Pat Conroy, R.I.P.

A few weeks ago bestselling author Pat Conroy announced that he had cancer, prompting me to start writing a letter to him. Conroy is one of my literary and life heroes and I wanted to tell him that, and to say thank you.  He thought he had a lot more time. So did I. Here is the letter I never got to send:

Dear Mr. Conroy,

I don’t believe I’ve ever written a fan letter before. After decades in the book business and a lifetime of reading I certainly have a long list of favorite writers but a fan letter seems to me to be something one writes only to heroes. You, sir, have been one of mine.

Your writing is big and bold—what you jokingly called “grotesque…and egregious excess”—and it pleases me to no end because you hold nothing back from your prose, every flourish and embellishment perfect for the lush, southern settings of your novels and as utterly satisfying for this reader as a rich, southern meal. You write about family drama and secrets, subjects that I am well versed in but find impossible to articulate. As I know how difficult that challenge is you’ve earned my respect and gratitude for your attempts as much as for your successes. I treat the publication of your books like holidays: I take long weekends to enjoy your familiar voice and retreat into your worlds, returning after three days refreshed and satiated . The Prince of Tides especially has taken up, in your words, “contented residence in (my) heart.”

In your personal life you have reminded me of Mother Teresa’s quote: “If you can’t feed a hundred people, feed just one.” I have watched you address sweeping injustices with small, meaningful gestures that no doubt improved individual lives but also mine and other witnesses’ I imagine.

In the midst of the civil rights movement, and the painful integration of black students into the all-white Beaufort schools, you lobbied for black studies curriculums, objected to racial slurs, lost your teaching job fighting for what you believed in. You and your friend Tim Belk living in San Francisco at the beginning of the epidemic brought meals and support to young southern men dying of AIDS who were thousands of miles away from the families who had abandoned them. You helped Shannon Faulkner, The Citadel’s first female cadet who was forced to leave your alma mater because of abuse, threats, and violence, by quietly picking up the tuition tab at her next college. In response to the pending termination of your beloved personal trainer at the Y in your hometown you started Mina and Conroy Fitness Studio, giving her a place to call her own.

Perhaps one of the greatest lessons you shared with me through your books and your example was a belief in forgiveness. A concept I would venture to guess you both struggled and persisted with. After the many years of publicly battling with The Citadel your blog post about accepting an honor from them in the form of a plaque said so much about the complicated nature of forgiveness as well as our capacity for it.

Integrity. Forgiveness. A love of language. I am grateful for all of these gifts you’ve shared. And as I’m sure you of all people can understand, it just took me a whole lot of words to get to the two most important ones: thank you.

Please take good care of yourself. As you mentioned, you owe us another book and some of us are still waiting for the next lesson. In the meantime you’re in my thoughts and prayers.

All my best,

Allison K Hill