50: All about the Balloon

50: All about the Balloon

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Cat Did What?

All about the Balloon

It is a happy talent to know how to play.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

If you look up the word “curious” in the dictionary, you really should find a picture of my cat, Palom. He was the inspector general of the household, checking on the contents and flavor of every grocery bag, prying open cupboards with a swipe of his paw, and inspecting every bit of the Christmas tree.

I loved him to bits, but quite honestly, his relentless nosiness drove me bonkers. If I heard any strange noise in the next room, I knew to yell out, “Palom!” because he was bound to be into mischief.

As part of his curious nature, Palom was also an extremely social cat. He met everyone at the door. He scrutinized purses and shoes like a judge on some fashion reality TV show. When my son Nicholas’s therapists arrived, Palom presumed he was the reason for their visits. Many times, he dove into a session and stole toys, causing me to chase after him or grab a broomstick so I could knock a plastic figure out from beneath the couch.

Even though Nicholas had grown up with Palom and his sister Porom in the household, he almost completely ignored their existence. When he did notice them, it wasn’t in a good way. Nicholas’s autism made him highly sensitive to loud sounds, so Palom’s brash yowl of greeting made him cover his ears and cry. I could only coax Nicholas to pet the cats if I did it with him, hand over hand.

It made me sad to see my first kids — my cats — exist in a separate sphere from my son. Porom is an introvert and didn’t mind being ignored by Nicholas. But Palom always meowed hello to Nicholas, or curled up in his bed, or attempted to groom him. Sometimes, I felt like I had to break them apart like squabbling siblings.

Palom had many obsessions — his beloved shoes, his cardboard box — but he had a special interest in balloons. As I drove Nicholas home from a dentist appointment, a reward balloon bobbing in the back seat, I worried about what would happen.

Palom would do everything possible to get that balloon, and if it popped, the sound alone would drive Nicholas into a panic. Plus, I was always worried about Palom trying to eat one of his “kills.” I would need to keep a close eye on things.

That first day, the balloon drifted along the ceiling. Nicholas was content to stare up at it. So was Palom. The cat pondered his prey, tail lashing in anticipation.

The next morning, when I brought out the balloon it had lost enough air that it hovered at about four feet. The string dragged on the floor.

“Balloon!” shouted Nicholas. He grabbed the string and spun around.

Palom galloped in and sprang at the string. I opened my mouth to call out a warning to Nicholas, but I froze at an unexpected sound.

Laughter. Gales of laughter. Nicholas almost doubled over in hysterics as he made eye contact with Palom. He jerked on the balloon. Palom bounded after it. For once, Nicholas wasn’t terrified of the big cat. He twirled in a circle. Palom’s white paws pounded after the small tail of string still on the floor. Nicholas heaved in giggles and danced forward.

Tears filled my eyes. I did what any mom would do in such circumstances — I ran for the camera.

The next fifteen minutes passed in a happy blur as Nicholas and Palom played together for the first time. The barriers of autism had crumbled, all because of the hilarious determination of one tabby cat. Palom leaped, and dashed in circles, and chased Nicholas from room to room. The sound of laughter rang throughout the house. Whenever Palom had too strong a hold on the string, I intervened, but otherwise I let them do their thing. Nicholas couldn’t stop laughing. Palom couldn’t stop his pursuit. He meowed and pirouetted and had the grandest of times.

All too often, I’d scolded Palom for his nosiness and apologized to guests for his aggressive friendliness, but those very same traits had created this beautiful moment.

Soon enough, Nicholas was distracted by a book. He curled up in a chair, his face red and sweat-soaked. He didn’t give Palom a second glance. I grabbed the balloon and set it to drift from the top of a bookshelf. Palom followed me with a querulous meow.

“Sorry,” I said. “I don’t want you to pop it. Maybe you two can play again later.” I couldn’t help but smile. These two loves of my life had connected. Maybe they could connect again.

Resigned, Palom curled up in his box a few feet away from my computer desk. I sat down and stroked him with my foot.

“You did good, Pal,” I whispered to him. “Just keep on trying.”

Palom yawned as if to shrug off the praise, his ribs vibrating in a purr. One amber eye squinted as he monitored the balloon up high.

When it was playtime again he would be ready.

~Beth Cato

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