Photograph by guest arts editor, Jamie Shombert.
Read about the art selection process for this piece here.


I can’t recall when it was that I began to refer to myself as having been inducted, like Giselle in Act II of the ballet, into a sorority I had never imagined nor had any desire to join. But I remember the moment I recognized a member before I knew her story.

It was mid-December and I was invited to a Chanukah party near my home on the Upper West Side. My dear friend Vivien insisted that I meet her early and take a detour to view the hand-painted scarves that Beth, an artist acquaintance of hers, had created and was exhibiting for sale in her apartment that evening. I had holiday gifts to purchase and, as Vivien’s taste is unerring and her budget realistic, I allowed myself to be persuaded. The apartment was dimly lit in the dark winter evening, but beautifully appointed, warm, and welcoming.

Beth put our coats in her bedroom when we arrived, so it was natural that we would linger there when we had completed our purchases and were preparing to leave. It was then that I was emboldened to ask about the bed. It was queen-sized, covered in aubergine silk in keeping with the décor of the rest of the apartment, and piled high with embroidered and tapestried pillows.  The pillows were not, as decorative pillows usually are, placed symmetrically across the head of the bed two or three rows deep. The pillows—there must have been ten or twelve of them—were arrayed from headboard to footboard on the far side of the bed, the side that abutted the wall.

“What do you do with all of these pillows at night?” I asked.

 “I fold the bedspread over the pillows and sleep on my half of the bed,” Beth said. “Of course when my husband was alive I had to remove them all every night and that took a bit of work.”

When my own husband was alive, we lived in Chicago and did not have decorative pillows on our bed. We had little use for the superfluous, especially when we were younger and trying to launch careers without sacrificing quantity time with our daughters. 

We got around to buying the bed in the twentieth year of our marriage, only two years before his diagnosis. It’s an imposing, custom-made king-sized, walnut sleigh bed that we chose from the sample styles in a local artisanal furniture shop. I might have steered us toward something simpler, without the curves and carved scrolls, but I was pleased at his uncharacteristic extravagance. We had flannel sheets and a down comforter and, of course, the warmth of each other’s bodies to brace us against the Chicago winters. We were, everyone said, lucky to get five years after removal of a tumor that occupied 90% of his pancreas before it was detected. Lucky to have a steely-nerved, intrepid cancer surgeon as our colleague and friend, and very lucky that we were out of earshot when he first saw the staging CAT scan and blurted (we were told later), “I can’t do a fucking thing with that!” Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and providence shrunk the tumor just enough to make it operable, and we were granted a few good years during which every greeting in the house—the girls were 12 and 17 at the time—became “I love you,” every question became “How can I help you?” and the bed became a shared sanctuary.

The surgeon had tried to persuade us, and perhaps himself, that “We got that tumor out!” and that a surgeon’s gut feeling at the end of the procedure had good prognostic value. The pathologist was more objective. He wrote that one stray lymph node, the one that the surgeon considered local and removed along with the 90% of the pancreas, made this a stage IVB tumor, and, as my husband said repeatedly, “No one survives stage IVB pancreatic cancer.”

I dismissed his refrain, but the recurrence came, stealthily, almost three years later, far from the tumor bed, making mockery of the “surveillance” scans and of us for trusting them. Incredibly, the steely-nerved surgeon was willing to perform a second cancer operation and what he found, he said, was not too bad. But radiation-induced small bowel obstructions occurred and recurred, and recoveries became slower and less complete until the surgeon deemed further repairs too dangerous and discharged him to be fed intravenously. Eventually his intestine eroded through the skin of his abdomen and burst. 

There were two things I knew I would do if anything ever happened to him: one was to seek refuge in our synagogue, and the other was to return to my native New York. It was synagogue connections that led me to Cheryl, my first sorority sister. She was seven years ahead of me, having lost her husband to a brain tumor when he was just 48. We sang together in the temple choir and had dinner dates but never spent much time at each other’s houses so I can’t say that she is responsible for my having deciphered the telltale bed sign. But she did tell me about electric mattress covers, which solved the warmth problem and offered an incentive to climb into the now empty bed at the end of the day. 

I have never been a good sleeper, have always had a late night second wind, and had often needed my husband’s reminders that whatever was not achieved by 10 pm was not likely going to get done anyway, so come to bed. Now, after five years of living from scan to scan, surgery to surgery, after the funeral and the shiva, when my dining room table was piled high with what seemed like the only mail I received in those days—bills and condolence cards—I could sleep for eight hours straight and still wake up shaking with exhaustion. Although I continued to sleep on “my side” of the bed, it was a temporary plan, a prelude to the memoir I thought I would write called, Sleeping in the Middle of the Bed. But that was while I was still making the bed each morning and plumping the extra pillows we had acquired for belly support during my second pregnancy.

 That was before I found my dream Upper West Side apartment—how I hated when he began to refer to “our apartment fund” as “your apartment fund”— and before I met Tante Ethyl, my neighbor and second sorority sister. Tante is older than I, insightful and feisty, a carrot top whose conversation is bold and peppered with Yiddish.  By the time I met her I had learned that widows, even those who remained where they had lived with their husbands and raised their children, spend a lot of time in their bedrooms. I had seen it in the Paris apartment of the widow who hosted my older daughter during a law school exchange program: the host was kind and social, but ate dinners and watched TV alone in her bedroom. I had noticed it in myself: I frequently watch TV and eat dinners in my bedroom, which, with its elliptical trainer, free weights, laptop, printer, and scanner, can also serve as gym and office. So it did not surprise me when I volunteered to help Tante Ethyl set her DVR to record favorite TV shows that the TV in question was in her bedroom. It did not surprise me that there was a treadmill at the foot of her bed and a favorite chair for company beside it.

What surprised me was the bed itself—specifically the other side of the bed—the king-sized marital bed, its white sheets glaringly exposed, available as if for its former occupant, but, it seemed clear, not used for sleeping. Not slept in, but far from empty. Newspapers. Books. iPad. A catalogue or two. Notepad. Medications. TV remote. All are permitted. “His” side of the bed is now only storage space for those items that would have been removed every night, like the scarf painter’s decorative pillows, were he alive. His side now provides the space to keep her sundry distractors close by. His side only serves to make it easier, perhaps even mandatory, for her to remain on her side.

 The reason I found Tante Ethyl’s bed so striking is that until I saw it, I had thought that the configuration of my own was a reflection of my laziness and terrible sleep hygiene. I hate to face it, literally hate to look at my bed, at least his side of it; it is never invitingly empty save for the few hours after I have changed the sheets and fluffed the comforter. His side is also unused for sleeping, although there have been a few transient, highly unsuitable occupants in the last ten years. No, the far side of my bed always contains weeks of New York Times sections that that I will likely never read. New Yorkers, impossible to part with, have overflowed into underbed storage. A “remote boat,” a woven rattan basket of remote controls, allows me to play DVDs, binge on Netflix or Amazon, choose between Big Bang Theory reruns and The Rachel Maddow Show, and adjust my window air-conditioner, all without moving from my spot. Therabands for ankle exercises, a knitting project or two, the synagogue choir’s sheet music, an MP3 player, books, and a cell phone for late-night Words With Friends round out the entertainment center that I sleep in. 

Why, I have so often wondered, am I unable to let my bed be just a bed? Require of myself that my bed be just a bed? Pay a housekeeper to organize my possessions regularly so that my bed can be just a bed? I cherish those nights of climbing under a lofty comforter on to clean sheets after a lavender-scented bubble bath. But visiting Tante Ethyl, and then my widowed aunt, Anna, who keeps partially solved crosswords on the other side of her bed, and jigsaw puzzles underneath it, and then another friend, Bernice, our chapter’s most recent and suddenly inducted sister, brought me a measure of compassion for myself. Cosi fan tutte. They all do it. We all do it. We don’t sleep in the middle of the bed. We populate the other side with items that would have been stored elsewhere or even tossed on the floor each night if only . . .

I may have shared an anniversary date with my parents, but mine numbered only 27 and they are at 66 and counting. In this sense it is my mother, and not I, who resembles Giselle. I was unable to rescue my prince with even the most determined and imploring of dances; she saved my dad’s life nine years ago and has sustained him since. His Alzheimer’s disease had long since robbed him of clear communication, but somehow Mom knew that day that his poorly articulated complaint of epigastric pain was different from his usual indigestion. Within hours he was on a Lennox Hill Hospital operating table, undergoing quadruple bypass surgery. Mom had defeated the LAD, the left anterior descending coronary artery, the one cardiologists call the widow-maker.   

My parents still live in the house I grew up in. They still sleep together, but not in their old bedroom. We have installed a queen-sized mattress and a commode in their former den because neither can climb stairs easily and the house has no first floor bathroom. My mother neglects her own health but will not leave Dad’s slightest symptom unattended. She will not leave him unattended. She will barely leave his side. He calls for her whenever she is out of sight. He keeps her awake at night and sleeps during the day, while she comforts him at night and stays awake during the day, keeping order in the house and only occasionally doing something for herself—a trip to the hairdresser, lunch with a friend. 

She won’t go up to their bedroom even for a brief nap, even when the aide, whose sole responsibility is to tend to him, tries to spell her for a bit. No reason to ask why. I have already seen the telltale sign. I have seen the financial statements and prospectuses and proxies, the medical explanations-of-benefits, the solicitations—all of the mail she says she doesn’t understand, thinks might be garbage but won’t toss without my OK. I have seen where she stacks these letters and I know why she won’t nap upstairs. I know, even if she doesn’t, that no matter how sacrificial it seems, no matter how chronically exhausted she is, and no matter how frustrated, that she knows that the only thing he remembers with certainty is her name. For that, and for all it means to her, she will do anything in her power for as long as she can to avoid having to sleep in a widow’s bed.



About the Author

Barbara is a child neurologist and native New Yorker. She and her late husband, Joseph Pasternak, also a child neurologist, raised their two daughters on the North Shore of Chicago and practiced and taught together on the faculty of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine for 25 years.  Now retired, Barbara continues to pursue a lifelong passion as a “recreational ballerina,” and studies creative non-fiction with Laura Zinn Fromm.  “A Widow’s Bed” is her first published personal essay.