Ann Patchett on Taking a Bad Fall to Find Good Luck
Ann Patchett finds that misfortune in small doses can cast a glittering light on the rest of life.,
On a Sunday morning in the middle of July, I woke up tired. Who knows why? Maybe, like the dog, I had spent the night chasing rabbits in my sleep. I gave serious consideration to skipping my morning exercises (hadn’t the rabbits been enough?), but then decided to push ahead on the belief that an adherence to routine helps more often than it hurts. Surely gold medalist Sunisa Lee had been tired in Tokyo that morning, but she went flying through the air all the same.
When I got to the step-up portion of the 7-Minute Workout, I too was briefly flying. But my liftoff was misaligned, so that coming down I glanced off the edge of my step stool and hit the floor with my full weight on the side of my left foot.
After lying on my back for a few minutes, panting through self-recrimination and the bright crush of pain, I crawled to the phone and called my husband. Karl found me on the floor, foot aloft. He’s a doctor, and he took my tennis shoe off with professional care. “Did you hurt yourself anywhere else?”
I said no, thinking my quickly inflating foot was injury enough.
“Did you hit your head?” He was gently palpating my foot to see what points made me yelp, while introducing the topic of gratitude into the conversation. I had not hit my head.
“That’s how it happens,” he said, helping me to the bed. “You hit your head on the bookcase on the way down. Then it all falls apart.”
Karl said we could go to the emergency room right away or wait until tomorrow to see a doctor in the clinic. I opted for the ice pack, the Motrin and the pile of pillows. I opted to wait. Tennessee, the state where we live, is rife with people who decided to pass on the Covid vaccine, which meant that even though we were vaccinated, emergency rooms were no place to sit and wait.
The next day the orthopedist showed me the X-rays of my left foot. He told me I had badly sprained it, along with tearing some ligaments. He would get me a walking boot and, in time, all would be well. The doctor was almost to the door when he turned and looked at me again. “Let’s get one more X-ray,” he said.
He was smiling when he came back, the bearer of good news. He told me my ankle was fractured. “I’m not going to do surgery,” he said cheerfully. “I could put a screw in there, but I’m not going to do it.” Once immobilized, the bit of bone that had cracked off would mend itself.
“Oh,” Karl said, shaking his head after the doctor left us, “are you ever lucky.” He had seen his share of poor outcomes for ankle surgery. In his long career, he had seen pretty much everything.
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.”
Bad luck in small doses can cast a glittering light on the rest of life. It shows us just how close we came to smashing our heads on the bookcase, and so makes us look at the bookcase (the room, the house, the street, the town, the life) with a new sense of wonder. Sooner or later, in one form or another, the terrible thing will happen. I didn’t understand that when I was young, no matter how many nuns tried to tell me. Now, I think I do. And I’m grateful that this time I got off easy.
Ann Patchett is the co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville. Her essay collection “These Precious Days” will be published by HarperCollins in November 2021.