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The sign on the pole outside the library advertised "free kittens." I memorized the phone number, silently repeating it all the way home. Fate was on my side that day, as I had just added "get a cat" to my pre-40 bucket list.

I called the number I'd stashed in my head. There were five kittens still available. My heart was racing when I asked if I could see them, realizing I might be crossing off an item on my list and gaining a furry friend. But as I hung up the phone I cursed my stupidity. How could I welcome a young feline into my home knowing I was allergic to cats?

On my seventh birthday, I was given the best present ever. A kitten. Boots was our family cat for 19 years and I adored him. Toward the end of his life though, I developed a cat allergy. If I touched him my eyes would become itchy, my nose congested and my lungs wheezy. Since I was no longer living at home at that point, the allergies only affected me when I visited. Equipped with puffers, antihistamines and nose sprays, I survived. But just barely.

After Boots died, I hoped my allergies would disappear. Unfortunately, I discovered that not only was I allergic to cats, but all furry creatures were enemies to my immune system. Social gatherings at friends' homes always began well, but within an hour of inhaling dog or cat hairs I'd bolt for the door gasping for air. I realized sadly that any chance of owning a furry creature would be as likely as finding a cure for pet allergies.

Despite the challenge to my lungs, I longed to have a cat again. I missed patting Boot's soft thick fur, listening to his affectionate purr and feeling his warmth beside me while I slept. I liked his sassy cat attitude, the way he paraded around expecting to be fed and let outside on a command meow. And I missed chatting to him, even though I knew he didn't understand.

When I married and had kids, the absence of a pet in our home was like a house without a television: Neither is a necessity, but both are desirable. It was impossible to walk by a pet store in a mall without popping in for a few moments of window shopping. As much as I wanted to buy my family a fluffy kitten or puppy, I knew I couldn't. So I ended up settling for a fish.

The kids were thrilled with their new fish, and surprisingly I was too. The three of us fed it, cleaned its tank and revelled at its grace and beautiful colours as it cruised through the water. I was skeptical though. I suspected it might only be a quick fix for a pet and I was right. Soon the novelty wore off and the fish became as exciting as a house plant.

Having failed to fill my pet void, it occurred to me that what I really needed was a cat in my life again. Not a fish, a gecko, a hamster or a bird. I wanted a furry kitten, just like when I was 7. And with my 40th birthday on the horizon, I felt compelled to add a cat to my wish list.

On the day I went to see the kittens, I sat on the floor in a closet-sized bedroom with little felines climbing all over me. I could have stayed there all afternoon like a kid in a video arcade, but after 20 minutes I left with a stuffy nose, red and itchy claw scratches and a crushed heart.

I wasn't going to give up that easily though. Upon my return home I ditched my common sense and called the owner to negotiate a deal. He hesitantly agreed to give me a kitten with a return policy. I hinted that I was hopeful I'd become immune to Spot, as he was called, but I needed time to find out. If I became victimized by my allergies, it was a relief to know that Spot would have a home to go back to. So I welcomed him as if he were a lost stray, unsure how long he would stay.

In an effort to avoid a full-blown allergic reaction from our new houseguest, I was careful not to touch him. Throughout his first afternoon with us, this energetic little fluff ball followed me everywhere like a shadow, which is how he got his new name. My family and I took great delight in watching Shadow play while familiarizing himself with his new surroundings. And the more we became smitten with our newcomer, the more the thought of a possible return hung over me like a dark cloud.

By bedtime, I remained allergy free. Still cautious, I made sure to close the bedroom door while I slept, keeping the fur at bay. By the next day, I had a stuffy nose. A week later, the same symptoms prevailed with a hint of wheezing. Not bad since I had succumbed to petting Shadow and sharing my bed with him.

I began to carve out a special place for Shadow in my life, depending on him for his unconditional affection. Whenever I needed a pick-me-up, I would search for him and inevitably find him asleep. I'd stroke his soft fur to elicit a thunderous purr, all the while stealing a few precious moments of peaceful togetherness. During restless nights, I'd call for him and within minutes he'd be on my bed, purring me a lullaby. This was the compassion I'd hoped to recreate from my childhood years with Boots. No allergy was going to take that away.

Now, eight years later, I still have Shadow. I'm not allergy-free, but I can live with my stuffy nose and wheeziness, taking medication occasionally. Besides, his return policy expired a long time ago.

Christine Biggs lives in Toronto.

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