Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | September 28, 2010

Mattress as Metaphor: Moving to the Middle of the Bed

I recently made a major purchase. It is likely the most significant thing bought on my own, without considering the input of another person, in many years, in tandem as I was for such a large measure of my life so far.

For the antique family bed that now belongs only to me I bought a plush new mattress. It was a long time coming and frankly, years overdue. Putting this large item into my small bedroom is a solid reminder that time does go on, and things change whether or not we wish them to. I dream of indulgence while pondering mattress as metaphor.


In the first exhilarating months of our time together, Jeff’s room in his family home still contained his sweet bed of childhood, where he still slept, his elegant long bony feet extending far beyond the footboard. He had moved away for college, of course, but then returned to live at home a few years later when his mother became ill with the same insidious cancer that was to take Jeff’s own life thirty years later.

In the ‘fifties, Jeff’s father had lovingly built for his only son matching sea-captain’s beds of knotty pine, now burnished and nicked with age. They had drawers underneath for storage, and were tucked, one along each low wall under the eaves in his attic bedroom. That first careful year, when we slept together overnight, it was skin to skin, entwined in sheets Jeff’s mom had likely chosen for her golden boy, in one twin bed under the decades-old hole in the sheetrock where Jeff had punched the wall in some boyhood fury.

When it became clear that our love affair was not a temporary friends-with-benefits caprice, we brought the platform bed with futon mattress from my apartment and lugged it up the stairs to what was becoming Our Room. I don’t recall how or  when we chose sides on which to sleep, but by the time Anna came along I slept on the left side, closest to the door, in order to stagger sleepily across the hall to breastfeed her in the night. We also had room on my side for the hand-me-down, Moses – esque rush basket that was her tiny bed those first few months; Jeff’s bedside table was snug against the window wall in our small room. Many nights the three of us slept in the marriage bed, as Anna and I would both fall asleep during the pre-dawn feeding and awake at daybreak still attached.

Our personal detritus built up comfortingly around us, as happens to everyone, in every home. Jeff’s bedside table held small knives and tools emptied from his pockets each night. Out would come loose change, extra hair elastics, lists on crumpled paper, square carpenter’s pencils. On the floor under the bed were building and woodworking magazines along with Rolling Stone and Guitar Player and one solid tome, a classic work of literature of which he would read one page per night before the book fell out of his hands.  My side typically held a dozen books in as many subjects and stages of completion, water glasses, lotions and creams, discarded earrings and barrettes. A candle for certain special nights, perhaps.

Our marriage grew to have its troubles, as marriages are wont to do. We all know that partnerships are rarely 50/50. They can swing wildly depending upon circumstance, from 100/0%  to  0/100%. I sometimes felt unappreciated for my efforts at work and home. I couldn’t understand why he was letting me assume so many of our family responsibilities, and I felt taken advantage of, resentful, bruised. Sometimes I would turn away from him in bed, or haughtily get up, wrap my things around me, and march off to sleep elsewhere. Or not, as it turned out. Insomnia was becoming a companion that would take months and years to extricate myself from. It has been, and continues to be, an effort to detach it, to pry off one bony finger at a time.

Then Jeff was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic cancer of the colon, liver, lungs. Suddenly so many things became clear, and the perspective instantly changed – his, mine, and ours, forever. Over the months of his illness, caretaking was my life, and that life, while often burdensome and difficult, had a clarity of purpose that all the same familiar chores hadn’t had before. I wasn’t perfect at it; I’d still rage at our circumstances and cry bitter tears of frustration and fear, but I no longer took it out on him. Mostly. And he never took it out on me, not once. His grace under duress, under the unrelenting discomfort – the daily complications of terminal illness – will be a lesson, a light by which I steer for the rest of my life.

But while Jeff was sick, I slowly, inexorably moved out of our bedroom. The chemo pump pulsing through the night brought my fears to the fore with every beat, and on my worst days could cause instant panic attacks, a foolhardy extravagance we could ill afford. While hearing him peacefully breathing, and feeling my own heart start to chatter in my chest, I would silently slip out from under the covers and creep to the family room futon, the same one I had previously repaired to only in anger. At first I slept on it as a couch, as if mere insomnia kept me there, but after some months I gave up pretense and folded it down to make a bed each night, stating implicitly my intention of staying there alone til morning. I  missed him dreadfully, even then, but I had to get some sleep. Our household depended on it.

As his illness wore on it eventually became clear that we would need a hospital bed. The hospice nurses had to suggest it over and over before either Jeff or I would admit how very helpful it would be. As Jeff’s strength waned he spent more time in bed and required more help to move about, even horizontally. The sad day came that family members had to help me dismantle our lovely mahogany bed and put the pieces upstairs for storage,  for how long nobody knew. One of my worst moments of Jeff”s entire illness arose that day as we removed the mattress and box spring, and the wooden skeleton of the bed was revealed. Wrapped around a bedpost I found a forgotten gossamer wisp of translucent pink fabric that was, for me only, a tragic reminder of some marital bliss the two of us had shared that we would never know again, not in this life.

It was only a few more days before I was called from sleep by an unknown force in the darkest part of night, 3 am. I arose without question and went unerringly to Jeff, lying in that unwieldy metal hospital bed that had taken over our bedroom.  He died a few moments later, at home and at peace. I was with him, holding his hand as he gently exhaled his last breath.


It was some time before our bedroom was restored to its former self.  It took far too many days for the hospice subcontractors to take away the hospital bed, a task I did not oversee. I knew enough to leave the house while they worked, but eventually I still had to face the room containing the big empty space where once had stood our bed. For several weeks I still slept – a word I use loosely-  on the unfolded futon in the family room. Sleeping alone in our room,  our bed somehow seemed like more “moving on” than I was ready for.

Several weeks later, after the memorial gathering, Jeff’s closest family – his sister Karen and her husband Tom –  carried down from the attic and assembled the wooden pieces of what had been our bed, and Jeff’s parents’ before us. Henceforth it would be mine alone. They wouldn’t let me help, and I was allowed into the room only at the last minute, as Karen lovingly fluffed the last pillow on the artfully made bed.

So in this room I would take to my to rest. Each night I would gingerly climb in, test the waters, attempt that sweet escape known as sleep. Lying on my own side, I was stalked nightly with a dreadful insomnia. I switched sides – how odd, unsettling, incongruous to use Jeff’s bedside table, his lamp. The drawer was still full of his things- his pocketknife, guitar picks, bookmarks. It was not right; I moved some things around, tried again. Finally I had to admit  what we had already known even before the grueling months of Jeff’s illness: that the mattress was at least partially at fault for these awful nights that never seemed to end, that were punctuated always by 3 am awakening.

If only there was a way to have a new mattress magically appear, without going through the distasteful process of choosing and purchasing, then admitting strange delivery men into my bedroom. I don’t really do well with stores these days, or with salesmen, ever. There is a strong impulse, as with so many things, to run away. But there was nothing for it. Eventually the deed was done. The mattress was delivered; the pathetic saggy old one taken away. I tried not to think of memories embedded in that sad hunk of springs and foam. I made up the new mattress with favorite soft sheets, fresh and fragrant from the clothesline. I cleared away clutter. I repeated a hopefully breathed mantra of this, my new life.

It helps a little but not much. Each night I measure the firmness of the mattress with both flat palms. I slide between the cool sheets. I feel each evening that I am in an unfamiliar motel room with a new flat plane, an untried expanse. Maybe tonight will be better! The prescribed medications act as if, at bedtime, I swallow a pill and then hold out one foot over a sheer cliff.  One step and I am gone. I remember nothing of the descent.

Mornings are still difficult. I climb arduously up that rocky precipice of sleep, exhausted already. Some days I remember what I will find upon awakening; many I am still caught unaware by what has befallen us, and arise startled yet again to find myself alone. The cat has taken to sleeping on what used to be my side. Books have crept onto the bed and I allow them to stay. It is somewhat comforting to feel a little weight on the bedspread, even if I know it is not him. I am considering a hanging lamp centered over the bed, so I don’t have to reach over to turn off a reading light on one side or the other. I am not yet accustomed to my new life. I don’t know how long it will take, or if I will ever be happy here. But I am moving to the middle of the bed.



  1. Carolyn – such a wonderfully written post – poignant, and the subject so familiar. Our old mattress is gone now – along with the recliner chair where my husband spent his last few months day and night. I sleep on a mattress that has traveled all over North America in the back of my van, and is now on a rustic pine board platform in the old house I’m restoring in Nova Scotia. Oddly, I’m most comfortable sleeping crosswise on all beds now – my own, those in motels, and I’m doing the same this week in the sunroom at my mom’s place. No idea what that means, or even if it means. I hope you’ll be writing more here at your blog. I’ll be back. Take care.


  2. Carolyn, I know this is an older post but I am glad to see it now and thank you for sharing them. I too lost my husband to cancer and the bed thing and sleeping thing are a shared grief. I, too, bought a new mattress and grieved the memories the old one held. Thank you for writing down what the rest of us are feeling! Hopefully you are sleeping better now.


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