Authors: Luis Carlos Montalván,Bret Witter
A WOUNDED WARRIOR
WHO SAVED HIM
Luis Carlos Montalván
For My Papá
& Tuesday . . .
Split in Half
I happened upon a tree struck by lightning;
the aftermath of a wild and violent thing.
A tree split in half.
How do we come upon such things?
What happened here?
I have seen men and women split in half.
I’ve split people in half.
I am split in half.
Are two halves really a whole?
There are holes.
Deep and lonely holes,
split in half.
A tree with holes.
THE FIRST LOOK
The first thing everyone notices is the dog. Whenever I
walk through my neighborhood in upper Manhattan, every eye is drawn to Tuesday. A few people hesitate, unsure of such a large dog—Tuesday is eighty pounds, huge by New York City standards—but soon even the cautious ones smile. There is something about the way Tuesday carries himself that puts everyone at ease. Before they know it, construction workers on their coffee break are yelling to him and cute young women are asking if they can pet him. Even the little kids are astonished. “Look at that dog, Mommy,” I hear them say as we pass. “What a cool dog.”
And it’s true. Tuesday is, without exception, the coolest golden retriever I have ever known. He’s big and well built, but he has a golden’s innate love of life: playful, bouncy, exuberant. Even when he’s walking, he looks like he’s having fun. Not silly, doggy fun, though. There isn’t anything loose or sloppy about Tuesday, at least when he’s out on the street. Sure, he can’t resist a sniff or two where the other dogs have left their mark, but when he doesn’t have his nose pressed against a fire hydrant he’s as regal as a Westminster show dog, walking lightly at my side with his head up and his eyes straight ahead. He keeps his tail up too; this marks his confidence and shows off his luxurious coat, which is more auburn than the usual golden and seems to shine, even in the shade.
That gorgeous coat is no accident. Tuesday has been bred for generations to impress. He has been trained for temperament and deportment since he was three days old. Not years, days. He has been groomed every day of his life for at least fifteen minutes, and twice every day since I adopted him at the age of two. Each time we return to my apartment, I clean his paws with baby wipes. I clean his ears and trim his nails at least once a week. I clip the hair from his footpads and around his ears as soon as I notice them getting long. I even brush his teeth with chicken-flavored toothpaste every night. One night, I accidentally grabbed Tuesday’s toothpaste, popped a brushful in my mouth, and almost threw up. It was appalling, like eating mealy apples mixed with sand. But Tuesday loves it. He loves sitting on my lap while I groom him. He loves having Q-tips dipped down three inches inside his ears. Whenever he sees his toothbrush, his lips peel back and he shows me his teeth in anticipation of chicken-flavored sand.
But it’s not just his beautiful coat, or his extraordinarily fresh breath (for a dog), or even his regal bearing that attracts the stares. It’s his personality. As you can see from the photo on the cover of this book, Tuesday has an expressive face. He has sensitive, almost sad eyes—I think of them as smart-dog eyes, since they always seem to be watching you—but they are offset by a big goofy smile. Tuesday is one of those fortunate animals whose mouth forms a natural upward curve, so that even when he’s just loping along he looks happy. When he really smiles, his lips push all the way up into his eyes. Then his tongue drops out. His head goes up. His muscles relax and, pretty soon, his whole body is wagging, right down to his tail.
Then there are his eyebrows, a couple of big furry knots on the top of his head. Whenever Tuesday is thinking, his eyebrows move in random order, one up, one down. Every time I say his name, his eyebrows start dancing, up-down, down-up. They also start galloping when he smells something unusual, hears something in the distance, or notices someone and wants to figure out their intentions. He never passes anyone without flashing them a sly look with those deep eyes, his eyebrows bobbing, a big natural smile on his face and his tail wagging back and forth as if to say,
I’m sorry, I see you, I’d love to play, but I’m working right now
. He makes a connection, that’s the best way to say it; he has a friendly disposition. It’s common for people to pull out their cell phones and take pictures of him. I am not kidding: Tuesday is that kind of dog.
And then, in passing, they notice me, the big man standing beside the star. I’m Hispanic—Cuban on my father’s side, Puerto Rican on my mother’s—but I’m what’s known as a “white Latino,” someone light enough to be mistaken for Caucasian. I’m also six-foot-two, with broad shoulders and a muscular build from decades of workouts, now regrettably in my past. I’m going a little soft, I must admit, but I’m still intimidating, for lack of a better word. That’s why they called me Terminator, back in my old job with the U.S. Army. That’s how I became a captain in that Army, leading a platoon of men in combat and training Iraqi soldiers, police, and border police at the regimental level. There is nothing about me, in other words—even the straight, stiff way I carry myself—that seems disabled. Instead, the first impression I give most people, I’ve been told, is cop.
Until they notice the cane in my left hand, that is, and the way I lean on it every few steps. Then they realize my stiff walk and straight posture aren’t just pride, but a physical necessity. They don’t see the other scars: the fractured vertebrae and torn-up knee that gave me this limp, or the traumatic brain injury that left me with crippling migraines and severe balance problems. Even more hidden are the psychological wounds: the flashbacks and nightmares, the social anxiety and agoraphobia, the panic attacks at the sight of something as innocuous as a discarded soda can, a common IED during my two tours in Iraq. They don’t see the year I spent in an alcoholic haze, trying to cope with the collapse of my family, my marriage, and my career; the months I spent trying and failing to step outside my apartment; the betrayal of all the ideals—duty, honor, respect, brotherhood—I had believed in before the war.
And because they can’t see that, they never quite understand my relationship with Tuesday. No matter how much they admire him, they can never know what he means to me. Because Tuesday isn’t an ordinary dog. He walks directly beside me, for instance, or exactly two steps in front, depending on his mood. He guides me down stairs. He is trained to respond to more than 150 commands and to realize when my breathing changes or my pulse quickens, so that he can nudge me with his head until I’ve come out of the memories and back into the present. He is my barrier against crowds, my distraction from anxiety, and my assistant in everyday tasks. Even his beauty is a form of protection, because it attracts attention and puts people at ease. That’s why he was bred for good looks: not for ego, but so that people will notice him and, hopefully, the red vest with the white medical cross he wears across his back. Because beautiful, happy-go-lucky, favorite-of-the-neighborhood Tuesday isn’t my pet; he’s my trained-to-help-the-disabled service dog.
Before Tuesday, I caught glimpses of snipers on rooftops. Before Tuesday, I spent more than an hour in my apartment working up the courage to walk half a block to the liquor store. I took twenty medicines a day for everything from physical pain to severe agoraphobia, and even benign social encounters caused crippling migraines. Some days, I could barely bend down because of the damaged vertebrae in my back. Other days, I limped half a mile in a “gray-out,” awakening on a street corner with no idea where I was or how I had gotten there. My equilibrium was so bad because of a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that I often fell, including one time down a flight of concrete subway stairs.
Before Tuesday, I couldn’t work. Before Tuesday, I couldn’t sleep. I drank whole bottles of rum in one sitting to escape, but still lay in bed unable to shut my eyes. And every time I did, I saw terrible things: a murderous assailant, a dead child. After one grueling therapy session I went to a coffee shop, opened my laptop, and saw the face of a suicide bomber from Sinjar, Iraq. A platoon of Iraqi soldiers partnered with our regiment had placed their rest tent too close to their vehicle checkpoint, and the bomber had blown several of them apart. When I arrived, the tent was still smoldering, sirens were blaring, and body parts were everywhere. I was stepping over a severed arm toward the blown-out frame of the suicide car when I saw the bomber. Not his body, which was obliterated. Not his head, which had been decapitated and pulverized. I saw his face, shorn clean by the blast, lying quietly on the ground in the middle of hell like a children’s mask. The eye sockets were empty, but the rest was there: eyebrows, nose, lips, even his beard.
I buried that face in my mind for three years, but once it resurfaced in therapy I couldn’t escape it. I saw it on my computer screen. I saw it on the television in the corner of the coffee shop. I left, but caught glimpses of it in every window I passed. I hurried to the subway station, pushing myself along with my cane. I reeled wildly into the first subway car and collapsed beside the door. I was sweating wildly, and I could smell my stink, that funky mix of adrenaline and fear. I felt badly for the impeccably dressed black woman beside me, but I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t lift my eyes. I tried not to move. I closed my eyes, but the suicide bomber’s severed face, so evil and yet so calm, was imprinted on my eyelids. I sloshed wildly as the train caromed down the track, my head drumming and my stomach lurching, until finally, as the hydrogen bomb of a migraine exploded, I hurled myself out of my seat, threw open the emergency door, and, hunched over in the crevice between two subway cars, vomited onto the track, my life exploding out of me once again in a thousand little pieces.
I didn’t pick myself up, not for real anyway, until Tuesday. I didn’t start to put the pieces together, and hold them together, until this beautiful golden retriever, trained for two years to change the life of someone like me, became inseparable from my side. Tuesday gave me freedom, even from my worst fears, and by doing so he gave me back my life.
So no, Tuesday isn’t my pet. He doesn’t just make me laugh, or fetch my shoes, or give me someone to play with in the park. He doesn’t teach me metaphorical life lessons. He doesn’t greet me every time I open the door, because he is never on the other side of the door. He is with me all the time. Every second. He goes to the store with me. He goes to class with me. He rides in taxis with me and eats with me in restaurants. When I go to bed at night, Tuesday tucks me in. When I wake up, he walks to my side. When I go into a public restroom, Tuesday is there. In the stall. Right beside me.
We are bonded, dog and man, in a way able-bodied people can never understand, because they will never experience anything like it. As long as Tuesday is alive, he will be with me. Neither of us will ever be alone. We will never be without companionship. We will never have any privacy, even in our minds, because Tuesday and I are so in tune with each other after more than two years together that we can read each other’s body language and know each other’s thoughts.
It wasn’t always like that, of course. For a year, Tuesday and I lived two hours apart, without knowing each other. For a time in 2007, we were both so damaged the people who knew us doubted we would ever make it out. That’s part of our story, too: the journey we took to get here, the experiences that created the need. Because we aren’t just service dog and master; Tuesday and I are also best friends. Kindred souls. Brothers. Whatever you want to call it. We weren’t made for each other, but we turned out to be exactly what the other needed.
And that’s why I always smile when Tuesday and I sit on the stoop of my apartment building on West 112th Street, enjoying the warmth of the sun. I smile because even more than his training, it was Tuesday’s personality that broke my shell and set me free. He’s a happy dog. He loves life. And when you’re with someone like that every second of every day, how can you not love life too? Because of him, for the first time in a long time, I appreciate the simple moments with my dog at my side. And not just because it was so hard for Tuesday and me to achieve them, but because moments of quiet friendship are what make life—everyone’s life—so grand.
“Hi, Tuesday,” someone will invariably say, snapping me out of my thoughts, because even though we’ve lived on West 112th Street for less than two years Tuesday is already famous on the block.
When that happens, Tuesday perks up. He bobs his eyebrows a few times, the lovable rogue, but he doesn’t even peek over his shoulder at me with a longing look. He’s a service dog. He’s too disciplined to ask for favors or be distracted by fans. But I can see from the length and speed of his tail wagging that he wants me to give him the new command, “Go say hi,” the one that allows him to be petted while on duty. More often than not these days, I give it to him. Because I trust him. Because he knows his responsibilities. Because he loves his life. Because he loves to make people happy, and that makes me happy. And because I know Tuesday can rub his head under someone else’s hand without forgetting that he belongs to me, just as I belong to him.
“Can I take a picture? He’s an amazing dog.”
You don’t know the half of it
, I think, as I move out of the background so the young woman can photograph Tuesday alone.
You have no idea.