A Lesson or Two I Learned From Blue

WINNER OF OUR CAT-ESSAY COMPETITION

I became a "cat person" on Sunday, Jan. 23, 1994. Four-thirty a.m., to be exact.

I had agreed to take care of Cinnamon, Donna's golden retriever, while she was away on vacation. What started innocently as a dog-sitting assignment, however, expanded to include birds, deer, and a cat named Blue.

I was to stay at Donna's house during her 10-day holiday, and arrived there a few hours before her departure. We set about reviewing instructions for Cinnamon and Blue.

As we stood in the foyer, Donna covered Cinnamon's needs. My job would be simple enough: food twice a day, water, walks, and play. Just ahead in the kitchen, the big oak table held two pairs of binoculars and a neatly stacked pile of bird guides. "I'm an avid birder. In fact, might you also feed the birds?" she asked on her way to several large feeders outside the kitchen door.

"It wouldn't be good to stop feeding them in the middle of winter," she said. "They're depending on the feeder food." What could be hard about feeding birds? I wondered. We went out to the porch where I was introduced to the finer points of cracked corn and sunflower seeds.

"While you're feeding the birds, you wouldn't mind feeding the deer, would you?" Don't they do all right by themselves? I thought. Maybe feeding deer in winter isn't a good idea. Hadn't I read something about how feeding deer encourages their overpopulation? "Here, let me show you," she continued. Off we went to the garage and the bag of deer feed.

"OK, let's go meet the cat." How did I get myself into this? I was a dog person from head to toe, having grown up with two family dogs. Once I was living on my own, I added a Labrador retriever to my life.

"Blue!" Donna called out as she led me up the stairs. At the top, I came upon a Siamese cat. One look at the intense color of his eyes and I understood his name.

My only Siamese-cat memory was, unfortunately, an unpleasant one. I was baby-sitting for the neighbors. Shortly after they left for the evening, the cat started stalking me. As a 14-year-old, I thought my life was in danger. I ran from the room with the cat in pursuit, and then somehow trapped the cat in the bathroom. I have always believed that the events of that night sealed my fate as a dog person. Needless to say, it ended my baby-sitting career with the neighbors.

"Blue will sometimes meow. He might want some tuna in his food dish." I followed Donna, who cradled Blue, down the stairs to the kitchen. "You'll need to bring him here, open a can, and put some on his dish." She placed the dish in front of Blue, but he declined. "If he still meows, it may mean that he wants to be carried to his bed." With that she scooped up Blue, and back upstairs we went. She placed Blue in his bed, but he immediately climbed out and walked across the room. "If he still meows, he probably wants to play catch with his plastic golf ball."

This I have to see, I thought. Donna found a plastic golf ball, sat on the floor across from Blue, and rolled the ball toward him. Blue watched the ball roll by.

Blue usually started his day at 6:30 a.m. He'd be my alarm clock, Donna said with a smile.

Donna caught her flight out in the late afternoon, and I settled in for my stay. That first night, I cared for all the animals. Blue ignored me throughout the evening, and for that I was grateful. Before long, I was off to bed.

Out of a sound sleep, I awoke to a loud, unforgettable cry. I turned to view the clock-radio numbers glowing green in the dark. Four-thirty. The crying was coming closer to the bedroom. Did Donna forget to tell me there was a baby in the house? My heart raced. I turned on the light and peered out over the covers. There in the doorway sat Blue. Four-thirty? What happened to 6:30? Is this what she meant by alarm?

I stumbled out of bed and steadied myself. Remembering my training, I took Blue in my arms and headed downstairs. I served the tuna dutifully. No use. The crying continued. We returned upstairs to try his bed. Blue stepped out from his bed, and the crying grew louder still.

It was up to the golf ball.

I sat in the middle of the room and rolled the ball to Blue. He reached out his paw, and to my amazement, batted it back in my direction. Our game of catch went on for 20 minutes, and then he quietly returned to his bed. Exhausted but relieved, I did too.

That morning in the kitchen, with the sunlight streaming in through the window, Blue stepped onto my lap, sat, and gently buffed me under my chin.

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