The truest lover and best promoter of our eccentric little state is no more.
I always say this. South Carolina is so small that you can know everyone you need to. We have all had experiences with Pat Conroy. Many people I know went to school with him at the Citadel. His descriptions of Columbia in the sixties were my people’s lives. My ex-husband knew that tiger in the cage on Gervais Street and fed him chicken bones.
Glenn and I last saw him when he was awarded a life achievement award at our annual O’Neil Verner Award ceremony several years ago. He was looking frail indeed. This may have been just before his late resurgence to a kind of health. His wife, Cassandra King, was very protective over him (I heard her once on a local NPR show. Herself a writer of southern stories, she spoke at book shops and libraries. She said that one woman in attendance heard that she was married to a writer and commented to her that she loved her husband’s stories of contemporary horror and fantasy!).
When my kids were young, there was always a tug of war over what they wanted to do and what it might be good if they DID do. I was always alone on my side. But Pat Conroy was on my side, twice, and I think now my family might admit that my ideas were worth doing. Not sure about that however.
We were meeting my mother and stepfather in DC for a long weekend. We drove. It was the early nineties, so the kids were about 10 and 8. I got the hairbrained idea that we would listen to one of Pat Conroy’s books on our nine hour drive because it involved places that the kids knew, Bob knew, and had compelling family stories (to say the least). I presented the idea. Everyone was aghast. Below, we enter DC in our Ford Aerostar.
But we listened to the book, and it became a part of family lore. The best book Braxton had ever read (the only book Braxton had ever read and he listened to it)! It is difficult to remember details now, but it seems it was a good experience.
I got more demanding. The University of South Carolina used to have a fine book festival every spring for a week. Now it is only a shadow of its former self. One year, Kurt Vonnegut was to be the keynote speaker. It was the year his home in Manhattan burned down, he was indisposed, Pat Conroy stepped in. I wanted the four of us to go for my birthday. A LECTURE, WHAT? But it was my birthday. They wanted to refuse, but did not, so we went.
Always wanting to teach the kids that the world is indeed small and you can see things and know people by simply participating in it, I wanted them to have read a book and then hear the author talk about it. It demystifies books. And writers. Makes them more real. This parallel is especially poignant with Pat Conroy. He was a totally honest speaker about his life in these books.
And really not a very good one. His spoken sentences were kind of like dry bullets. Maybe he was an average speaker, dunno. But compared to the lyrical love story to South Carolina that blazes from every page of his books, his speech simply could not compare to his calculated art. But I remember this also as being a positive experience for the family, perhaps there was an admission that participating in this kind of thing was not as bad as they had imagined.
Pat Conroy looked at the eccentricities and strangeness of our state, which abound (Strom Thurmond had a black child?), and smooths its landscape with a kind of understanding love. Knowing what we know about his life, his writing was an attempt to save his. And it was a generous everlasting gift to the rest of us.