The Lonely Man, the Curious Waitress, and the Splendor of Second Chances

I’VE BEEN THINKING a lot lately about second chances. Maybe it’s the time of year. January seems to bring a fresh slate, full of resolutions and opportunities to do things differently. Whether or not a turn on a calendar actually precipitates a new beginning is debatable, but if a digital alarm clock blinking Jan. 1st offers a person a genuine desire to be better than, why not?

If improvement came as easily as a page ripped off a calendar or if our weaknesses were as easily illuminated as the earth beneath the rising sun, then the self-help industry would fade into the night like a shooting star. Ultimately, our flaws are not corrected in the tick of a clock. We cannot witness a Times Square ball drop and suddenly be transformed.

Time may measure our physical maturity: the wrinkles under our eyes, the candles on our cake, the creakiness in our bones. Yet, there are things time can’t measure, and we cannot plan our chances. We cannot orderly design our opportunities into our daily schedule, perfectly craft our reveries toward fruition, force fate to surprise us, nor drive our existence toward unimaginable alteration.

We can make our resolutions, plan our diets, purchase our gym membership. These are X’s we can mark on the calendar, boxes we can check. These are changes we can make, and they are important. Changes are our internal commitment to our aspirations. We cannot have chances without changes. Changes are the pavement we lay toward our chances.

We will not drive our chances into existence, at least not alone; they will come to us courtesy of forces outside of our control. How we respond to our chances, ultimately, is the movie that will play in front of us as we take our last breath.

This time of year, I think a lot about second chances.

I WANT TO TELL you a story. It took place years ago. Scene: an upscale restaurant in suburban Minneapolis. A large man with a big smile and a baritone voice sat huddled at a table around his friends. His hands were wrapped around a piping hot coffee cup. His pinky ring clinked against the ceramic. This man’s name was Charlie.

Charlie was a regular at this establishment, often enjoying a meal there. As a patron, he frequently asked for a specific waitress to serve him and his guests. This wasn’t unusual. Charlie was a creature of comfort and a man who valued reliability in the people around him. This waitress offered him both.

Charlie also valued friendship. A career navigating a ladder inside the United Automobile Workers had taught him the value of relationships. So, he sat, as he did many an afternoon, enjoying a long lunch, hot cup of coffee, and good conversation.

On this day though, there were some laments crowding Charlie’s usually buoyant cranium. These laments spilled out on to the table in front of him. Charlie began describing to his group of friends his struggle in finding someone to take out, an audible longing not uncommon to unattached middle-aged men.

“I’ll go out with you, Charlie,” came a voice slightly above the table. Charlie looked up, and there she was, the waitress. She held a plate of food. The waitress was small and slender. Her short, curly red hair framed a tan face. She wore black pants, a white shirt, and a black apron. Her gold name tag read “Jo.” Soon she would take his name.

Charlie had fathered four children. Jo had two, including the author. They had each been married at least once. They had both struggled with alcohol, and yet both worked hard to maintain their sobriety. Neither Jo nor Charlie were perfect people. They didn’t have perfect pasts. They had each let relationships and opportunities disappear as they journeyed toward the present, when a waitress’ soft brown eyes met the enormous smile of a lonely man. In that moment, the past didn’t matter, the future was unwritten, and fate had offered a second chance to two people, and they seized it.

The movie that will play when we take our last breath will feature the chances we’ve been given and how we responded to them.

WE SPEND A LOT of our lives seeking that type of chance, don’t we? We quest for the type of chance that shakes our existence and rattles our foundation.

Often, we are so bent on making those chances happen that we effort in vain to bend the world to us. It is why we hug a barstool until last call, our throats nursing a warm beer and our eyes scanning a darkened speakeasy for a smile that might take our breath away.

It is why many navigate the soul-crushing domain of online dating. One only inhabits a world of uncontaminated desperation, constant rejection, endless bitterness, and tear duct emptying wretchedness because of chance. Swipe right, left, left, right. Chance may be waiting inside the next profile. Just one more swipe.

It is why we push ourselves to work harder, to put in more hours, to beat the guy in the cubicle next to us, because chance favors the diligent, and a promotion can’t be too far off. Meanwhile, the birthdays and soccer games and anniversaries remain sacrifices on chance’s altar.

We thirst for it, and so that when it does not appear, we look for it at the bottom of a bottle, either Jack Daniels or Xanex.

And, we consider the chances that passed us by or slipped through our fingers like sand in a broken hourglass. We recall the nightclub dance partner turned dinner date turned shotgun rider turned fading taillights. We remember the broken roads, the dead ends, the courage not exhaled, the marriage squabbles never solved. We are reminded of what has been lost and fearful of a future without.

These chances, which have been missed or somehow broken, they may sit in our rearview mirror, dotting our roads like mile marker signs. Yet, if we focus on them, allow ourselves a longing glance back at what might have been, we are in danger of missing the extraordinary chances waiting for us forward, yonder, toward the horizon.

If the lonely man and the curious waitress have taught us anything, it is that chance will come. It will come; yet, it will come not on our time but on that of the divine. We must ready ourselves for it, seize it when it arrives, and hold on to it like a bull rider in a cosmic rodeo.

Charlie and Jo White Linnemon

THE CURIOUS WAITRESS and the lonely man would marry, and they would spend the rest of their lives together. Charles and Jo White Linnemon did not have a flawless marriage. They didn’t live a fairy tale, ride off into the sunset, happily ever after life. What they had was real, the good times and the bad. They were two people who loved each other very much, accepted each other’s faults, and picked each other up when they fell. I suppose that is all we can ask for.

On this day five years ago, January 28th, chance would again strike. This time a warm “hello” was exchanged for a devastating “goodbye.” Chance does not bend to our desires, to our plans. It has no master, at least not one made of flesh and bone. As quickly as it can leave us asking “How did that happen?” it can leave us wondering “Why did that happen?”

On this day five years ago, the lonely man said goodbye to the curious waitress.

Charlie had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. His passing was inevitable, and Charlie handled this fact with superhuman bravery. He spent time meticulously planning his wife’s future without him. She would be comfortable, she would be cared for, and she would be okay.

Chance does not bend to our desires, to our plans.

On a bitter cold January day in 2014, Jo was unexpectedly rushed to the hospital due to a sudden complication. She held on long enough to witness a tearful goodbye from her brothers and children as well as a final solemn moment with her husband. Then she left this world.

Her death was difficult for her family, her friends, and her co-workers. But it was particularly crushing for Charlie. He held on for a time, but a part of him, an oversized piece of his heart, had left this world with his bride. He would join her in the fall of that year.

I find great comfort in knowing that wherever they are, they are there together.

As I walk this road, one littered with chances like empty beer cans on a Texas highway, I often find my thoughts turn to the lonely man and the curious waitress.

This time of year, I think a lot about second chances.

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