Beaufort, South Carolina - October 2015
Farewell to The Prince of Tides
It has been said that Pat Conroy put the low country of South Carolina on the map for most people. Indeed, his moss-draped language paints such luminous pictures of that part of the world one can almost see the changing colours of the marsh grasses as they follow the eye of a salty summer sun. It is a unique environment, rich with beauty, and in his books Mr. Conroy made it breathe, his pen full of memory and love. I came to the books of Pat Conroy in search of stories, and oh, he did not disappoint. He had that rare gift for language and, like most Southerners, he could spin words into tales that ensnared the imagination like a shrimp net.
The majority of Pat Conroy’s books were fiction, but thinly veiled. It was clear he was writing about his own life. The Water is Wide told the entertaining and compassionate story of his year teaching in a small island school. The Lords of Discipline - a coming of age story that grew from of his years at the Carolina Military Institute known as The Citadel. The Great Santini pulled the curtain back on a childhood endured beneath the tyrannical reign of an abusive, clueless father, and that same father would appear prominently in his glorious masterpiece, The Prince of Tides. Reading these books, I could not begin to imagine such a childhood; they made the quarrels and complaints against my own parents seem as trivial as dust. But as Mr. Conroy himself said, “One of the greatest gifts you can get as a writer is to be born into an unhappy family”, and he had no shortage of stories to tell. However, I found more than stories in Mr. Conroy’s books. I also found forgiveness, hard won and more valuable than gold.
This past October I attended a 70th birthday celebration for Pat Conroy in the low country hometown he so eloquently immortalized in his words. I listened as he and his brothers and sisters talked about the childhood so many of us were privy to through the pages of his books. There was laughter, lots of laughter, as they told stories that, frankly, made me shudder and I realized I was witnessing an extraordinary example of the bounty that springs from forgiveness. The publications of Pat Conroy’s books dislodged his siblings from their individual shelters of denial. His words laid their pasts bare to bake in the South Carolina sun and forced them to deal with painful personal issues whether they wished to or not. I can only guess how hard a process that was. But it was clear to me that each of them, in their own way, had risen up to face those issues and had wrestled them to the ground. It was a wonderful thing to witness and it so beautifully illustrated the astounding power words can have when they clasp hands with honesty, love and truth.
I was fortunate, so fortunate, to talk with Mr. Conroy that evening and to tell him how much grace he’d been given, and that from the forgiveness he’d managed to carve from the block of hurt he’d received, he had made a pathway for others in similar situations to find their way out of their own pasts, their own bitterness. He was a delightful, sweet man.
They buried Pat Conroy today, in the sandy soil of his beloved Beaufort. The flags there are flying at half-mast. I have thought a lot about legacy since I learned of his death. Pat earned his legacy through his remarkable books, it’s true. But perhaps even more importantly, his books were a way for him to do the inner work of his own soul, the work we all must do to ensure personal peace and unassailable joy. He did not give up in his quest for truth and understanding.
May that be said of us all on our last day.
“When the words pour out of you just right, you understand that these sentences are all part of a river flowing out of your own distant, hidden ranges, and all words become the dissolving snow that feeds your mountain streams forever. The language locks itself in the icy slopes of our own high passes, and it is up to us, the writers, to melt the glaciers within us. When these glaciers break off, we get to call them novels, the changelings of our burning spirits, our life’s work.”
Find all of Pat Conroy's marvelous books, HERE
And an amazing joint interview with the Pat and his siblings, HERE