Lauderdale: Pat Conroy’s last days

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Pat Conroy died the way he lived and the way he wrote.

That’s how friends closest to the best-selling author describe the emotional blur between the Feb. 15 announcement that he had pancreatic cancer and his burial March 8 in a Gullah cemetery on St. Helena Island.

“What a loss,” his wife, Cassandra King Conroy, said Friday.

“What a loss.

“It hasn’t really sunk in yet, I guess, but it will.”

Conroy’s death was larger than life, with 4 million people clicking on his website in recent days just to be close.

It was dramatic, with Conroy and loved ones exchanging emotional goodbyes three different times before the Irish eyes they say never lost their sparkle were closed for good at his creekside home in Beaufort on March 4.

Conroy’s bold fight showed as he was moved about from the Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center in Jacksonville, Fla., to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston and the Beaufort Memorial Hospital.

A sign of the well-chronicled Conroy family strife (his sister Carol did not attend the funeral Mass) was overcome by waves of redemption. His formerly “lost daughter” Susannah was by his side. In 2010 he had dedicated “My Reading Life” to her, writing: “Know this, I love you with my heart and always will. Your return to my life would be one of the happiest moments I could imagine.”

All four of his daughters and other surviving siblings — Jim, Tim and Mike Conroy and Kathy Harvey — were there with their children and grandchildren.

The Citadel, which once banned its famous graduate because of his writing, formed the single largest presence at his funeral Mass at St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Lady’s Island. And his first wife, Barbara, was in the throng who attended the public visitation at Anderson Funeral Home in Beaufort.

Friends say Conroy’s final chapter was laced with humor. He would smile when his best friend, Bernie Schein, would whisper in his ear that he was an asshole.

But in his dying days, Conroy mostly heard poetry, singing and reminiscing. Family and close friends sang “The Marines’ Hymn” as life ended for the Marine Corps brat who showed up at age 15 and found a home and worldwide voice in Beaufort.

Cassandra never left his side. At least three clergymen administered last rites, including a priest and monsignor from his Catholic faith.

The Rev. Mike Jones also came with his Episcopal “Book of Common Prayer.” He was in Conroy’s small group of friends in Beaufort after he graduated from The Citadel in 1967 but before “The Water is Wide,” “The Great Santini” and “The Prince of Tides.”

Jones and the Rev. Jon Coffey of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Port Royal led the private interment service at Conroy’s grave.

In this quiet, inland cemetery beneath tall pines, Conroy continues to speak to the world.

Conroy asked to be buried in the St. Helena Memorial Garden on Ernest Road, near the Penn Center on St. Helena Island. It is owned by the nearby Brick Baptist Church, its antebellum red bricks a pillar in African-American history.

Conroy now rests beside Agnes Sherman, a quiet civil rights giant who in 1968, along with Frieda Mitchell, was the first black person elected to the Beaufort County Board of Education after Reconstruction.

Nearby rests Leroy E. Browne Sr., South Carolina’s first black elected official after Reconstruction. He joined the Beaufort County Council in 1960, five years before the Voting Rights Act.

Cassandra said her husband visited graveyards and went to the graves of writers, including Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Dickey. She does not know how he selected his own burial site but knows he thought it through, and she’s grateful the church allowed it.

“I’m not sure how Pat found that and decided that’s where he wanted to end up,” Jones said. “It’s a beautiful spot. It’s a good place if people want to go out and make the pilgrimage. I think it is going to be good for that.”

Fight is on

Conroy was tired after the “Pat Conroy at 70” festival on the last weekend of October.

But so was everyone involved in the four-day celebration of his life and literature hosted by the University of South Carolina Beaufort and organized by Jonathan Haupt, director of the University of South Carolina Press.

Then Conroy got what they thought was the flu.

His appearances were restricted, but he kept a couple of engagements to promote the Story River Books fiction imprint of the USC Press that gave him great joy in his last years.

In a November book fair on Hilton Head Island, Conroy posed for a photo with Margarite Washington, one of his Daufuskie Island students. He promised her he would stay in touch.

Conroy also was working on a novel covering issues of race and class, tentatively called “Storms of Aquarius.” He was about 150 pages into it. Cassandra, herself an author and Conroy’s literary executor, confirmed that it will be published in some form posthumously.

Now people are looking back on the 70th birthday celebration as an event of almost biblical timing and the uncanny beginning of a Conroy-style send-off.

Long time friend Bernie Schein said, “Later, Pat told me that he first started feeling a bit weird at the ‘Conroy at 70’ festival. In other words, a little strange sensation around the abdomen. And I think that’s probably when it started, but nobody knew it.”

He continued to work out.

But soon it was discovered Conroy had stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

On Feb. 15, his Facebook message read:

“... I intend to fight it hard. I am grateful to all my beloved readers, my friends and my family for their prayers. I owe you a novel and I intend to deliver it.”

Tears, backhoes and dignity

Cassandra shared her husband’s optimism.

“It’s ironic in some ways because I’m a born worrier,” she said. “Pat had so much angst, and he always said that he saw and imagined the worst possible in situations, and I thought that I was the same way. I’m one of these kind of people that, if one my kids tells me they have a headache, I think they have a brain tumor.

“That’s part of my dark nature, but for some reason when he started getting sick and all, it never occurred to me that it would be anything, you know, fatal.

“Seriously, it literally did not occur to me. I know that’s a form of denial. Because even with the diagnosis, I kept thinking I know for sure they can do something about it.

“Everybody was telling me not to look online, because that cancer is devastating. It’s a terrible, terrible cancer, mainly because, when it is found, it is too late to do anything about it.”

Even then, Conroy flashed his humor.

He recited to doctors how he had given up drinking, lost weight, hired a nutritionist and was working out so regularly he opened the Conroy & Mina Fitness Studio in Port Royal with his personal trainer. He couldn’t count the number of people at the birthday celebration who told him how good he looked.

“He told the doctors, ‘So, I have proven that clean living will kill you,’ ” Cassandra said, “Isn’t that just like something he would say? Just exactly like something he would say. Clean living will get you every time. I’ve proven that ...”

Conroy was Conroy, friends say, until he could no longer communicate verbally. They said that it made him angry when he was no longer able to get up by himself.

Schein, a friend since Beaufort High School days, can’t remember the timeline of all of Conroy’s comings and goings, but vignettes are seared into his mind.

They talked, like they always had, but it wasn’t on the porch with Conroy’s $10 cigars and a glass of Woodford bourbon.

They talked about Stephen Curry’s jump shot, literature in the age of irony and Donald Trump.

He recalls emergency medical technicians taking Conroy out of the house to the hospital.

“They were moving him, and he was talking about the Angel of Death, but he looked great,” Schein said.

He recalls making a fool of himself blowing kisses and waving to the ambulance out in the street.

Maggie Schein, Bernie’s daughter, was assigned to be a gatekeeper to help maintain as much privacy as possible for family and close friends, as well as act as a spokeswoman for the family.

“I think I probably alienated half of Beaufort,” she said. “I do apologize, but I had to.”

She said the outpouring of love from the public was overwhelming.

When Conroy was at home, and in his final days, he was surrounded by members of his family and close friends. Alex and Zoe Sanders visited. The former judge married Pat and Cassandra in 1998, and delivered the eulogy at his funeral Mass.

Story River Books author Ellen Malphrus read poetry, as did Conroy’s brother Tim and others. Author and friend John Warley sang old Citadel songs from their days together at South Carolina’s military college in Charleston.

Maggie Conroy, also an author, said the solemn grieving could be interrupted by humor — like the day the septic tank broke.

“So here we are crying,” she said, “and he’s literally dying, and there is this huge backhoe in the back yard, right in front of his sunset view, which is why we set him up in that bed, facing that window so he could see the sunset, and there’s this huge machine and all these men out there in their construction uniforms yelling and smoking, and they’re digging up the septic line. It was so Conroy it was ridiculous. The irony of it, the humor of it, the Pat-ness of it.”

Bernie Schein said Conroy liked for him to be funny, not for himself but because his daughters enjoyed it.

“He was a fighter,” Schein said. “He was a warrior for good. No question about it, and that was his dad. My nickname for Pat when we were younger was My Rebel Without a Pause. He was brave. But underneath it all, he was the biggest baby I’ve ever seen in my life. He was a crybaby.

“I expected the real Pat to come out and bawl like one of those babies in the cartoons, but he didn’t. He died so honorably. With such dignity. And the real Pat is also the generous Pat who cares about everybody else in the room. I could see him always looking at everyone, and he told me to take care of everyone.”

Last words

Cassandra said even the date Conroy died was a marching order: March forth.

The same was true for his last words.

“One of the last things he talked to me about, and I’m going to write about this too, but just before he got to where he couldn’t communicate that well with us, he said, ‘I want to talk to you about this book that you’ve got in you that you’ve got to write. You promise me you’re going to write it.’ 

She calls it her “farm book,” and it will tell about the dying American family farm, like the one she was reared on in Alabama.

“That was the last thing on Earth I wanted to talk about at the time,” she said. “I wasn’t even thinking about writing or thinking about life without him or anything like that.

“But, no, I couldn’t do anything with him. He was going to tell me that, when he was gone, that’s what he wanted me to do with myself and that my life without him was to write this book that he knew I had and that I’ve been wanting to write for a long time.

“So, if that doesn’t just sum him up, you know. Everything about him. Everything about him. His dedication to the written word, to his love of the written word and of books and his support of other writers and so forth, that pretty much says it all to me.”

Another treasure was his fight.

“I’ve thought back, trying to remember and treasure his last words, and I know one thing that just kills me that he said is that he still thought he was going to beat it. ‘I’m going to beat this.’ You know, I said, ‘I know you are. I know if anybody is going to do it, you’re going to.’

“So in some ways I guess that also sums him up in that he did not go gently into the night. He did not.”

Friend sees Atlantis

Friends and family spoke about Conroy at a private reception after the burial.

A couple of hundred people enjoyed mounds of pickled shrimp at the Beaufort Yacht and Sailing Club and listened as Cassandra’s two sons, Jacob and Jason Ray, sang with Conroy’s granddaughter, Molly Giguire.

They sang, “Down to the River to Pray” from the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. It always reminded Molly of her “Poppy” because that CD was all she had to listen to when she borrowed his car for a trip.

James Dickey’s daughter, Bronwen Dickey, read a poem. Conroy’s close friend Scott Graber spoke, as did family members and others.

Cassandra also spoke.

But her thoughts go back to the last song she played for Conroy during his life. It was “10,000 Miles” by Mary Chapin Carpenter:

Oh, come ye back,

My own true love

And stay a while with me

If I had a friend

All on this Earth

You’ve been a friend to me.

“And he was my dearest friend,” she said, quietly.

Cassandra also thought of one of Conroy’s favorite characters as he lay dying: His mother, Peggy.

“You know he wrote so beautifully about sending his mother out with beautiful language that he read to his mother as she was passing away. I wanted to make absolutely sure that he had that,” she said.

It would involve another Pat Conroy story.

King always had trouble finding a Christmas gift for her husband.

“Give Pat a nice shirt and tie? Come on,” she said with a laugh.

So she made him little poetry scrapbooks. She would copy parts of their favorite poems, and decorate the books with things like birds from an old Audubon calendar.

In it was part of one of their favorite poems, “Atlantis” by W.H. Auden.

She read two verses of it to Conroy over and over again:

Assuming you beach at last

Near Atlantis, and begin

That terrible trek inland

Through squalid woods and frozen

Tundras where all are soon lost;

If, forsaken then, you stand,

Dismissal everywhere,

Stone and now, silence and air,

O remember the great dead

And honour the fate you are,

Travelling and tormented,

Dialectic and bizarre.

Stagger onward rejoicing;

And even then if, perhaps

Having actually got

To the last col, you collapse

With all Atlantis shining

Below you yet you cannot

Descend, you should still be proud

Even to have been allowed

Just to peep at Atlantis

In a poetic vision:

Give thanks and lie down in peace,

Having seen your salvation.

“Yeah,” she said. “Scary powerful.”

David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale

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