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Memoir

Sex and the single bed

A HEIGHT-ADJUSTIBLE HOSPITAL bed. At first I didn't understand what the nurses meant. For a moment I pictured our queen-sized mattress atop some contraption that the nurses, who visited our home daily, raised and lowered at their will and command. Then I understood what they really wanted. They demanded nothing less than to replace the bed John and I shared as husband and wife with a slimline chrome bed just like the ones that fill hospital wards the world over. They wanted to turn our bedroom into a domestic version of a hospital room, with this clinical bed front and centre.

The nurses insisted that the bed's maneuverability would minimise the potential pain for John's caregivers as they – we – transferred him in and out of the wheelchair he had recently begun using as the tumours invaded his thigh bones and made walking something he used to do. They mentioned there was such a bed available for long-term loan in the hospital's lending pool. Evidently they had done their homework. The nurses were behaving as if John's condition were terminal. As if he had months to live.

"It will be much better," one nurse said to us as we stared, wide-eyed at the hospital bed hovering like a ghost in front of us.

Better for whom? I wanted to ask. Not for John. Not for me. Not for a newlywed couple. This was one more change we could never have anticipated. One more change we absolutely did not want. Our queen-sized bed, despite its artificially undulating, bedsore-preventing mattress and consequent mismatched head heights, wasours. We lay down together in it each night, and we woke in it each morning. We had enjoyed plenty of fun in this bed, and shed tears in it too. Neither John nor I wanted the hospital bed in our bedroom. But we did not want him to experience unnecessary pain.

Within minutes I realised there was room for only one person in the hospital bed. Where would I sleep? There would not be enough room for both our queen-sized bed and the hospital bed in our bedroom. The nurses wanted to cast me out on my own. It was too soon. John was my husband; we had only been married for five months. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. But this threat of forced physical separation felt like a death. Not even an old couple, a couple who have been married for decades, should have to face these changes. Certainly not newlyweds. Not a man of forty-six and his thirty-four-year-old wife.

"No bloody way," said John at the first inkling of the nurses' plan.

"I don't think so," I said when I realised the implications for our sleeping arrangements.

We had married one year after we fell in love. Our mantra was: As normal as possible for as long as possible. So we resisted the idea of the adjustable hospital bed for as long as we could. But to the nurses, ultimately our "no" didn't really mean "no". They knew they would win, and proceeded to organise delivery of the hospital bed.

"We're simply not allowed to lift John in and out of bed like you do," they said to me, drawing the ace of insurance from beneath their metaphorical coat sleeves.

IN ORDER FOR us to continue sleeping in the same room, there was only one thing to do: buy a single bed for me.

I responded to this massive new disruption to our lives in my usual fashion, by acting immediately. The next available lunch hour, I headed to the bedroom furniture department at David Jones to buy a single bed. Outside Sydney's central business district might have been swilling with cars and buses and pedestrians, but the display floor was as quiet as the grave. Arranged over a broad expanse were chests of drawers, bedroom settings, stand-alone mirrors, divans and mattresses, all monitored by two bored-looking salespeople. They would glance up occasionally from whatever it was they were doing at the central desk, like a couple of horses grazing in one corner of a huge paddock. Looking for the bittersweet spot in the cavernous room that housed single beds, I naively assumed there would be one or two styles from which to choose. What I discovered was a bewildering selection of single beds in a variety of styles with prices to match.

It had been much longer than I remembered since I had bought a bed. For many years, I had slept soundly on the understanding that a king was a king, a queen a queen, and so on. What in the world was a king single? At some point in the previous decade, royalty had entered the previously humble quarters of the single bed. I looked around for a queen single as a point of comparison, without success. The bedding range on display at David Jones offered no gradations of royalty, or even minor aristocracy – no mattress bore the appellation "prince", "earl" or "duchess". There was just the king single bed, or the plain old single bed. Somehow the bedding industry had approved this vocabulary to persuade the likes of me to consider switching to the larger size. The king single is visibly larger. In terms of length and width, it's good to be the king. I was thrown by the number of choices I was going to need to make.

I plonked down on one of the king single beds and tried to imagine how it would look in our bedroom, squashed up against the hospital bed. Already I could tell the beds would be of different heights. Maybe the adjustability of John's hospital bed wouldn't be such a bad thing after all. As I perched on the edge of a single mattress, lost in a haze of fluorescent lighting and fear, a well-heeled professional couple approached me. Could they tell I was being forced to buy one of these beds to sleep on alone? I felt sick at the thought they might try to make eye contact. But they only had eyes for the king single bed to my left. For our five-year-old, they explained to the sales assistant, who had trotted over to meet them. Knowing smiles all round.

They were buying a bed for their child. My husband already had his own single bed, on loan. He will slowly die in that bed, I thought, and I will watch him from my own new single bed. This was not what I planned when I married John, even though I knew he had cancer. This was not how I imagined our married life would unravel. Here, at the foot of a single bed, the lights in the display area shining more harshly than ever, the reality of John's sudden decline felt like a slap in the face. I chose this bed, I thought, blinking back tears of self-pity, and now I'm about to lie in it.

I had to get away from the smug couple. Their arrival in my corner of the world felt like a violation of my privacy. Like Goldilocks, I moved from one bed to another, bouncing gently up and down on the edge of each mattress to test my degree of comfort. I was going through the motions: I knew that none of them would feel just right.

Eventually I wandered over to the sales assistant, who seemed a little apprehensive. I must have looked as miserable as I felt. She perked up when I told her I wanted to buy a bed. To indicate the bed I had selected, I deliberately used my left hand, counter to my right-hander's natural preference. It was important to me that she saw the wedding band on the ring finger of my left hand.

I realised I wanted her to assume I was inquiring about the bed on behalf of a child connected to me in some undefined way. A child John and I would never have. Undefined, unborn.

WITHIN DAYS, OUR bedroom was transformed from a private space to a semi-public venue. Our former marital bed was unceremoniously dismantled and its dethroned queen mattress stacked up against a wall of our spare room. Although the reaches of our private world were contracting, our bedroom – like the universe – seemed to be expanding. Otherwise, how could it accommodate all the furniture and medical equipment now required in this most intimate space?

I was right to suspect we could not sleep side by side. We had moved one of the bedside tables and pushed my new bed up against John's hospital bed, but immediately it became clear that we would not be able to enjoy even that degree of compromised proximity: a corridor wide enough for the wheelchair to maneuver John in and out of bed demanded our two beds be separated. No matter how hard we tried to stay together, some new physical law forced us apart, as if we were two positively charged atoms.

In bed that night, from my position hard up against the wall beneath the windows on one side of the room, I looked across at my husband over the paraphernalia on the remaining bedside table between us, over the books and medicines and CDs and sweets and the notepad on which he charted his pain.

"It's alright, gorgeous girl," John said. "As long as we're together – that's the main thing, isn't it?" He smiled his accepting smile, hard-won from years of fighting, and I felt bad for my petty envies. We were alive, we were together, the bedroom was still ours to share. But John's hospital bed was now centre stage, and I occupied a new front-row seat for his final act.


From Griffith Review Edition 17: Staying Alive © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review