Popcorn, a prayer and a trip to Israel

I had suffered from extreme dog deprivation for years and had resisted getting a canine friend as a single person with crazy hours. Shortly after I got engaged in the spring of ‘97 I received a call from one of my dearest friends. One of our mutual clients, a little boy, had parents going through a divorce and they were looking for a home for their toy poodle, Popcorn (who was named thus because his owner thought that he looked like hot, buttered popcorn). Though they loved him they weren’t allowed to have pets in the apartment where they were moving. My friend had watched Popcorn before and urged me to take him. “You’ll never find a sweeter dog- he rarely barks and is good with my kids.” And so we adopted him – sight unseen. On a hot summer day in July his mother delivered Popcorn at age three to our home with a photo of him as a puppy. Though I had had poodles growing up this was my first dog. I had no idea at the time that the universe had delivered the most miraculous wedding present right to my door.

Popcorn quickly integrated himself into our lives. He was so well-behaved that I decided to take him to my office every day. With a PR firm full of women that loved dogs he fit in perfectly. Within no time he became our COO (Canine Operating Officer) by running into the lobby to greet all guests (except for the unfortunate postal workers and delivery people with carts that he mildly terrorized but never injured!), jumping on the couch and sitting next to them – usually with his head on their lap. It was entirely disarming for everyone that walked in the door. Popcorn quickly became our supreme ambassador and was considered a great asset in every new business meeting. He was particularly fond of photo shoots and had the honor of appearing in a number of magazines. His sweet behavior and mellow demeanor undoubtedly calmed down many a client. And he was a ham as well. When one of my clients was posing for the cover of Hollywood Dog magazine Popcorn ran into the frame and nudged out her Golden Retriever!

After the terror of 9/11 hit my universe came crashing down. It started with identity theft after my purse was stolen in New York City and then was followed by a rare cancer diagnosis that required immediate and painful surgery. Shortly thereafter, my deeply unsatisfying marriage came to a close. Words cannot describe the comfort that I received from my canine companion. It was Popcorn always there by my side that helped bolster my spirits on a daily basis. His unconditional love and eternally patient demeanor inspired me to surmount all of the challenges that life was throwing my way.

When I started to date again Popcorn displayed a rare albeit humorous behavioral issue. Though he always welcomed guests into our home over the years he showed clear agitation when a man would venture inside. Within moments he would start to hump his leg! I was shocked that my fixed little guy would do this and yet amused by the reaction of my dates. It definitely broke the awkwardness of dating again right off the bat! Fortunately, I was able to find an animal behaviorist that helped me curb that behavior. She told me that Popcorn now thought that he was the male of the house (and he truly was) and that he was showing his position by humping my male friends. In retrospect I wonder if he realized that it was too soon for me to be dating… Fortunately, after three years when I met the man that would become my husband, Popcorn had mellowed and attached himself quickly to his father-to-be. It seemed as if Popcorn innately sensed that his mom was ready for a relationship again and knew that Steve was the one for me.

Popcorn wasn’t only an asset for my professional life. He widened my social interactions and caused me to become a friendlier neighbor. It was through my many walks with him in our Brentwood neighborhood that we got to know a plethora of canine-loving people. It was one of these friends that brought up a subject that I had been too afraid to contemplate: what would we do when Popcorn died? A kind women with a large rescue dog, Missy, had decided to bury her beloved in a pet cemetery in Calabasas. She said to me, “I’m Jewish- how can I have my dog cremated? We don’t believe in that.” Indeed I am Jewish as well, but the thought of leaving Popcorn in a grave in Calabasas somehow didn’t feel right. It seems to me that scattering Popcorn’s ashes would be the most natural thing to do- and in a sacred place that had meaning.

But what place would that be?

Over the years I learned how feeding my dog a natural food diet would help his energy and longevity- and so I shared my flax seed oil with him, my COQ10 supplement to strengthen his heart, etc. I invested in doing everything that I could to ensure that my little guy would live a long life. I secretly hoped that I would be able to call the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest dog to ever live. My mother (a/k/a the poodle whisperer) warned me that at age 17 I would see a sharp decline in his health and sadly, she was right on target. Shortly after his 17th birthday in May he started to have serious issues: losing balance and falling, lethargy, etc. I was shocked by how quickly this occurred so I took him to the vet thinking that he had contracted a virus. When I suggested that he was ill my vet looked at me sadly and told me that it was very rare that a dog walked through his door at the age of 17. After a panel of blood tests it was determined that there was nothing wrong with Popcorn other than old age. I went home with B 12 shots to administer to him weekly and a bag of IV fluids to give subcutaneously to help to keep him hydrated. After that vet visit there was temporary improvement but he was never the same. Popcorn died six weeks after his 17th birthday almost to the day that I had adopted him 14 years earlier. My little guy waited until I returned from a business trip and died in the comfort of our home where he had spent most of his life. I had decided that a private cremation was the right thing to do. The kind man at the pet mortuary assured me that we would have his remains with his paw print within 10 days.

Towards the end of the business day Popcorn would usually start to scratch the carpeting to let me know that it was time it was time to go home. One week to the day of his death as I sat typing on the computer alone in my office at 6:45 p.m. I heard scratching on the floor. I got up to see what it could be and then I realized exactly what it was – my French poodle had paid me a visit on July 14 (Bastille Day). I knew at that moment that he had been cremated that day and that his little spirit came by to bid me adieu as he left for his next adventure. There was tangible proof that animals also possess souls. When I returned home to tell my husband about my amazing experience I received a quizzical but sympathetic look; however, my alleged chimera was confirmed when we received Popcorn’s ashes a few days later. On the certificate of cremation in black ink it was affirmed that Popcorn was indeed cremated on July 14. And yet what to do with his ashes? How do we honor the pets that have provided us with so much unconditional love for so many years?

I had had a local artist make a painting of Popcorn from a beautiful photo of him taken by my cousins at an Israel rally which hangs in our stairwell. In the background an Israeli flag is billowing. As I looked at the painting I had an epiphany- why not bring his ashes to Israel in September when we travel there on business? I could think of no more sacred place to spread his remains. That flag in the background seemed to be prescient. When I called the rabbi that was traveling with us about some kind of a prayer for Popcorn when we scatter his ashes he was stumped. Could I say the mourner’s kaddish (a Jewish prayer for the bereaved) perhaps? Uncomfortable silence followed. There are no prayers for pets in the Torah, I was told. Indeed the references to animals in there involve sacrifice and consumption. He suggested that I make up my own prayer.

We departed for Israel on September 11 and I decided to bring a portion of his ashes. I thought that the Mt. of Olives would be the perfect location since this is the most holy place to be buried in Israel. Once we arrived in Jerusalem and the day came for our ceremony we were walking through the Old City. I was inspired by the newly built Rambam synagogue where beautiful pink flowers graced the front of the limestone building. After all, Popcorn had the innate wisdom of an old sage so why not spread his ashes nearby? As I took out the bag with his ashes and started to spread them next to the bushes in front of the synagogue I said in Hebrew (through my tears): We bless Popcorn. He will live in our hearts always. I was so emotional that there was nothing more that I could say at that moment except stand there holding my husband. Despite my unbearable sadness I felt an incredible relief. I had found the spiritual solace that I was yearning for to honor the dog that had been my constant companion for so many years. When we returned from our trip we went to synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and as the congregation joined in the mourner’s kaddish prayer, I said a prayer for Popcorn.