On Friday, the world lost another great voice with the death of author Pat Conroy, who passed away of pancreatic cancer at age 70, just four weeks after his diagnosis.
When I read the news about the cancer, I knew he wouldn’t last long.
I wish I hadn’t been right.
I was introduced to his work my freshman year at college. I was “dating” (using the term incredibly loosely) a guy who gave me a copy of The Prince of Tides. I don’t remember exactly what he said when he gave it to me; just something about how I should read it.
You probably need to know several things about me before I tell you how the book impacted me, in order to understand the why. First, I moved around a lot as a kid, originally because my father was in the Army during the Vietnam War, and then because my parents were missionaries. (Conroy’s father was a Marine and they also moved around a lot.)
Second, my father suffered from bi-polar disease, only we didn’t know what it was called. This meant that he would often fly into rages and break things and beat us. (Conroy’s father also abused his family.)
Third, and most importantly: we didn’t talk about it. The abuse we suffered was private, family information. Even family outside our immediate group had no idea what was going on. We suffered in silence. We got no help. “You don’t talk about this” was a constant refrain. (Conroy’s mother told Pat and his siblings not to talk about their experiences either.)
Fourth, just as Mr. Conroy escaped his abusive father, I escaped mine. The means of my liberation was going to college 700 miles away from home. I didn’t know a soul when I got there, tho I met people, many of whom are still in my life (including my husband), but not the boy who gave me a copy of Pat Conroy’s book.
Reading The Prince of Tides at 18 years of age was a revelation for me. Conroy was the first author I’d read who actually wrote about all of this very difficult stuff I’d experienced in my short life. And he wrote beautifully about it. And he perfectly captured who I was: a combination of his characters Savannah and Tom.
He taught me you can create beauty out of pain, a sentiment I expressed in a poem written on Nov 5, 1989 called “Threads of Life”*.
Reading all the articles about Pat Conroy and his life and death are making me sad, both for the loss of him and because our stories are so similar. (This one in The Island Packet is especially detailed and informative, if you aren’t familiar with Conroy or his work. The New York Times obit is good as well.)
But, of course, there’s joy for me as well. Last September, he was a guest at the Decatur Book Festival. My husband and I, along with two friends from college, went to hear him speak, and after, I stood in line to get my copy of The Prince of Tides signed.
#GNUPatConroy**. You’ll never be forgotten.
*Unfortunately, the poem is in an AppleWorks document, and I never converted it to Word. I’ll have to dig out an old computer and copy it and all my other poems and stories over. The poem was published in Ramifications, Berry College’s literary magazine, Spring 1992. (I can’t seem to put my hands on my copy at the moment.)
** You probably don’t remember what GNU means. It’s from Terry Pratchett, another of my favorite authors, who also left us too early. For details, read the info on this site. “A man is not dead while his name is still spoken.” – Going Postal, Chapter 4 prologue, by Terry Pratchett, 2004