The Split

Part 03





I was fifteen years old when my parents separated. I knew when I left for preparatory school that (1) my parents would be forced to talk to one another or (2) the deadening silence intermixed with bouts of shouting would overwhelm them. When I returned home after my freshman year, I discovered the outcome.


We had just eaten dinner. My brother, Nick, sat across from me, and Max sat at my feet underneath the table. Jon was living on the Massachusetts northshore, about 60 miles away, for the summer and couldn’t take off of work to be there. I didn’t understand why that was such a big deal until I heard my dad say, "We have something to tell you." Those words are seared into my memory. All the words that came after that, however, I seem to have blocked out.


I left the table for my room, and shut the door. Nick took Max outside to play as my parents followed me upstairs and knocked on my door. They walked in to tell me how much they loved me and that none of what was happening was my fault, but all I wanted was to be with Nick and Max.


They let me go, and I walked outside to my brother. He gave me a hug as Max came running over, shoving his nose between us and wagging his tail. My brother gave me a noogie and let go. Max looked up at me and sat down on the driveway. I squatted down to rub his floppy ears. He tried to lick my hands.


For the next few months it seemed like every time I was feeling sad, Max was there. I would sit on the floor of my room, sobbing, and Max would push open my door, which stuck so much it never fully closed, and sat in front of me. He sat still as I hugged him, my tears wetting his fur. Eventually he would lie down, his head in my lap, and I continued to cry.


It seemed, in these moments, that Max knew I was sad. But how could he? Dogs don’t cry tears from their eyes. Their faces don’t get red and blotchy, and they don’t sob into the shoulders of other dogs. But Max knew.




Upon the separation, my dad moved into Brier Neck, a beach house on the northshore that my grandfather built for the family when I was just a baby. He lived the same 60 miles away my brother, Jon, once had. But in November, on my sixteenth birthday, my dad made a rare trip to Westford, so he could take me to my permit test.


After I passed my test and the DMV took, to this day, the most hideous picture of me, which has since been burned, my dad took me to an empty parking lot to practice driving. Then he told me that my brothers would be driving to Brier Neck to have an "alternate Thanksgiving" with him and his new girlfriend.


Nobody invited me. Nobody even told me. On my birthday. I thought my dad came to spend the day with me. Now my brothers wouldn't even be able to.


My dad drove me back to the house, and he and my brothers left for Brier Neck and their Thanksgiving festivities. I stayed at home with my mom and with Max.


I have never liked crying in front of other people. But I always cried in front of Max. And he always let me. On this day, lke so many others, he sat and listened to my troubles - at least I like to think he did - and let me cry until I was too bored to cry anymore. Then I went downstairs to celebrate my birthday with the two people (used loosely) who I know will never leave me, even when they are no longer around.




Every year since I can remember, my family has attended the Christmas Eve candlelight service at the congregational church in Rockport, Massachusetts - on the northshore. We'd have a scallop dinner at my grandma's house, go to the service downtown, open presents, eat dessert, which always included cookies and a Friendly's jubilee ice cream roll, and I'd spend the ride home looking for Santa's sleigh in the night sky. 


On Christmas Eve of that year, however, my tradition was broken when I met the woman my dad was seeing. Kathleen had joined the church choir with my grandmother. So as we took our usual seats in the pew and the choir lined up for the processional, I asked Nick to point her out to me. For the majority of the service, I stared at her.


After the service, we were talking with my grandmother and some friends of the family. Kathleen was nowhere to be found. Thank God. But then my father disappeared and came back with her at his side.


"This is Kathleen," he said.


I felt the tears building up in my eyes, so I looked at the ground. 


Why did he have to make a point of introducing her to me? It had only been six months. It was Christmas. We were in church! What was he thinking? It didn't happen naturally. It wasn't meant to be. Why couldn't he just leave it alone?


For the rest of the night, I was silent. For many days I was silent. Until one day Max, walked into my room and placed his chin on the edge of my bed. I patted the bed and he jumped up onto it. He laid down next to me, and I started to cry.







Dogs can sense different emotions in humans. In a laboratory setting, they can discriminate just sections of human faces as being happy or sad. They show preferences for emotional faces that match the emotional valence of a vocalization. And they gaze longer at owners who watch a sad movie than those who watch a cheerful movie without being exposed to any element of the movie.


So I was right. Max knew when I was sad. He even sought me out when I was upset. But was that simply because I was crying? Making noises he didn't understand? Or maybe my exclamations were making him excited. He thought is was time to play? I think not.


Researchers define cognitive empathy as “an affective response that frequently stems from empathy, but can derive solely from perspective taking or other cognitive processing, including retrieval of information from memory. It consists of feelings of sorrow or concern for the distressed or needy.” Incredibly, they also argue that dogs exhibit empathic behaviors.


They reason that a distressed human would trigger dogs to behave in a subdued and submissive rather than playful or neutral manner if dogs do, in fact, display empathy. And that is what they have found. Dogs are subdued and considerably more person-oriented when a person exhibits distressful behaviors, like crying, as compared to similarly stimulating behaviors, like humming. So it wasn't just the weird noises I was making. Max didn't think it was time to play. He recognized my sadness.


It has also been shown in the laboratory that dogs can “catch” a human yawn. And I certainly believe that. Almost every night, as it approached nine o'clock - my mother's bedtime - she would yawn. Then I would yawn. Then Max would yawn his whiney yawn. Researchers suggest that this ability may be related to empathic behavior capability. At the very least, they argue that it modulates levels of arousal and, thus, can coordinate interactions between humans and dogs.