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Starting Point

On the doorstep of our hearts


As I stepped out onto our front porch deck one evening, a movement in the corner caught my eye. I peered into the growing dusk and caught my breath in shock, for there on our porch, eating nonchalantly out of our cat dish, was a skunk! We have lived in our village for nearly two-and-a-half decades and I have never, in all this time, encountered a skunk in such close proximity. And even more bizarre, our black tomcat was lying nearby on a rug, completely oblivious of the skunk, as if they were friends.

Standing as still as a statue, I watched as the skunk finished eating the cat food one small morsel at a time, delicately and thoroughly cleaning up the few remaining bits that had fallen out of the dish. Not in the least bit hurried, he ambled over by the snoozing cat. Now just a yard away, I got a good look at the small, half-grown animal through the glass door. It was the kind known as a striped skunk, with glossy black fur, a snow-white double stripe on his back and a gorgeous plumed tail. I was mesmerized by his small, friendly appearing face, with the white diamond on his forehead and bright little eyes. I perceived a sense of good will about him, which I know is a very odd comment to make about a skunk.

Later on the Web, I searched for information. Are skunks the nasty creatures most people believe them to be? Are they a menace, carriers of the dreaded rabies, thereby something to be disposed of and avoided at all costs? According to research, apparently not. I learned that skunks of the striped kind are docile, non-aggressive animals who live in woodland areas or places not too far from water. They make dens under boulders or tree-stumps and are social animals who are nurturing to their young. Since they live basically on mice, insects and plant matter, they are actually a benefit to society. They are also clean animals who only spray when alarmed, attacked or in danger. Current studies I found say they are not carriers of rabies any more than any other mammal.

But, I know, I know, it is probably not a good idea to befriend a wild skunk, even though we named ours Monk and crouch by the glass door every evening to watch in delight as he comes to visit just before dark. He has become familiar with our voices, and yesterday, when I called to the cat behind our house, it was not the cat who came out of the woods, but Monk! Native Americans regard the skunk as powerful medicine, representing the importance of self-respect, dignity, playfulness and nonchalance in the face of mean-spiritedness or sorrow. They are also a symbol of “walking tall in spirit.” It is here that our story with the little skunk deepens.

Our youngest son died in 1999 by probable suicide, and the skunk appeared around the time that he would have graduated from high school this last spring. We were dreadfully grief-stricken, and the arrival of the entertaining skunk caused a small shift for us. I found I could not help but grin through the tears -- and even laugh at the utter absurdity of it. If God and our son had conspired to send a funny experience to comfort, encourage and cheer, a skunk on the doorstep of our hearts could not have been better medicine.

Joni Woelfel is the author of Tall in Spirit and The Light Within (ACTA Publications). Her support Web site for teen/adult depression and suicide prevention can be visited at www.geocities.com/micsmessage/index.html

National Catholic Reporter, August 24, 2001