In honor of his birthday today…
Hearing that legendary Author Pat Conroy had phoned my house was akin to Jesus calling, minus all that pesky dogma and thou shalt nots.
Several years before his first call, my agent asked who I would most like to blurb my book. (A blurb is a few words of praise slapped on a book cover.) That was easy: Pat Conroy, the iconic bestselling author of “The Prince of Tides,” “Beach Music,” “The Great Santini,” “The Lords of Discipline,” and more — a.k.a. The God of Storytelling Gods.
My agent contacted “his people” and was told that “Mr. Conroy has instituted a moratorium on blurbs.” No surprise. I was a first-time nobody straight outta Podunkville. I probably couldn’t secure a blurb from the garbage man’s helper if I’d paid him and covered his route for a week. Oh well.
Fast forward to a literary event in Texas called Girlfriend Weekend. This stellar gathering of authors and readers is presented annually, and I said yes to the invitation to be one of the featured writers. Then I learned that Conroy would be there. In that instant I made a vow: I would not be fawning over him like everyone else. Yes, I worshiped him, but I’d keep my distance and leave him completely alone, not utter one word. I simply didn’t want to bother him.
Girlfriend Weekend kicked off a few months later with a supper in which the authors sat in a special dining room. I arrived late to find only one seat available: on the right side of Conroy.
Forced to chat with my table mates, I still held back and said little. Despite this, Conroy and I made a connection that he pursued throughout the weekend. He continued to seek me out and gave me his phone number. We hung out a good bit, but I remained leery, not wanting to appear as someone who desired anything from him. I never gave him my number.
A few days after the Texas shindig, I walked in the house to hear my husband announce, “Conroy called.”
“Huh? WHO called?”
“Conroy. You know, Pat Conroy.”
I didn’t know who he meant at first. He said it in the same way he’d report that the termite guy had phoned. Bless his heart, he thought a common mortal had rung us up.
Of course, he was grievously mistaken: the illustrious demigod Himself had been on the line. In my pantheon of writing, Conroy is the CEO (Chief Executive & Oracle on High). He must have worked some sort of miracle to obtain my phone number.
When I got up the courage to return the call, I was sweating worse than my Me-Maw when she got busted stealing socks at the Kmart in Sandersville. But Conroy put me right at ease.
In fact, he spoke as if we’d been friends for years. He delighted in gossiping about other famous writers, describing one as “a total turd.” The repartee was unmatched. A series of rip-roaring conversations was born. The only hard part was being at home when the call came. You could never get Conroy when you called him back, just a message that his box was full.
During the second conversation, he praised my book and offered to give a blurb. His exact words were, “I’ll give you whatever you want. I’m a blurb whore.”
My pride was so great that I kept every hilarious, sarcastic voicemail he left on my phone. I mean that I kept them for years. I made family listen to them at Christmas. When a relative asked “who in the hell is Pat Conroy,” I had a swift answer.
“He’s the gentleman who has more talent in the pimple on his right testicle than you’ll ever have in your entire life. That’s who.”
When I heard he was battling cancer, I organized an effort at the Marietta Museum of History to write him notes of support. Even as I was putting the plans together, I sensed he would not live to see the fruit of our work. Nonetheless, friends and strangers came to document their love for the man and his books.
I bundled up all the notes and cards and raced to the store to ship the package overnight. Again, there was an urgency about this mission. I knew it in my bones although no one had told me he was gravely ill. I kept asking myself if the package would make it in time.
As I got close to the store, blue lights appeared, and the intersection was blocked. A massive funeral procession halted traffic and kept us idling for 15 minutes. In 16 years of traveling this road almost daily, I’ve never encountered a funeral procession. I smiled, shook my head, and got the message: Conroy was dying.
In retrospect, my experience with him was not unique. His generosity of spirit extended to many writers. He called a lot of us. He encouraged us, taught us, and raised us with his touch. We connected in Texas because we recognized the deep imprint of pain in each other — along with the striving to do something good with that pain. We bore the same mark and knew it.
As I got settled in my writing shed this morning, I heard him in my head. “Write something beautiful.”
I doubt I’ve fulfilled his directive, but at least I have written about a most beautiful man. A man whose legacy burns beyond the pages of his stories. A divine man full of shortcomings and contradictions and humor and darkness and love. And that’s how I like my saints: fleshy and flawed.
Conroy, you are eternal. Death has no dominion. As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end.
Can I get an amen?