The Girl Who Came to Stay: The Story of Eleanor Rigby

Five months. She’s been gone five months. And yet, I look for her each time the garage door rises, expecting to see that big, beautiful head and oversized tail wagging in greeting. There are moments I smell her as I step over the threshold, her earthy, sometimes humidity ridden, doggy smell. Still, sitting beneath our lantern therapy tree in the backyard, her tree, the one we planted when she was just a puppy, I swear I see her out of the corner of my eye. A quick flash of black; although in the last few years, there was nothing quick or flash-like in her movements. Even now, as I finally have the strength to write this, I watch her from across the room, tucked inside a black velvet bag encased in a red, wooden box. Our beloved companion of fifteen years, sits upon a shelf next to a photo of her as a gangly puppy, and a copy of The Art of Racing in the Rain. Our Eleanor Rigby, the half chocolate lab/half golden retriever who came to stay.

For those who’ve never experienced the true companionship and love of a dog, my heart grieves for you. Theirs is a love like no other. No judgement, no doubt, no lessening, no change. If anything, their love grows bolder, stronger, more forgiving, and more transcendent. I truly believe no human can offer or compare to the love given by a dog. Yes, the love by a dog. They love hard and fast and filled with forgiveness. And, if you are able to recognize, appreciate and reciprocate that love…well, this blog post is for you. And if you’ve not opened your heart to experience this love, this blog post is especially for you.

Eleanor Rigby. Yes, it is obvious she was named for the Beatles song. It was the song playing on the radio the evening we drove her from the farm in Colwich, Kansas to our home in Wichita. We knew, at that moment, her name would be Eleanor Rigby and we would call her Rigby. She cried all the way home, a heartbreaking cry for her siblings and parents and familiar surroundings. It broke our hearts and made us wonder, more than once, if we should turn around and return her to the farm; but, after all, she’d chosen us. Waddle-ran her way over to us and landed at our feet, what would become her familiar grin stealing our hearts and causing us to jelly into oohs and ahhs and baby-talk, her tail frenzy-wagging against us.

In a blink of an eye she grew from an awkward, stubby pup into a long, gangly pup who tormented us with her destruction: first the insulation from walls of the garage, various shoes, the rails of the deck porch, newly planted tulip bulbs which she dug up the next morning and presented to us at the back door; and our favorite story to share, the time she ate the cable box right off the house. Yes, the cable box, which then resulted in two expensive visits by Cox Cable. The first visit was to replace the box and place it higher up on the house and replace the chewed cables. The second visit was to reinforce those cables after she spent the next morning digging them all up and chewing right through them one more time for good measure. And all of this during the final snow and sleet of March.

But, once she retired from her one-puppy destruction crew, Rigby settled into a dog of such laid-backness and love, I often wondered if she carried the soul of an old hippy within. All who met her loved her and she was a neighborhood favorite. A dog of immense vocabulary and smarts, she never left her front yard even when tempted by a neighborhood cat or stranger, as if she knew that the world beyond her yard held nothing as golden as where she ate her meals, laid her head, dug her holes, and contained her people.

We loved her from the moment she entered her home and with a love that continued to blossom and grow as large and full as her tree in the backyard. Our constant companion, she went on camping trips with us, went swimming at Lake Afton, attended the Kansas Humane Society’s Woofstock, even took trips to Kansas City with stops at the Starbucks in Emporia. But, our favorite time was relaxing on the deck or patio with her. She knew as soon as she heard the first strains of music from the outdoor speakers that we would be hanging out. The three of us, rehashing the day or the week, sharing a snack, and unwinding within the cocoon of trusted company. She usually lay close to our feet, watching us, listening or snoozing, getting up to receive those much appreciated scratches behind the ears and long caresses of her head.

She also provided one-on-one therapy. My husband took her for walks in which she knew these bouts of exercise were more for her beloved Brad than for her. She became his confidante when I could not ease his stress or doubt. The time they spent sitting beneath her tree, he laying the worries of his world at her feet and she, head on his knee, listening, nuzzling, and wagging were some of the most genuine moments of love I’ve ever been privy to. And I loved her even more for each one. She provided an easing of the soul to the man we both loved.

And, she did the same for me. She knew, from the moment I walked through the door , if I needed more than her usual exuberant greeting. The gentle nudging of her nose against my leg, the long look as if to say, “What happened, today. You know you can tell me.” So, that by the time Brad arrived home, she’d carried my worries with her out to the yard and buried them right next to her favorite toy (something she did often, as we think she liked the surprise of unearthing the toy a week or so later). No, she never unearthed those worries. She was exceptional at releasing your sadness and frustration either through the seismic movement of her tail or burying as fodder for the earthworms deep into the dark, dampness of the earth.

For fourteen and a half years, she was part of our family, a central character. I know you’ve heard it often, how dogs become family. It’s true. She was one of us. She even had her own blog for a year, 8 Days a Week with Eleanor. Our confidante, our cheerleader, the one who never gave up on us, who never settled, who gave us her undivided attention, and who loved us fully. She was the best of us. I know in my heart, no human will ever match the unconditional love Eleanor Rigby provided our family.

As life grew long and she grew weary, her body beginning to slow and stiffen from arthritis, her inner pup would still emerge, if just for a fleeting moment, until her tired hind legs would remind her they could no longer carry her bounce. She was twelve and a half when she determined she could no longer climb the deck stairs, so we created the space beneath her tree. The lantern therapy tree was for all three of us, a place she could still join us and be with her people. At age thirteen, she determined she could no longer climb the stairs leading to the upper floor of our split level home and lived the rest of her days in the lower level, lounging on her orthopedic pillow between us and the television so she could watch us and we watch her. She had her bad days, when her legs would give out and she would tumble to the floor, not feel the step beneath her and fall the few steps to the lower level, or struggle and heave to move her body from the pillow. And through it all, we steeled ourselves against the inevitable. She would leave us, either on our own, or God help us, we would know to make the decision for her. We tried to talk about it, but hated the conversation, our despair pouring out in the guise of anger at one another for even saying aloud that Rigby was nearing the end of her days. Our days.

The week leading up to her final weekend with us, she surprised us by climbing the stairs to the upper level on Easter morning. I found her in the middle of the kitchen floor, her favorite place to be, the kitchen speed bump ever present especially when we were trying to cook. We were shocked to find her there and she even seemed surprised. Later in the week, she stood at the bottom of those tall, deck stairs and gazed upward, as if remembering those days when she would speed down those steps to chase a squirrel from the yard. For a moment, we thought she might try to climb them, but she slowly backed up, her aged and milky eyes looking up at us as if to say, remember? We spent the following Friday under her tree together, listening to music, talking and she getting her usual scratches behind the ears. Looking back, had we known it was her final Friday with us under her tree, we might have held her head in our hands and caressed those still puppy-soft ears a little longer.

Sunday morning, we knew. She did not want to be in the house, struggling to move herself around the yard, searching for a certain place. She refused to eat, to drink. We prayed for a miracle, shed tears, gave her space and waited. When evening drew nigh, we decided she would not pass from this earth outside, but near us. We created a bed for her and ourselves in the lower level and stayed with her as she labored through the night. At sunrise, I made the phone call to the vet, barely able to speak the words.

Eleanor Rigby took her final breath surrounded by her two favorite people, and the man in the funny pajamas, Dr. Oehmke, who took such good care of her during her short life. And as Dr. Oehmke and the crying vet tech left us alone with her, giving us as much time as we wanted to weep over her now quiet form, I marveled at the peace descended upon Rigby. It was in that moment, the realization of what she’d endured for us for two years hit home and now, she lay fully relaxed, fully at peace, that big head cradled in the lap of my husband whose sobs resounded in the room, along with my own. The hardest choice we made that morning, was leaving her, knowing we would never see her physical form, scratch behind those ears, and the home we would return would be different, changed.

Five months. Even now, as I write this, the tears flow free and long, dampening my sweatshirt. Still, when asked about her, my eyes burn with her memory and spill out in single tears down my cheek. The same with my husband. And we are not embarrassed, nor ashamed. We have known the best of friendship and are blessed to have been loved so completely for almost fifteen years. We were given a gift we will not soon discard or forget. Eleanor Rigby, truly the girl who came to stay.

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