Today I pay tribute to Pat Conroy, who died last week at age 70. He had announced via Facebook that he had pancreatic cancer only last month, and I was shocked and sad. Pat Conroy, though he didn’t know it, was my muse. Every time I read his works, I feel compelled to write something. My work could never approach his as far as excellence and eloquence, but he inspired me to try to do better.
Conroy wrote “The Great Santini” and “Lords of Discipline,” both of which translated to the movie screen well. I, however, didn’t read either of those books, which were very much autobiographical. They seemed too full of conflict and pain. “The Great Santini” told about Conroy’s tumultuous relationship with his father, who, as a younger man, was abusive to his wife and all his children and otherwise as mean as a snake. “The Lords of Discipline” explored that relationship further, when Conroy attended The Citadel in South Carolina, partly because of his father, who was Marine to the core.
It wasn’t until I found “The Prince of Tides” that I became a Pat Conroy devotee. I can’t remember why I bought the book, but as soon as I read the first page, I was hooked. I remember beginning the book on a Friday afternoon before Max got home from work. He cooked dinner because I was still in the book. I gave up about 1 a.m., went to bed, and was back in the chair by 8. I didn’t get up again until I closed the book for the last time – the first time. This book, like “Santini” and “Lords,” was also full of conflict and pain, but somehow, it spoke to me, telling a riveting story that I knew had to be about his family. After that, I bought and read every book he wrote.
Conroy was an English major, and he was born with the ability to manipulate the language so that it is perfect on the page. Lyrical and poetic, his generally long sentences are like music and rivers, flowing melodically with a strong current. In fact, he attributed his ability to write about the pain in his life to the rivers in Charleston, South Carolina, close to Beaufort, where he lived for years. He somehow found peace in those rivers that helped him find peace within himself and translate that to the written word.
Ultimately, Conroy’s life story, though rife with pain, is about love and redemption. His father, Don Conroy, who treated his son so poorly, reluctantly saw himself in the books, not believing that his behavior was so reprehensible. Don eventually made an effort to change his ways, so that by the time he died in 1998, he and Pat had made peace with each other, developing such a close relationship that he often showed up at Pat’s book signings to autograph the books himself. “The Death of Santini,” which Pat Conroy wrote in 2013, is fittingly his last, bringing his life full circle – from the abusive childhood his father inflicted upon him, to forgiveness and a final loving relationship with the man who caused most of his pain.
Perhaps that is Pat Conroy’s gift to us all.
But for now, I will go get another of his gifts from my bookshelf and re-read “Beach Music,” or “My Losing Season,” or “My Reading Life,” or maybe the one that started it all, “The Prince of Tides.” I hope Max is up for making dinner.
Deborah Mitchell is a a local attorney and a Municipal Court Judge.