A Resurrection To Remember

Frank Mann
Photo of the author.
1997 by Frank Mann
1998 First Prize Nonfiction
Photo of Frank.
Shame on me for feeling so smug and cocky after taking advantage of an old friend who was about to throw away an almost new cane rocking chair. The only thing wrong with it was both rockers were cracked where they joined the base of the chair. If he couldn't fix it, well by golly I sure could. Just leave it to the well trained son of a building contractor to replace those rockers in a jiffy and become the proud owner of a fine chair, tailor made for my newly constructed porch addition on my recently remodeled country home on the river. No Cracker Barrel restaurant in the country could offer finer porch accommodations. Wouldn't my Dad enjoy rocking there while drinking in the gorgeous view. He was the one, even though mighty hard of hearing at 89, that still had that tremendous God given talent in his fingers and brain that had allowed him to draw and design a lifetime of great buildings and projects. Our little remodeling project had been his most recent. With his typical diligence and push for perfection he had happily spent hours and hours sketching and planning with my wife, Mary Lee, eager to include in the plans her every whim and vision for what would become our retirement home. That effort seemed filled with an unusually strong love and devotion to task. After all this was not any ordinary job. This one was for one of his kids. But this time that special enjoyment of one's own fruit of labor was not to be his. He died the very week the remodeling began, with me holding his hand, and Mary Lee close beside on the other side of the hospital bed.

My cockiness quickly evolved into humility when the nice young fellow at the wood craft shop told me that rockers needed to be hewn from a tough hardwood such as white oak. The two pieces has to be at least two feet long, and carved from a chunk of wood at least two inches by six inches thick in order to provide for the curvature of the rocker. To do it right would require a special band saw available in his shop (I didn't have one like that). And oh yes, that piece of oak had been trucked in all the way from western Virginia. Cost? " Well-l-l-l, I'd say about a hundred dollars. But we won't charge you for the final sanding and staining. I'm sure you'll want to do that yourself." My response to the hundred dollars must have been a major unguarded expression of shock! Because that young fellow, forcing a smile and muttering under his breath at the same time, hiked quickly to a rack of short lumber pieces, chose my white oak, and headed for the band saw. Using the broken rocker I had brought along for a mold, he made short work of cutting a perfect pair of curved chair rockers, leaving only the sanding and staining to be done. "Give me $35 Mr. Mann, and promise not to tell my boss about this deal." I happened to know that he in fact was the boss. I gratefully extended the cash, a big smile, a handshake, and was on my way.

So there I was. Rocking gently on our new porch, cat in lap, which was happily allowing me to simultaneously rub her pregnant tummy and rear section just ahead of the tail. She had come to really enjoy (and expect), this treatment, particularly in the final days as she swelled ever closer to delivery. The Halgrims, our good friends and former next door neighbors for the previous 23 years had stopped out that Easter afternoon after supper, just to visit and enjoy the unbelievably beautiful sunset that was now a daily part of our lives in our new home. It was Robert Halgrim who had helped me put the finishing touches on the new porch deck barely two months ago. What a laugh we had that day when he pointed to "Oppie" under an oak tree hardly a hundred feet away, where she and a totally gray stranger of a tom cat were diligently going about the pleasant task of creating kittens.

Our heartiest guffaw came after the apparent climax of the brief affair, whereupon Oppie rose full height from her previously submissive crouched position, and gave the stranger a clean hard slap in the face signaling the fun was over. He took the hint, and we've never seen him again.

Oppie adopted us a couple of months after we had moved into a 1950's vintage trailer, which had served as the care takers quarters for the fifteen acres we had bought. That leaky old piece of aluminum, together with a four bay barn and the main house, made up the total of our retirement dream home purchase. We had planned to live in the trailer while I met the challenge of remodeling the main house. The previous owner had been a wealthy industrialist from Indiana, who used to spend several weeks each year in this little Florida paradise. But in recent years, after his wife passed away, his visits became less frequent, and the property generally fell victim to pretty serious "deferred maintenance".

Why "Oppie"?, you ask. Well, this classic alley rabbit, as my mother used to call these rather common spotted and striped, Sylvester the cartoon type felines, though always licking and preening as she would, still seemed to look disheveled no matter how hard she tried to pretty up. Kind of reminded me of the Oppie with Aunt "B", Barney and Andy, that Mary Lee and I had enjoyed so often in the early sixties, shortly after we were married.

"Oppie, What IS the matter with you? Why don't you quit this squirming and turning around. I'm petting you exactly the same way I have for weeks now, and it always seemed to settle you down. What IS the matter? " Suddenly, with Oppie standing on all fours, still in my lap, I felt an unmistakable pool of warm wetness on my thigh. "Good Gosh Oppie, you've whizzed all over me!" "No she hasn't Frank. Her water broke!", shrieked Caroline Halgrim, herself a mother three times, and far more familiar with these matters than I.

 Sure enough, bless her heart, the furry little adoptee that had stolen our hearts as the first permanent guest to our new home, barely a year old herself, was about to become a mother.

A veterinarian friend of mine had warned me that I only had about 62 days from the time Robert and I had seen the gray visitor to get ready for Oppie's motherhood. On that advice I already had a good sized cardboard box on the porch, sitting under the covered portion up against the kitchen wall. As gently as I could, I eased Oppie over to the box, and carefully placed her inside it, with the top open. That most uncomfortable little lady had barely enough time to turn about two complete circles, when she let out a blood curdling yowl, fairly well frightening all four humans on the porch, and thereupon gave birth to her first baby. For some reason I made note of the time. It was 7:30 P.M., daylight savings. While the tiny baby was still wet I could see, none the less, that it's coat was a combination of all the mother's colors, plus Poppa's gray, woven in and out. A practical name for number one would have been "Patches", but I chose right then and there to opt for "EASTER". And knowing cats usually have more than one kitten, I set aside "Sunday", "Resurrection", and "Calvary" for the late arrivals, hoping I had enough names to go around. As it turned out we didn't need "Calvary". Oppie's first litter would consist of three tiny, crying, quickly nursing, darling babies. And Oppie took to motherhood as though she had read a dozen books on maternity, and regularly attended Lamaze classes in the weeks during pregnancy. I had seen quite a few animal births during my 56 years, but something about this almost midwife experience with Oppie had me talking silently to God that night about the wonders of life and birth.

"Sunday", arriving 42 minutes after "Easter", was pure gray from the fuzz on her nose to the tip of her tail. Absolutely no trace of any other color was to be found, that night or later.It also turned out that not only was her color exactly that of her Daddy, so was her sex. It was several weeks later before I did a detailed check and learned that "Sunday" was indeed a "him".

"Resurrection", the spitting color image of her mother, turned out to be the classic runt of the litter. Joining this world 30 minutes after her big brother, her days ahead would always see her coming in third in every possible way. Her older siblings always got the fattest nipple, and got it sooner. She could still bravely fight her way in for a snack each time the kittens' dinner bell was rung by Oppie, but she always appeared to come up short on the total grocery intake. None the less, she seemed to grow at a pace similar to the others. It was just that she started from so far back that she always looked a little pathetic, but oh so lovable.

The kittens were a good six weeks old, and I had overcome my concern about Resurrection's size and potential vulnerability. Of course their eyes were open by now, and Oppie had already moved them twice, as mothers will do to protect their young from predators. The last move however, had brought them back to the porch, albeit underneath, but only ten feet from where they were born. From their new residence we could watch them from inside the kitchen, playfully attacking each other and everything else on or about the porch. But just open the kitchen door, and all three disappeared instantly back underneath the porch.

One time, however, as I came out the door, anticipating the usual explosion of cats disappearing from the porch deck, Resurrection only walked toward the steps, slowly, as if struggling in great pain. She didn't even make an effort to run as I walked over and picked her up for the first time since the night she was born. She hissed, then cried, and tried to fight me all the while, but she seemed drained of any real strength. After several unsuccessful attempts to get her alone with Oppie for a really good meal, Mary Lee dug around and found a little eye dropper which we used to help feed the sick kitten. Oppie had tried hard to help her third baby, licking it constantly, and lying down and wrapping her body around Resurrection's to make nursing easy. But the baby seemed to have either forgotten how to nurse, or simply was to sickly to manage it.

I struggled with myself about whether to take the little one to the vet, opting finally to go first thing tomorrow morning if she wasn't better. I fixed another big box, laid it on its side, allowing Oppie and Resurrection to rest comfortably on a soft old towel Mary Lee had volunteered. I was encouraged when we saw Easter and Sunday join them about dark and settle in for the night. Early the next morning I rose to check on our beloved little family of kitties. When I looked in the box, Oppie, Sunday, and Easter were gone. Alone lay Resurrection in a little furry ball, dead.

How in the world is it that human beings can get so terribly emotionally attached to dumb animals? Tears filled my eyes as I knelt and picked up that precious kitten. A horrible sense of guilt gripped me as I cursed myself for not taking the sick baby to the vet earlier. But suddenly, I found myself arguing with myself, using logic and reason, common sense, and maturity. "It's just a dadgum cat. A lot of people think nothing about putting a new, unwanted litter in a sack and throwing the whole kit and kabudle in the river." But I was losing the argument. Too many other true life experiences kept flooding my thinking. Like the time our eleven month old beagle, "Chainsaw", managed to slip out of the house while we were all gone, and get himself killed on the nearby street. It had been Caroline Halgrim that had to call me at work and tell me that some nice man had just brought the puppy to my home and laid it in the carport after it had been hit. She couldn't bring herself to tell me it was dead, only saying he was hurt real bad and I needed to come home. She and Robert had watched us raise that little dog, indeed HELPED us raise that little dog. They loved it too.

That time I had just wrapped the lifeless creature in an old blanket, and had gone inside to the utility room to get a shovel when Robert showed up. Caroline had called him at work too. He just walked into our house, without knocking, as my close friend and neighbor had done for years. We came face to face in the long hallway, two full grown, macho men, not really knowing what to say to each other, tears flowing profusely down both faces. At times like that I guess true friends really don't have to say anything. Just being there speaks all the words you need.

I wanted to get Chainsaw buried before the boys came home from school. They were eight and eleven, and they loved that little dog, as only youngsters can, their first ever pet. Robert helped me. I managed to put up a little cross before my first boy got there. Holding him as tightly as I could without hurting him, I told him about Chainsaw. And we cried and cried. Then I went through it all again when his brother got home. The three of us only thought we had finally gotten a hold on ourselves, when their mommy got home. That became the saddest scene of all. Four loving people, very much in pain.

As I dug the little grave site for Resurrection, I found my mind returning to the final hours in my Dad's life. He hadn't been gone yet for even a year, and memories of his life, and particularly his last hours, were still light bulb bright in my mind. My mother and brother and I, and our families had been tending Dad's bedside all day long, giving him sips of water, and checking on the seemingly endless bundle of wires and tubes that protrude virtually everywhere when you've suffered a heart attack. Mary Lee and I were by his side when he spoke his very last words. Eyes closed, but with a clarity far beyond that of earlier hours as his strength had steadily declined, Dad exclaimed to us, or perhaps only in amazement to himself- "It's like a whole new world". Stunned, I looked at Mary Lee for confirmation of what I was sure I had just heard. Quietly, she repeated those exact words.

There will never be a doubt in my mind that my father's last words in this world were his first words to those gathered to greet him in his new one. Three hours later his tired old heart recorded its last beat on the hospital monitor. And yes, we all cried again. A lot. But for me I am not able to say now where the tears of pain stopped and the tears of joy began. For I cannot think of my father's life without feeling the most profound sense of gratitude to that unseen divinity who willed that I should be George Mann's child, and grow to manhood under his influence.

The name "Resurrection" began to take on a much broader meaning as I finished covering the simple grave with the patch of weedless sod I had carefully saved. And that Easter, on which we celebrated His resurrection in the morning, and the kittens' birth in the evening, now takes on special meaning too, as I think back on it, so full of joyous events that ultimately joined so many beautiful thoughts, people, and happenings. Together they remind me, and will over and over again each new day I awake - What a wonderful thing is this marvelous experience and opportunity called Life.

It had taken a little kitten to ever so briefly pass my way for me to realize, through sadness, what great joys I've really been able to experience for so many years through precious friends and family members. Yes Sir. What a wonderful Easter! And what a memorable Resurrection!

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(This story and another by Frank, Jungle Cruise From Hell, have been combined and published as a paperback book called Jungle Cruise From Hell To Hereafter.  You can buy the book at Amazon.  Just click here.)

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