Many of us will never forget those precious moments before lockdown, when we had no idea what was about to hit. We went to the grocery store unmasked, saw friends, went to concerts, went to work. No one yet knows how the story of the pandemic will end, or when. But what if these pandemic days are some of our most important?
These Precious Days, a collection of essays from beloved novelist Ann Patchett, spans decades but leads to our present moment and Patchett’s own unforeseen circumstances during lockdown. As the title of her collection suggests, she is grateful and acknowledges all the luck she’s had.
“We don’t deserve anything,” she writes. “Not the suffering and not the golden light. It just comes.”
Patchett’s essays are sharp and honest. She confronts her faults frequently while also remaining candid, unafraid to talk about getting a prestigious award or acknowledging that she’s a pretty big deal. She writes too about getting rid of her possessions and a year of no shopping, about her love of Snoopy and getting her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—a program helped her understand the importance of community, something she nurtures with her bookstore in Nashville.
While navigating a life with three fathers—her biological father, Frank, and her two subsequent stepfathers, Mike and Darrell—must have been challenging, Patchett now sees what a delight it was to have all of them and their unique contributions to making her a great writer and person.
Patchett has ended up with a doctor and pilot, Karl, her second husband, who has a bit of a plane obsession. “Flight Plan” is about the two flying together and her worries that he’ll have an accident. When she has a close call herself by not closing the plane’s door properly, she realizes that there isn’t really anything we can do to ensure total safety.
“One person remembers to tip the nose up for the landing while the other person forgets to latch the door—and, in the end, it probably won’t be the nose tip or the door. It will be something infinitely more mundane. It will be life and time, the things that come for us all.”
Patchett discusses her lifelong desire not to have children in “There Are No Children Here” and all the unprompted reactions she’s received over the years. In front of a crowd, one esteemed writer told her that “until you have children, you don’t know what it means to love.” Similarly, she was on a national radio talk show, and the interviewer asked if Patchett was worried about being alone at the end of her life, since she had no children and a much-older husband. “I was there to talk about a book I’d written,” Patchett writes. “A book that had nothing to do with not having children.”
The title essay is a stirring portrait of Patchett’s experiences just before and during the pandemic. But this story is really about her fast friendship with Sooki Raphael, an artist and Tom Hanks’ assistant, who Patchett first met when she was doing an event with the actor.
Sooki was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and Patchett’s husband Karl is a doctor with some serious hookups, so Patchett arranged for Sooki to come to his hospital in Tennessee where she would receive treatment in a clinical trial. Patchett insisted that Sooki would stay at their home, which has an apartment in the basement.
As so many of us were suddenly stuck in place in early 2020, Sooki had to stay in Nashville with Patchett and Karl when the pandemic hit. They had already built up a routine together, but now it was different. Sooki could no longer see her family in person and was immunocompromised.
Patchett had to let go of trying to know the outcome of this story too early, which, for her, is akin to writing a book. “Putting together a novel is essentially putting together the lives of strangers I’m coming to know. In some ways it’s not unlike putting together my own life. I think I know what I’m doing when in truth I have no idea. I just keep moving forward.”
But, unlike writing a book, we can’t control the ending when dealing with a serious illness or pandemic. We take one step, then another, make plans, find routines. But there is never any way to know how things are going to turn out.
Patchett writes this essay with endless gratitude. As she notes, she was lucky to know Sooki in the first place but luckier to get all that uninterrupted time with her. They did yoga together and cooked and even tried out psychedelics. They both found they could be their “best and most complete selves” around one another, and the experience changed them both.
Each of the essays in These Precious Days is moving, but this title essay stands out. Patchett starts it off with Tom Hanks and you don’t see what’s coming, and that’s just how we’ve all felt that last year and a half. After all this waiting, it’s always nice to be surprised by love.
These Precious Days
By Ann Patchett
Published November 23, 2021
Meredith Boe is a Pushcart Prize–nominated writer, editor, and poet. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Passengers Journal, Newfound, Another Chicago Magazine, Chicago Reader, Mud Season Review, After Hours, and elsewhere, and her chapbook What City won the 2018 Debut Series Chapbook Contest from Paper Nautilus.