Pat Conroy and I met in 1995, several months before his fiftieth birthday. Being a year older than he was, I had already passed that milestone. Pat would later write that he never imagined a man and woman in their fifties could fall in love and build a happy, prolific life together. In our youthobsessed society, we are conditioned to believe that our best years are behind us. Instead, Pat and I found that our fifties and sixties were a time of great joy, productivity, and contentment. We were looking forward to sharing our seventies together, with new books under way and at least a couple more waiting in the wings. After an exhausting but exhilarating weekendlong festival celebrating Pat’s seventieth birthday in October of 2015, he settled down to finish the new novel he had started. Life was good.
Pat was always happiest when he was writing, when he lost himself in the narrative that overtook him and flowed from his pen onto the pages of the yellow legal pads he used for his books. His musings, critiques, observations, and meditations he was more likely to write in his journals, which are also full of bits and pieces of stories he hoped to use one day. Pat collected stories like others might collect rare stamps, or a library of illustrious music. Hearing a good story filled him with great excitement. Afterward, he was apt to grab a pen and say to the teller, “Consider that story stolen. If you plan to write it one day, you’d better do it first.”
Story was the way Pat connected with his readers. They couldn’t seem to get enough of his stories, nor could he get enough of theirs. His readers wrote him long, heartrending letters about how they related to his writings, and the various ways his life story paralleled and validated theirs. He read them all, and would have answered each letter had he been able to do so. For a long time, Pat resisted and scorned modern technology, with its e-mails and blogs and tweets and twitters. Only when he realized that he could connect with more of his readers through the marvel of technology did he give in. Most of the works in this collection come from the blog he began to write when he was between books, when his health began to fail and he couldn’t travel as much. He called his blog posts “letters,” and came to embrace them as what he called “a nightmare for someone who never learned to type, and in other ways an opening to the light.”
The “light” Pat was referring to was his bread and butter, the connection he made with others that brought him not only such great joy, but also such great material. It was the way he collected the stories he would turn into the books that his readers clamored for, the ones that mirrored their own experiences and gave them a voice for the first time in their lives. It was Pat’s winning ways that made the connection happen. His interest in everyone he met was palpable, so intense that it was impossible to resist. I should know; I experienced it the first time I met him, at a writers’ conference in Birmingham, Alabama. Before I knew what was happening, I had fallen under his spell, as I was to witness so many others do in the years to come.
When our first meeting was over, Pat Conroy knew a lot more about me than I ever intended to tell him. I’m notoriously closemouthed and private; so much so that he would later nickname me Helen Keller. Not only were Helen Keller and I both native Alabamians, he said, but like my namesake, I saw nothing, heard nothing, said nothing. I would also learn that this was typical Conroy humor, though I didn’t think it funny at the time. Pat could make the deaf hear and the mute speak. Sweeping you up in a conversation, with those intense blue eyes focused like lasers on you and you alone, he had the ability to ferret out your secret self that had been undercover for a lifetime. Before you realized what had happened, you had confided in him, told him about the past no one else knew about, the stories no one had heard before, the skeletons locked away in the family closet.
In my and Pat’s almost twenty years together, I saw the same thing happen a million times. Starstruck, people approached their favorite writer in awe, rendered speechless by his presence. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen someone burst into tears on meeting him. The comment I’ve heard most frequently since Pat’s been gone is “How could this be? He was larger than life.” I’ve said it myself, a dozen times. Someone wrote that Pat didn’t fill up a room when he entered it, he was the room. Yes! That was Pat, the night we met. A previous commitment had made me run late and almost miss meeting him, then I’d made a fool of myself by blurting out something stupid when we were introduced. Before long, he’d forced me to confess that yes, I had a book coming out soon. I also confessed that I lacked the confidence to call myself a writer. Pat was the one who did that. “What do you mean, you’re not really a writer?” he said in exasperation. “You have a book coming out. You wrote it. You’re a writer. Got it?” When I muttered that it was just a little book, or something equally inane, he brushed me off. “Have your publisher send it to me, and if I like it, I’ll give you a blurb. If not, I’ll pretend it got lost in the mail.”
Over the years, I would think about our first meeting as I watched Pat at signings for the five books he wrote in our time together. It was a sight to behold. Once, during an interview with the two of us, I said that Pat was extremely outgoing. Pat was quick to correct me. “I’m obnoxiously friendly,” he told the reporter. “It’s pathetic, actually.” He went on to illustrate in more detail. “I was showing my former fatherin-law around Fripp Island several years ago, and I waved and spoke to everyone we saw. Finally my father-in-law, who was a New Yorker, said, ‘What’s going on? You running for mayor or something?’” It became a buzzword with us. After one of Pat’s endless conversations with a waiter, taxi driver, flight attendant, hotel maid, or bellhop, I’d lean over and whisper, “Hey, you running for mayor or something?”
But book signings were something else altogether. After attending a couple of them when we were newly married and I didn’t know any better, I learned not to tag along unless I was prepared for anywhere from five to eight hours’ wait. Foolishly, I’d thought if I were there, I could make Pat—who was diabetic, prone to crippling hand cramps and severe back pain—take a break. No one could sit for that many hours without a bathroom break, could they? The only time I ever signed for eight hours, my hands were shaking so badly before it was over that I couldn’t hold a pen, and I’d not only taken several trips to the bathroom but also downed endless glasses of sweet tea for low blood sugar. How on earth did Pat do it?
Pat’s book signings told me everything I ever needed to know about him. He refused to take even the quickest of breaks. The staff and I would plead with him, but to no avail. I’d insist the staff have food for him, which they probably loved me for, since they’d end up eating it. He certainly didn’t. He would sign until the last person left, even if it was well after midnight. He greeted everyone as though he were running for mayor. He was known for shaking off the efforts of his publicist to hurry the line along, or to stop anyone from bringing more than one book to be signed. “Bring all you have!” Pat would tell his readers jovially, much to the chagrin of the poor publisher’s representatives who had been sent to make sure everything went smoothly. I’d see them glare daggers at him at first, but learned quickly to quell my alarm. In no time, I knew, the silver-tongued devil would have them eating out of his hand. And without fail, he always did. Despite the long, exhausting hours and doubtless unpaid overtime Pat’s signings cost the staff, it was a sheer pleasure to be with him when he arrived at a bookstore. He was always greeted like visiting royalty, and knew each of the staff by name. He asked after their families, and if they’d ever gotten around to writing the book they had told him about, the last time he was in. Never mind that it had been many years since his last signing there. He remembered everyone.
But more than anything else, Pat’s signings were lovefests between him and his readers, and they flocked to him. He made sure their long wait was worth it. Once they got to his table, he’d hold out his hand and say, “Hi, I’m Pat Conroy. Tell me who you are.” In no time, he had pried their stories from them, just as he’d done with me the night we met. Devoted readers would burst into tears upon meeting him, then end up blurting out their innermost secrets, not caring how long they held up the line. It was another thing I observed with amusement, the disgruntled moans and groans of those in line when someone was taking up what appeared to be way too much of Mr. Conroy’s time. What was wrong with the staff, that they allowed such a thing to happen? Didn’t that fancy New York publicist know he/she was supposed to be herding the crowd along and not just standing there mesmerized? Couldn’t someone do something? They would fume and pout until their time came, and then—like magic—it would all disappear. I would watch them melt under Pat’s twinklyeyed gaze, his disarming smile and outstretched hand. Next thing you knew, they too would be leaning over the table, telling him in a low breathless voice a story they’d never, ever told anyone before. No wonder he never ran out of material.
Tragically, Pat Conroy ran out of time before he ran out of material, and it breaks my heart to think of the stories he did not live to tell. He and I talked often of Time’s winged chariot drawing near, and how swiftly it all goes by. Although Pat feared little, one fear haunted him: that he’d run out of time before he could finish the books he still had in him. It was almost a premonition. He was a man who loved the written word beyond all measure, and who believed that each of us has at least one great story to tell. He would grab hold of someone—stranger or friend, it didn’t matter—and he wouldn’t let go until he pried that story out. Then his eyes would blaze that dazzling Irish blue and a smile would transform him. If the story was good enough to capture his imagination, he couldn’t wait to write it down. Whether it was about a white porpoise or a caged tiger or a lost ancestor who sewed coins into the hem of a skirt to buy her freedom, his pen would bring it to life, make it as real to the rest of us as it was to him on hearing it. He would take your story and make it large and glorious and unforgettable. He would make it immortal.
Pat is buried in the midst of a Gullah community on Saint Helena Island, near his beloved town of Beaufort. The cemetery, Saint Helena Memorial Garden, is owned by Brick Baptist Church, which graciously allowed a non-Baptist, non–African American writer to rest among them. Pat chose that site because he was intrigued by the rich history of Brick Baptist Church, which was built by slaves in 1855, then turned over to them during Reconstruction; and by the church’s connection to the nearby Penn Center, one of the first schools for freed slaves. Because Pat has written about his interest in Penn Center, the Memorial Garden is a fitting final resting place for him.
The graveyard is isolated, lovely and unpretentious, set amid a few lonesome pines and small live oaks. There are no grandiose tombstones nor lushly landscaped gardens, just proud, well-tended plots and loving mementos occasionally left among them: birthday cards, faded silk roses, deflated balloons, even a couple of fishing poles. The first time I visited Pat there, I wandered around rather aimlessly afterward, fighting off the overwhelming grief that threatened to do me in. I examined the nearby headstones halfheartedly, because my mind kept going back to a fresh mound of dirt surrounded by dying funeral wreaths. Soon, however, I got caught up in the very real human stories revealed on the stones: Oh, look— some of them have photos by their names . . . What a great hat! . . . The lady over there was called Sweetie, and the one next to Pat was a seamstress. When I saw that Arabelle Watson was buried there, on whom Pat based a character in The Great Santini, I hurried back over to Pat’s lonely mound of dirt to tell him.
There was no need, of course. What was I thinking? Hadn’t I seen the man at book signings enough to know what I had known from the moment I got to the graveyard, so devastated I barely knew where I was? A few days earlier, Pat had arrived here in a big fancy vehicle and was ushered to a place surrounded by expensive wreaths, some bearing cards with famous names on them. A kilted bagpiper played as a crowd of mostly white folks gathered. The ceremony was different, short and sweet, and many in the crowd crossed themselves after the prayers by the elegantly robed priests. Some of Pat’s new neighbors must have watched the whole thing curiously and maybe even a bit suspiciously, wondering who on earth had landed among them.
The mourners didn’t linger, and soon it was quiet again. But not for long. Before any of the occupants of the Memorial Garden knew what was happening, here comes this big beaming Irishman, with a mess of white hair, twinkling eyes, and an impish smile on his face. He strides among them, larger than life, and calls out, “Hey, folks, I’m Pat Conroy. Now tell me who you are. Isn’t that Mr. Bradley? How many fish you caught today, sir? I promise not to put it in a book. Or if I do, I’ll change your name, and double the number of fish. Arabelle, get yourself over here and give me a big hug! And tell me where Miss Smalls got that great hat. Bet it’s got a story behind it. You know what? I’ll bet that every single one of you has a story to tell me. C’mon now, don’t be shy. No, wait—let me get a pen. I want to hear them all.”
They look at each other, rolling their eyes, and some of them cover their mouths and laugh behind his back. But when he comes back with pen and paper, dusting the dirt off his navy blue jacket, they can’t seem to help themselves. One by one, they begin to tell their stories, encouraged to go on by the gleam of excitement in his bright eyes. They talk and he writes down what they tell him, because they cannot stop themselves from doing so. Embellishing and expanding their words—their beautiful words!—he makes them come to life again, and through their stories, they live on. And as long as there are people like him to “open the light,” to share the stories with the rest of us, they always will.
The First Letter
An Opening to the Light
August 3, 2009
Hello, out there,
This is the first letter I’ve ever written for a website, modern times seem to require it of all human beings. This website was produced by Mihai (Michael) Radulescu, my agent Marly Rusoff’s partner, who spent a couple of hours explaining its intricacies and its cunning store of useless data concerning my own squirrelly life. I’m the only writer I know whose website bears the artistic mark of a native-born Romanian. The Internet remains a mystery to me as vast and untouchable as any ocean. I don’t understand it but the wizards and snake handlers who control me tell me that all this is part of the inexplicable strangeness of the world we now inhabit.
My health went south on me this spring. In the middle of May, I began internally bleeding. I took this as a very bad sign that did not bode well for a frisky old age. My wife, Cassandra, drove me to the emergency room in Beaufort where my doctor, Lucius Laffitte, met me and got me to the Medical University of South Carolina. All the nurses and doctors there were spectacular. They saved my life.
Everything that was wrong with me that night was my fault. I had tantalized the Fates by embracing that life-defying trifecta: overeating, overdrinking, and lack of exercise. I’m trying to develop the appetite of a parakeet, drink nothing stronger than Clamato juice, and try to do aerobics in a Fripp Island pool as often as I can. When I enter the pool I look as though I’m trying out for a part as Moby-Dick. It’s not a pretty sight.
The tour for South of Broad began at my house at Fripp this past week. The tour is abbreviated because of my health, which I regret. I always liked meeting and talking to you guys on the road, but that was at a time before airline travel became an American nightmare. I’ll go by car on most of the signings, and we’ll see how it goes. I’m alone in a room for most of my life, writing, and I love it when readers bring me news of the outside world. That part of my life might be coming to an end, and nothing fills me with more regret. To have attracted readers is the most magical part of my writing life. I was not expecting you to show up when I wrote my first books. It took me by surprise. It filled me with gratitude. It still does.
Yesterday, August 2, I took my agents to Charleston for a tour of the city. A young publicist from Random House, Elizabeth Johnson, went with us. She married a Marine Corps fighter pilot and they are stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station, where he is in training before shipping out to one of the war zones. I’ve always taken a childish joy in showing off Charleston to strangers in the city. Charleston never lets me down, but this time my tour of the city had an unusual twist. I showed them Charleston through the eyes of the narrator of South of Broad, Leo King. I followed Leo’s paper route through the old part of the city, showed them the high points and low points of Leo’s career as a child. I showed them the distinguished line of mansions that grace the jacket of the book. To me it composes the prettiest formation of houses in the book. We toured The Citadel and I pointed out the places I had lived when I was pretending to be a cadet. I owe The Citadel more than I can express in words. That day, The Citadel was beautiful in sunlight, and Charleston strutted in the beauty of all its strange elixirs. For lunch we ate at Magnolias; all four of us ordered seafood over grits: lobster, shrimp, and scallops with a lobster sauce. It was as good as food can get. Later I returned home. I remembered dozens of things I forgot to tell them. My new book has changed the way I see and present Charleston, and nothing makes me happier.
There are at least three books I want to write before I buy the farm, and I’ve already begun the first of those. In it, I’m visiting my real family for one final look, one last summation of all I learned from being part of that hurt and glorious tribe. I’ve written the first three chapters, and I’ll try to finish it next year.
For the second book, Nan Talese wants me to write an Atlanta novel and I told her I would do it. Because of my illness I feel a great imperative to write faster and become more prolific as I limp toward my final chapter. And the third book is a novel about the first two years of teaching at Beaufort High School, when I fell in love with all the kids I taught. My friend Bernie Schein calls them “the best years” and I look back on them as the happiest of my life. I adored those students and they seemed to like me right back.
I close the first letter with relief and some anxiety. They tell me I should do this every now and then. In some ways it seems like a nightmare for someone who never learned to type, in other ways an opening to the light.
Great love out there . . .