It’s funny, what presses the sore spot of grief. It happened the other night while I was editing a story about a pile of dead beavers and coyotes for the next day’s paper. One sentence quoted the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission’s list of other animals in the “furbearers” category: badger, bobcat, fox, mink, muskrat, nutria, opossum …
It was the mink that got me. It made me think about Dad, start to tear up, wish I’d chosen to wear his old long-sleeved polo shirt that day instead of the day before.
I saw a mink in the wild once. It was just after dawn, at the Missouri lakeside cabin where Dad and Mom2 and some of their best friends spent two weeks nearly every October for years, until he died. It was the first (and so far only) time I’d ever seen a whole and single mink, not just parts of a bunch of minks made into a coat or stole.
The mink was fishing at the lake’s edge. It seemed serious about its fishing. Enormous intent for such a small creature. It had more gravitas than a squirrel or ferret. I’d never seen anything like it.
I took the risk that speaking, even from inside the cabin, could make it skedaddle. “What is that thing?”
Dad looked. “That’s a mink.”
The experience had a tinge of the incongruity of seeing a celebrity in the wild—say, Eric Clapton grocery shopping for oranges or Steven Tyler exiting a thrill ride at Disney’s Animal Kingdom—just living his life, not wanting to be addressed, and honoring that but watching anyway, from a distance.
I watched the mink through the cabin’s big picture window until it hop-skip-jumped away. It was so athletic. So much more valuable than a fur coat.
The internal hemorrhage of missing Dad didn’t last long. There was work to do, a headline to write, more stories to edit. But it got me thinking about a tension in making gratitude lists.
I’ve kept a gratitude journal for nearly nine years, and posted some of them publicly for almost two years. The tension is in how different my nightly gratitude lists became when I started making them publicly. Privately, I often name names, list very specific things I am glad someone has done or said or given or withheld. I am more specific, more personal. And more likely to be grateful for some hard things that would not make the cut when I am listing a day’s goodness out loud.
But part of the exercise of gratitude—part of building up those muscles—is learning to be grateful for things we would not have chosen. To see goodness there too.
So, on the day when that mink scampered off the computer screen into my memories, I was grateful for:
The ability to walk everywhere I wanted to go that day (church, restaurant, work, home), and the aches in my feet that persuade the rest of the body that it would be a hospitality to the feet to lose some weight.
The grit that a full-frontal gust blew into my face, because it reminded me to close my mouth (literal at that moment, but it would become usefully figurative later).
My cat’s communication methods, vocal and silent, behind-my-back and in-my-face, in reminding me of the goodness of being responsible for another living being.
The little unpredictable things, like a fur-bearing four-letter word, that press where it hurts and trigger both an ache of absence and a memory of vitality.
The full range of feeling, including grief. I think we would not have such capacity for sorrow, for tears, for all the intense emotions, if they didn’t serve some purpose. When an old ache is awakened, maybe part of the purpose is an iteration of love.