Late one fall, when I was in my twenties, my 11-year-old sister Clare, spent several weeks in the hospital recovering from an illness. Once home, and despite time and lots of TLC from our Mom, she still wasn?t bouncing back to her bright, happy self.

And so, one early December afternoon, coming home from a photo assignment, I was thinking about Clare and had an idea. I thought that maybe a kitten for Christmas would be just the ticket to bring back her beautiful smile. From that moment, through the very end of the day Christmas Eve, finding the perfect kitten for Clare was the most important mission of the holiday season. On the way home, I called my mom and my sister?s doctor to see if I could get their approval for my idea. Clare?s doctor was very enthusiastic and said a pet would be great for her. Mom, though a little reluctant, gave her go ahead.

The second I walked in the door, I shared the kitten plan with my eight-year-old daughter, Andrea. She loved her aunt and was thrilled to be part of this happy holiday project and now I had a fellow elf ?to share the excitement. Since it was early December, I was certain we?d have no problem finding a cute, fuzzy kitten for Clare?s unknown-to-her-as-of-yet super Merry Christmas. It wasn?t long into the search that I could see these intentions might not meet with immediate success.

From the outset, I thought that finding and adopting a kitten who needed a loving little girl and a warm home in the middle of a Kansas winter ,and at Christmas no less, would be easy. How wrong I was. During the next few weeks, I came to the conclusion that every single person in Kansas City who had a little sister hoped to surprise her with a kitten under the Christmas tree. And, I wanted to know how they were all finding their kittens before we did.

We called pet stores and animal shelters on a regular basis those first few weeks of December. Some would say ?there aren?t many kittens this year?, or ?we don?t have any kittens now but feel free to call back in a day or two? or ?we had a litter yesterday but they?ve all gone to new homes.? It seemed that if there were kittens out there, someone was finding them before Andrea and me. As Christmas drew closer, I started to feel a little concern. Though our intentions were strong and we still believed in the kitten mission, time was starting pass by quickly.

Christmas Eve arrived, Kansas cold but with a sunny blue sky. Though we hadn?t found a kitten, I knew today was the day. Though there wasn?t a kitten on the immediate horizon, I was sure we?d find the perfect one for Clare and just in time for Christmas delivery.

While I finished wrapping packages, Andrea?s project was to, once again, call the pet stores and animal shelters and ask if any new kittens had arrived. She sat with the yellow pages, cordless phone and her favorite breakfast burrito, and made the calls. When she started her calls, she was confident like me, that today we?d have success and find the kitten we?d been searching for. Starting with the letter ?A?, she made her calls. When she got to ?W? and the last entry in the pet listings, she dialed Wayside Waifs, the largest pet shelter in the Kansas City area. Looking at Andrea?s expression, Wayside Waifs told her the same thing she?d heard all morning, and that we?d heard all December.

?Mom, Wayside Waifs doesn?t have any kittens. But the lady said sometimes people will bring a litter by on Christmas Eve. She said you never know,? Andrea related. ?Mom, we should go and see.?

?I know. We will. Right away.? I answered. ?What time do they close??

?I don?t know.?

?Call them back, please, and find out. I?ll finish this package and we?ll head over there.?

We were both becoming a little discouraged but still nowhere near giving up. Andrea made her call and learned that Wayside Waifs closed at 4 o?clock. It was 2?o clock. I called one more time for directions and we bundled up, with high hopes, and headed to Wayside Waifs.

Wayside Waifs was located in a part of Kansas City I didn?t know very well, Needless to say, with my focus on the goal, I wasn?t paying close enough attention to the directions. All of the sudden, the streets turned into a maze and before I knew it, I was lost. What should have been a half our trip turned into an hour and a half. We arrived at Wayside Waifs at 3:30 and they were closing in half an hour.

As soon as we arrived, we went to the front desk and asked if any kittens had been dropped off that afternoon.

?No?, the volunteer answered.

?We were hoping to adopt a kitten for my sister for Christmas and have been looking most of December for one?, I said.

?I?m sorry?, she answered. ?You?re welcome to take a look at the other pets we have. Feel free to walk through the kennel rooms and say hi, if you?d like.?

I responded with a half-hearted smile. With Andrea?s hand in mine, we headed back to the kennels. It was almost 4?o?clock Christmas Eve and we had no kitten for Clare. We hadn?t given up but it was clear that time was running out before the door was closed for Christmas at Wayside Waifs and therefore on our special plan for my sister.

Without speaking a word and with disappointment in the air, Andrea and I walked up and down the kennel aisles, past all of kinds of dogs. There were puppies and grown dogs, big and small, and all trying their best to win a passerby?s heart and go home as someone?s special Christmas dog.

Hoping for a last-minute miracle, we stopped for a moment and looked down at one of the kennels. Gazing at us, from the corner of a very big kennel was a very small white puppy. Maybe her silence and serenity caught our attention or maybe it was her warm heart, snow white coat and shiny black eyes. We knew, at that moment, we?d found Clare?s perfect Christmas kitten. But she wasn?t a kitten. She was a puppy! And, we didn?t find her, she found us!

?Andrea, what do you think??

?Yes, Mom!?

We ran to the front office. Apparently, we were the last visitors and even the lights were being shut off.

?But I thought you had your hearts set on adopting a kitten for your sister?? questioned the volunteer, who wore a Santa hat and a name tag that said Melissa.

?I believe we?ve changed our mind. After a month-long search for a kitten, I think we?d really like to adopt the white puppy. She?s just perfect and I know my sister will love her.?

?What kind is she?? Andrea asked Melissa.

?Mostly white German Shepherd. She?s a very special little puppy. We?ve only had her for a few days but she became a favorite here right away.?

?Is it too late to adopt her?? I asked.

?And can we take her with us today for my aunt?? Andrea followed.

Melissa looked up at the clock, with a bit of a frown and crease in her forehead. Then she turned back to us with a big ?ok-let?s do it? smile.

Thirty minutes later, as the sun was setting on a frozen but beautiful Christmas Eve, Andrea and I left Wayside Waifs. I carried the dog dishes, leash, collar and adoption papers while Andrea held and cuddled this very special gift, who was now wrapped in a white blanket and sound asleep. I called Mom to tell her we were on the way, with a puppy, not a kitten. I felt it might be best to give her a little notice and time to think about it.

We knocked on the door and waited for Clare to answer. When she opened the door, Andrea handed her our Christmas surprise, now curled up like a snowball in her blanket. Without a single word and with tears in her eyes, Clare gently held her gift in her hands. Awake now, the puppy peeked out from her blanket, and in a moment was nuzzled in my sister?s neck. Clare?s beautiful smile was back.

Clare named her puppy Heidi. The two were inseparable friends for the next ten years, until Clare moved away to start a new life as a married woman. Heidi then spent the rest of her life loved and spoiled by my Dad.