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Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

We never really agreed about pillows. When you fall in love in mid-life, it’s to be expected that you’re set in your ways. Before we moved in together, we would alternate weekends at each other’s home. In the early days, we really didn’t notice the pillow situation: they ended up on the floor too quickly to count.

Phil’s bed had two pillows. My bed had six or eight. He’d joke that it took a lot more time just to find my bed. After we married and began to share a home together, it came time to have the serious pillow discussion.

“A pillow is a pillow is a pillow,” Phil would say. “Unless you intend to smother me, two should be enough.” My argument was that you didn’t just “make” a bed, you “dressed” it. This was a puzzlement to Phil. I went into greater detail. There are sleeping pillows, sham pillows, décor pillows and likely an accent pillow or two. He sat gamely at the bottom of the bed while I pointed out each pillow subspecies.

By this stage in our relationship, our bed adopted a whole new level of sophistication. Phil found it exhausting that we needed seasonal changes of bedding and worse yet, complimentary sham, décor and accent pillows. The bed dressing became my domain. As long as Phil could find me somewhere under the sheets, he would gamely undress the bed every evening.

Once they were out of their chewing stages, our dogs regularly shared the bed with us. As we grew older together the dogs were the first to appreciate the number and type of bed pillows we tossed onto the floor. MacTavish, our Cairn Terrier, became deeply attached to the accent pillow, because it cradled his head just so once he could no longer jump up onto the bed. Our other dogs over the past 20 years (Ceilidh, Zeb, and Rosie) each found their favourite pillow dog beds.

When the pandemic arrived, Phil and I spent afternoons curled up on the bed, using each and every pillow for support, to munch popcorn and watch a vintage cowboy movie. Certain pillows were better than others for propping up on the bed. Whoever landed on the bed first got their choice.

The bed became our special place for hanging out together. Most significant conversations happened there. I loved seeing Phil’s head settled gently on the one pillow he used for sleeping. When the side effects of the drug he was taking to keep his prostate cancer at bay reared, he became too warm to appreciate being under the covers even in the depths of winter. Often he would get up and sit in a chair.

The bed became increasingly lonely at night for me, but I encouraged him to do whatever he needed to do to soothe himself.

Cardiac arrest took him suddenly, not prostate cancer. I left him for the last time at the hospital taking one final opportunity to run my hands over his beautiful hair and to snuggle as close as I could with all the machines there.

The first night home alone without him was numbing and heartbreaking. I lay on my side of the bed, fully clothed and with my shoes on, barely breathing and still hoping that this was a terrible dream and I was going to wake up to find him there.

As the months went by, I made a point of getting into my nightgown and under the covers most nights, though sleep was hard to come by. Even with Phil’s half of the bed empty, the puppies insisted on curling up on my side. Perhaps they thought, too, that Phil would come back.

I would look at the pillows on his side of the bed and remember how much we teased one another about them – he almost always a minimalist, me, somewhat of an overachiever. I made both sides of our bed daily, fluffing all his pillows and keeping his space sacred.

As the first anniversary of his death came closer, I became aware that perhaps all those extra pillows might have a new purpose. I began, every evening, to lie them end to end on his side of the bed, where they became a cozy bolster to my loneliness.

So far, this is my new bed ritual. Every evening as I prepare to snuggle into my side of the bed, I use every one of Phil’s pillows to fill up the empty space on his side of the bed. With my back to the pillow bolster, I take comfort in the artificial smallness of our queen-size bed. Each morning, I dress the bed exactly as I did when Phil was sharing it. And I remember once again, his voyage from two-pillow practicality to the sweet appreciation of sleeping pillows, sham pillows, décor and accent pillows.

Grief and gratitude – they meet together on the bed I now call my own.

Cathy Lyons lives in Golden Lake, Ont.

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