Conroy and Me

Author Pat Conroy, one of the greats, has passed.

His books were like dynamite: they had the effect of blasting wide-open huge tunnels in my mind.

The first of his novels that I read was The Prince of Tides. Sensing a backstory, I subsequently threw myself into Conroy's masochistic universe and read everything else he had published. The Lords of Discipline changed me in a fundamental way. It stripped some of the willful innocence in which I had wrapped myself and compelled me to see for myself some of what Conroy had written about in this novel. And so, on spring break 1991, pregnant but fearless, I loaded my four other children, ranging from 11 to 4 years, into the family minivan and started out from Avon Lake, Ohio. Destination: Palm Springs, where my mother and father lived. The goal was to reach Florida by March 20, my father's 70th birthday.

I divided the trip as if I were doing a state-by-state dot-to-dot, with colleges and universities the dots. I wanted my children to see that each campus has its own distinct character. I hoped our trip would spark personal visions that would fuel them in the years to come, when homework would seem overwhelming, unimportant, or irrelevant.

Our first destination was Marietta College. Two of my five brothers had been Marietta students. Paul had done very well there. In fact, he met the love of his life, Cheri, at Marietta. They were married two weeks before Paul's senior year. As a first-time bridesmaid, I felt as if my teen-aged eyes were watching their beautiful relationship through a keyhole. The miracle was that in all the years to come they never lost that breathless, first-love infatuation with one another.

Rob was a different story. He spent a couple of years at Marietta before transferring to Cleveland Chiropractic College in Kansas City. At twenty-two, Rob was just a few months shy of completing his studies when Steven, then 19, drove to Kansas City to visit his homesick brother before starting sophomore year studies at Steubenville College. Hours later, Rob and Steve died together in a head-on car collision. I was 21 when this happened and, of course, it was a definitive event in my life. Since my children knew about the uncles they had never met, and since I was forever conducting quests to connect with the molecules of my brothers' earthly lives, stopping at Marietta seemed the right way to begin our journey.

We toured perhaps seven other campuses on our trip, but I have vivid recollections only of Marietta and of The Citadel.

Reading The Lords of Discipline made The Citadel come alive to me in ways that made no sense. All I knew was that I just had to walk through the parking lot that figured so prominently in Conroy's story. It was essential that I saw the sun as it was setting from the same place on the planet where Dante Pignetti made his fatal mistake.

Once on campus, I felt as if I were entering another dimension. My brain was more occupied with Conroy's world than it was with reality. For me, the tour felt otherworldly, as if I were having an out-of-body experience. But as we walked through the campus, a voice from the shadows broke the spell. A cadet who was standing guard at the entrance of a building on our right called out.

"Excuse me, M'am," he said loudly, his voice stern, clipped. "Is that your son?"

I was so startled I can recall even now how my heart started pounding.

"Yes, sir," I answered. "This is my son."

I remember placing my hand on eight-year-old Robby's thin little shoulder and drawing him nearer.

"Do you love him?"

"Yes, I do."

"If you love him, M'am, do not let him come here."

I remember a whirring sound in my ears, and then, silence. I wondered whether it was possible that the cadet could be court-martialed for what he had said. Shaken, we walked on.

That evening, though we were hungry and anxious to find our hotel, I couldn't bear to leave without seeing the closing of the day from the same perspective as had Pignetti and his gallant roommates, and so we stayed until dusk.

This morning, hearing of Conroy's passing, I pulled my hardback copy of The Prince of Tides from my bookshelf and discovered two forgotten pieces of memorabilia tucked inside. One was a Palm Beach Post clipping sent to me by my mother. Dated September 9, 1991, the article detailed Conroy's gratitude to Barbra Streisand for the film she made of his book. "You've made me a better writer, you rescued my sweet book, and you've honored me by taking it with such seriousness and love," he reportedly inscribed in a copy of the novel he gave to Streisand.

The other memento was a 5 x 7 glossy.

I held the picture in my hands and instantly remembered the taking of it. It showed the sun as it was sinking on our day at The Citadel, the day I felt the eerie presence of Conroy's ghosts.

Before setting out on our trip, I had studied the text of Conroy's novel intently specifically for the purpose of being able to position myself just so in that parking lot at sunset. And I think I got it right. I say that because years later, simply seeing the picture was enough to resurrect ethereal worlds that infiltrated my brain as if they were collective memories shared by Conroy and me.

Conroy was gigantic. What more proof is needed than the fact that I am haunted by his hauntings?

I mourn his passing.