Ann Patchett on Taking a Bad Fall to Find Good Luck

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When I was a child in Catholic school, the nuns never tired of telling us how lucky we were. Of course we were lucky in the obvious ways that should never be taken for granted — lucky for our health, our food, our families, lucky to be able to go to school — but in the face of real disaster, our luck escalated dramatically.

At 9, when I came back to school after a car accident, they tallied up my good fortune: a broken nose, a broken wrist, my lip stitched back together, shards of glass still pushing out of my skull — it could have been so much worse! My sister was worse, she was still in the hospital. She would be there for awhile, resting between the white sheets of her astonishing luck. She should have been dead, and she wasn’t.

At the time, I thought the nuns were idiots. They simply refused to see how we suffered. But now — 48 years later — I think, man, were we lucky.

“If you won’t even complain about being injured and bedridden, I worry that you’re a constitutionally cheerful person who can see the bright side in any situation and this whole thing isn’t going to work out,” a new young friend teased me in an email. I told her not to worry, I am fully capable of misery and complaint, I’m just saving mine.

Had I leapt up on a step stool and missed my landing two years ago, I doubt I would have managed the situation with quite so much sagacity. I would have found the boot burdensome (it is). I would have said the timing was impossible (no matter what the timing was). But the pandemic has taught me that my plans are of no importance, that everything can be canceled, that I’m lucky to have a house to live in and a person I love to live with.

As is true with most writers, I have a talent for stillness which has only been fortified by the last year and a half. Eight more weeks in the house doesn’t actually constitute a problem. My sprain-ligament-fracture trifecta doesn’t actually constitute a problem. It turns out I know a lot of people who’ve had metal plates screwed into their ankles, and we all know a lot of people who’ve had to deal with things much worse than that.

My friend Sister Nena, who taught me to read when I was 6, called to check on me. She’s broken both of her feet before, once the left and once the right. She wanted to know if I had a walking boot. I told her I did. “Oh,” she said, “you’re so lucky.”