A Heaven-Sent Irish Setter

For a young woman who needed a reason to hope, Big Red was inexplicably reassuring.

- Posted on Jul 17, 2013

A photo of an Irish setter running across a field

So this is what the end feels like. I stared out the window of my parents’ living room. The sun shone brightly, but I couldn’t feel its warmth. The light felt harsh and unforgiving.

Winter’s typical days—cold, gray, overcast—had been slow to arrive that December in southern Missouri, but I was in a kind of darkness, lost in my own personal blizzard. I could barely find the will to get out of bed. I didn’t see the point.

I’d been here a month, mostly staying in my room, blinds closed, or wandering the house like a ghost. Daddy had brought me home from New York City. I’d moved there with big dreams. At 25, I’d been accepted into a writing program.

But the city was so fast, so busy, so loud, like no place I’d ever lived. I couldn’t stay focused. A harsh review by a professor sent me spiraling downward into a sadness that never lifted. Finally, I checked into a hospital.

“Clinical depression,” the doctor said. The call home was so hard to make. I felt like a failure.

Daddy looked up from the book he was reading, a thin smile on his face. “Honey, you feeling okay?” he asked. I knew he was trying to help. But it felt like my parents were constantly hovering. I needed to get away from their worried expressions.

I looked out at the sun again. An urge struck me. I should go outside. “Guess I’ll take a walk,” I mumbled.

I opened the front door. The light nearly blinded me. I felt something at my side. A big, beautiful Irish setter had bounded over from next door. I didn’t know the neighbors had a dog.

I shuffled down the driveway. The dog loped along beside me. His coat shone, thick and lustrous. He was lean, but not skinny. Definitely well cared for. Strong.

My legs felt like dead weight. I forced myself to walk, each step an effort. My parents lived on a circular road a half-mile long. The houses were set back from the street, with spacious yards. In the distance I could see the woods and farm fields I’d explored growing up. Once they’d meant joy and freedom.

“What am I supposed to do now?” I said out loud, to no one.

The dog cocked his head at the sound of my voice. His gaze was piercing, focused. I had his undivided attention.

“How could I have been so stupid?” I asked him. How ludicrous was it that I was conversing with an Irish setter? Yet I plowed on. “I don’t even know who I am anymore, what I’m good at. I can’t just live here with Mom and Dad forever.”

The setter ran off behind a nearby tree, sniffing the ground intently. I took a deep breath and walked on. Great, I thought. I can’t even hold a dog’s attention.

I cut across a field to the woods and reached an overgrown path. There was the dog again. He had beaten me here somehow. Fast, I thought. “What’s your name?” I asked. He looked up and swished his tail. “I’m going to call you Big Red.”

We walked for miles. I don’t know how I found the energy. Finally we reached a park. I sat at a picnic table and held my head in my hands, dazed with exhaustion. Something soft rubbed against my leg. Big Red. I scratched behind his ears.

“Don’t you have anything better to do than hang out with me?” I said. “Your owner is probably out looking for you. We’d better head back.”

He followed me home, occasionally streaking off to chase a squirrel. He was so full of life! At the door he broke away from me and sat calmly in the neighbor’s yard, looking at me, panting softly. He was just a dog, but there was something inexplicably reassuring about him.

At dinner I asked Daddy if he had seen the neighbor’s big red setter before.

“No,” he said, puzzling over the question. “Never. They’re not dog people. Don’t think anyone around here owns a setter.”

“Odd,” I said. “He’s magnificent.” The next day I opened the door to take out the trash, a monumental task for me. I almost fell over Big Red. He wagged his tail. “I don’t feel like walking today,” I told him. But he wouldn’t go away. “Fine,” I said. “You win.”

Leaves crunched beneath my feet and his paws. I told him how lonely I was. Would I meet someone special? Ever get married? Who would love a failure like me? Big Red gazed up at me with his dark, searching eyes. He never made a sound. Nice to have a listener who never judged me. I told him everything, my deepest worries and insecurities. Things I’d never told anyone. Things I needed to get out, like a poison, my fears and self-doubt.

Big Red greeted me every morning that winter. We walked for hours. I began to observe him intently. Every outing seemed like a new adventure to him, a beautiful day full of possibilities. But where had he come from? Where did he go at night?

I never fed him, never did anything to entice him to stay with me. Yet suddenly he would appear, as if from thin air, and disappear the same way.

Big Red wasn’t the only unusual thing about that winter. It was unseasonably warm. The sun was as constant as my canine companion. I began to feel stronger. I noticed the sound of the river babbling over rocks. The excited way Big Red wagged his tail when he spied a bird.

And at long last I felt something reawaken within me, a spark of life, a pinpoint of light to lead me from my darkness. The pain and the doubt, the hurt of rejection started to fade, the way a bruise fades, and I felt my soul heal.

I accepted a job at a law firm in Texas. On my last day in Missouri, I knelt down and hugged Big Red tight. “Thanks for everything,” I said. “I’m going to miss you.” He jogged over to the yard where I’d first seen him and lay down.

After a few weeks I called my parents to say I was doing well. “How’s Big Red?” I asked.

“Wish I knew,” Daddy said. “Right after you left that dog took off. Your mom thinks he came from heaven. But I told her strays have a way of disappearing.”


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