FROM THE CHAPTER 16 ARCHIVE: This essay originally appeared on January 13, 2022.
All the best stories have plot twists — turning points around which the narrative pivots, often with surprising results. And what is life if not an unusually long, mostly mundane, frequently confusing story that tends to seesaw between “nothing ever happens” and “suddenly everything is different”? My own life-changing fork in the road occurred just before Mother’s Day eight years ago, when my husband of nearly three decades declared his intention to divorce me. By September 11, 2013, that most unlucky of days, our union had definitely been put asunder.
Divorce is an ugly business — at least it was for me. I felt as though everything in my life was broken: my home, my family, even my sanity. Especially my sanity. What emerged from the wreckage, thanks to heavy lifting on the part of generous friends and some rather potent pharmaceuticals, was shaky and imperfect, but all my own. I didn’t know it then, but far from being over, my life was about to get interesting.
This next part will sound ridiculously ill-advised, but a few months later I reconnected with an old boyfriend from high school and soon found myself falling for the big lug — the most loving, patient, and supportive man I’ve ever known. It’s because of his kindness and care that I now walk around in my right mind (most of the time). As our friendship deepened into a serious relationship, I faced a quandary. An employee of the Catholic Church, I would be unable to keep my job unless I obtained an annulment before remarrying.
I knew the process could take years (and we weren’t exactly youngsters), so I was motivated to get started. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, answering intimate questions about a marriage that began in good faith and so recently ended in tears. Eventually, though, I persevered and submitted my petition — only to have it promptly returned by the local tribunal due to insufficient grounds. This likely came as a surprise to my ex-husband, who was by then happily remarried and living in another state with his new family. (There is a whole conversation we might have here about how annulments work in the Catholic Church and why the tribunal ruled as it did, but let’s save that for another day.)
For me, the next logical step was to find a new job. Not an easy task for a 54-year-old woman with limited work experience and perhaps not the highest level of personal confidence at the time. Then, miracle of miracles, my friend Kyra found the perfect job posted by an Episcopal church right down the street. (God bless the Episcopalians.) I revised my resume, summoned up what courage I could locate, and applied. After a surprisingly enjoyable interview with some delightful people, I was encouraged to be a little bit hopeful. (The rector and I even bonded over our love of Eudora Welty. A fellow native of Jackson, Mississippi, he had bagged her groceries at the neighborhood market once upon a time.) I walked out on a cloud, cheered by the possibilities.
And then they hired someone else instead.
A few dispiriting weeks later, with no new job prospects on the horizon, Kyra and I went to lunch at a Chinese restaurant. After the meal, I opened my fortune cookie to find the following message: “You will soon witness a miracle.” Hunh, I thought, that’s a weirdly specific message to get from a cookie.
I showed the small strip of paper to Kyra saying, “You know the miracle I want.”
“No, what?” she asked.
“I want the job at St. Peter’s. That was supposed to be my job,” I declared.
Even to my ears that sounded foolish. And yet, only a few hours later, I received a phone call from the head of the personnel committee at the Episcopal church. The young man they had hired instead of me had just turned in his notice and they wondered whether I might still be interested. After I regained the ability to speak, I agreed that, yes, I just might be, and we set up another meeting.
I believe that was when the good people at St. Peter’s inquired as to why I was leaving my current job, when I clearly enjoyed it so much. Once I explained about the annulment, the rector asked where my fiancé and I planned to get married. I said we hadn’t quite figured it out yet, since obviously my church was not an option. And then — and I will never forget this as long as I live — that dear, funny man looked me right in the eye and said, “Well, hell, I’ll marry you!” And he did.
In fact, the church threw us a lovely wedding three months after I began work as their new parish administrator. In lieu of wedding gifts, we asked for donations for their charity drive. Our guests filled basket after basket with gently used shoes, which seemed like a very good omen on such a fortunate (and wildly improbable) day.
My sweet husband and I just celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary. I look forward to going to work every day, and Kyra and I still meet regularly for lunch, although with less life-changing results — most of the time. I don’t know why that smart cookie showed up when it did, and perhaps you will dismiss the whole thing as a coincidence, but my life at that time took many unpredictable turns.
I think I had surrendered all expectations by then, which perhaps opened me up to new possibilities. But whether you think it was a coincidence or a wink from God, the story is a popular one. I love to tell it to people and watch their faces light up in joy and amazement. And that’s a good time to remind them that when bad things happen — and they inevitably will — to hold on for the next plot twist. And always, always open the cookie.
Copyright © 2022 by Tina Chambers. All rights reserved. Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.