One Final Flowery Paper For Pat Conroy
by Dawn McCoy
It’s raining tonight in Los Angeles, and I can’t help but be reminded of my belief as a child that anytime it rained, God must be crying.
It seemed like it rained for every funeral I ever attended until I was in high school.
I read my first Pat Conroy book in 8th grade.
My big brother loved Pat Conroy, and had referenced a pivotal line from The Lords of Discipline in his high school commencement address:
“I WEAR THE RING.”
7 years later, I would base my own commencement address around the same quote, dutifully paying homage to both my beloved big brother whom I had failed at trying to be, and to the author who inspired me all along the way in that failed process.
Pat Conroy so permeated my literary, intellectual and emotional growth and experience as a teenager that in 9th grade, Mrs. Mrozek suggested that I read other authors because my writing tended to follow suit in Conroy’s voice in that it was utterly, deliciously – and sometimes, terribly – flowery.
Her note on many of my papers was simply: “Avoid corn.”
I did not.
Flowery writing would be my saving grace in graduating high school, getting into college, and graduating college in 3.5 years.
It would also be the basis of my career in Los Angeles: understanding the power of words and the emotions they can invoke, when delivered honestly and beautifully, with a little nod to prose, poetry and alliteration.
I thank Pat Conroy for that.
I also thank Pat Conroy for writing about his fractured family, suffering from mental illness, abuse, addiction…and southern heritage.
He dutifully detailed all of the beautiful ups and downs, and dramas and traumas, with little judgment or hindsight…but with plenty of honesty and heart.
He made me feel less alone by communicating that even in the craziest of families, the underlying current that keeps everyone together truly is love.
I have often compared my own father to the father character in Conroy’s “The Great Santini,” and I suppose I always will. The patriarch in that book resonated with me in ways few other characters in fiction have managed to do, probably because he was a fictional character based on a nonfictional man. In fact, he was based on Pat’s father – so specifically so – that his mother famously took the book as evidence to the judge in her divorce case against Pat’s father, years later.
As I sit here tonight, heartbroken, I ask myself why I mourn so deeply for this man.
After all, I didn’t know him apart from the home he maintained on my bookcase.
Well, part of me mourns because when we’re given that frequently asked parlor question, “Who would you invite – living or dead – to your dream dinner party?” Pat was always my first answer. I honestly thought that one day I would make it happen, and we would sit there swapping southern tragic tales of foiled families over our recipes for shrimp’n’grits, peach cobbler and sweet tea.
I also mourn because he has been such a constant in my life.
Years after reading all of his books, some twice, I would find myself working for Barbra Streisand, who directed and starred in the adaptation of Pat’s “The Prince Of Tides.” I remember standing in her laundry room, looking up a phone number in her address book, when I spotted Pat’s phone number.
I can finally admit that I called the number, heard his voice, and then hung up like a giddy schoolgirl.
Much like family, he has just always been a part of my story.
And, now his story has come to an end.
Here’s what I learn from this…as I’ve learned before, and I pray I won’t learn again.
Reach out to people.
Tell them why you appreciate them. What their work has meant to you. What they mean to you.
Let them know their value to you and your world.
And do it all, without expecting nothing in return.
I will never forgive myself for not sending a single letter to my favorite author to thank him for what he has given me.
So, please don’t make that mistake.
Thank you, Pat, for showing me that while we are the product of our parents, it doesn’t mean that we have to walk the same paths as our parents.
Their stories are not our stories.
And our futures have little to do with the past, unless we give the past that kind of control.
You are the best teacher I ever had.
“I find happy an elusive word, but I do feel something good going on.” (Pat Conroy)