To be honest, the first time I met our new neighbors, I thought they were a real pain in the ass. After all, I had the house to myself: drinking a few beers and enjoying the remake of The Night Stalker. I had the volume turned way up, and was reminiscing about the original TV series with Gavin McLeod—as a kid, it scared the crap out me.
And then the thing with the snake happened.
The Nordic Warrior Queen was off at some neighborhood association meeting, bitching with the rest of my neighbors—whom I blissfully knew nothing about and would hopefully never meet—over who wasn’t doing their fair share at the crime watch, or the rising association fees, or what was to be done about the delinquent little assholes, roaming the neighborhood at night, tagging walls and breaking car windows.
And I wasn’t there to listen to any of it. Heaven.
But suddenly there she was, rushing through the front door, looking righteously alarmed. “What’s wrong?” I said.
“Where’s my phone?”
Breathlessly, she explained. “There’s a rattlesnake. Call 911.”
“How big?” I asked, and then she gave me the look. So I took a deep breath and turned off the TV. There was only five minutes left anyway, and I knew it would end in “To Be Continued…”
She led me across the street to meet our new neighbors. John, Jim…maybe, and Cris…Wellman, Wegner, something like that. They’d moved in just the week before and had sat next to my wife at the association meeting that night. Remembering names has never been my strong suit: I immediately forgot theirs as well. “Nice to meet you,” I said. “Where’s the snake?”
He showed me the problem. There on the front step was this beautiful little sidewinder—maybe three feet long—curled up before the door and trying to keep warm against the desert night. The Wagner’s front door was blocked by a fearsome predator. And since our neighbors had lived in their new home less than a week, they’d forgotten the code for their garage door. They couldn’t get inside.
I walked back home and grabbed a shovel from the garage. 911? Really? I also grabbed a 5-gallon Rubbermaid cooler, then went back to our new neighbor’s, scooped up their killer rattlesnake and dropped it inside the cooler. Diane and I said goodnight—nice to meet you and all that—and drove down the street, where we turned the sidewinder loose into a wash. No big deal.
The next day there was a knock at the door. Once again, I was busy, but I answered the door anyway. It was that guy from across the street, there to thank me for helping them out with the snake. “Yeah, no problem, really,” I said. “Anytime.”
“Hey…how about Happy Hour this Friday?”
It took three Friday’s worth of Happy Hours before I got the names straight. Jim and Cris Wagner. That was almost seven years ago.
Since then there have been hundreds of Happy Hours. There have been football games, barbecues, Wii bowling championships and pool parties. I’ve watched Jim fall asleep right during the middle of Scrabble games—something I would have thought impossible, and during which I swapped out all of his tiles for consonants. We’ve shared Christmas Eve, Thanksgiving, New Years, and countless birthdays. We flew model airplanes, drank gallons upon gallons of homebrew, and lit fireworks until the cops came knocking.
The Wagners were with us when our son Jake came home from the service, and shortly after when our grandson Matt came to stay. They were there at both of our children’s weddings. Together we toasted the new couples, and Jim and Cris danced with us during the reception, to celebrate these young people’s lives and their new beginnings. And afterwards, they were there to support us during our time of loss—at the passing of our grandson, Kaden Anthony Burris, and of my brother Kirby.
Good friends are hard to find, and even harder to lose. When Cris was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two years ago, we never thought it would end like this. After all, she was young, and healthy. She ate more tofu and chicken and salads than anyone I know. She exercised. There was the surgery, and chemo, and radiation. Surely she’d beat it, right?
Cris left us one week ago, on a Wednesday night. She was 58 years old. She was so young. She had so much more to give.
I think back now to that first night. I think about that rattlesnake, and wonder at the twists life gives us. Life is not fair—hell, it really sucks sometimes. But then I hear Cris’s laugh; I see her smile, and know that she would scold me for thinking that way.
Despite its brevity, and the unfairness of it all, you must know that this life we are given is precious. The trick is to recognize those rare gifts we are given from time to time—the friendships, the laughter, the smile of a young child, the Scrabble games and the sunsets. Each of us must learn to cherish the short time we are given, while we are still able.
Rest in peace, Cris. We will miss you.