Up until last month I had a dog named Zeus.
Zeus was my first dog. I didn’t know how to be a pet owner before. I didn’t know that dogs could truly love people. It’s not a made up thing.
Last spring the vet gave Zeus a days-to-live diagnosis. What seemed like a chest cold turned out to be tumor town. The vet said we could feed him whatever he wanted because all that mattered now was his happiness. Zeus enjoyed this very much and decided to cling to the mast for several more weeks. I got my hopes up that we cheated death through canine heroine and hot dogs.
But, no. When it was time, the vet helped my husband, daughter and me usher Zeus into the next plane with treats, drugs and love. My daughter Margaret flung herself on his neck in the final moments, crying with the kind of grief that scoops out your insides. I know because my own insides were undergoing the same operation.
I walked around for weeks stunned and unhappy and honestly a little offended. I had never had a pet before, but we took excellent care of him. Spoiler alert, it doesn’t matter what you do. They die before you. It’s not cool.
In my young adult novel How to Be Manly, the main character Matty forges a friendship with his neighbor’s dog Dirty Harry when his owner goes into the hospital. Dirty Harry is a model of loyalty and bad-ass courage. I wouldn’t know dogs could be that way if it weren’t for Zeus.
My favorite thing about Dirty Harry is that he is a magical never-dying dog because he is fictional.
But wait, I don’t want the last thing you know about Zeus is that he conked out on us before I was ready.
Do you want to know why I knew enough about an awesome dog to be able to write Dirty Harry into being? Because one hot day when I had all the doors and windows open, a man stole a woman’s car with her in it and crashed it down the street. The man ran into our backyard. I didn’t know this because I was making dinner. My husband was at work and I was momentarily crippled by a knee injury. All I knew was that Zeus was barking like crazy and there was nothing I could do to stop him because I could barely walk. That goddamn dog, I thought. So noisy.
Then my youngest daughter said, “Look, Mommy. There’s a man.”
And indeed a frantic stranger was barging through our side door.
For about two seconds.
Our Zeus rammed through the house from the backyard like an orange missile of death and chased the intruder right over the fence.
I’ve never seen a human being move as fast as that carjacker escaping our dog. Within the hour the police arrested the guy. I don’t know what happened to him, or to the woman he kidnapped.
My family’s part of the story was that one day a violent man was foiled by our loyal, bad-ass dog who though perpetually gentle with children was fiercely protective of my family.