THE PERFECT COUCH
Suffering from terminal cancer, Nina Riggs is on a mission to find a new sofa — but discovers it is fraught with issues
Were I healthy enough right now, I would be sipping a glass of complimentary wine and running my hands over an exquisite accent pillow in an impossibly hip showroom called something like Space or Lust, while a sales assistant speaks to me of the virtues of aniline versus semi-aniline leather.
“So you really think kiln-dried hardwood is worth the extra expense?” I’d be asking. And, “Does this come in a three-seater?”
Instead, I’m propped in bed on a dozen pillows with my laptop, perusing online furniture stores: West Elm, Joybird, Crate and Barrel and something called Chairish.
I am an internet sofa-shopping fiend. I take breaks only when the oxy overwhelms me and my head starts to loll. I cannot rest until I have considered every mid-century-modern-with-ahint-of-bohemian sofa the world wide web has to offer. I pore over design sites like Apartment Therapy, Design Sponge and Domino: searching, searching.
Since John and I were married 16 years ago, we have never had a real grown-up couch. We’ve had plenty of well-loved misfits: “as is” Ikea specials, parental hand-offs, Craigslist semimiracles, roadside rescues. First we were broke, and then we had babies. It never seemed like the right time to splurge on anything nice.
And the misfits have been fine. We’re not fancy, and our taste is eclectic. Our house is full of objects that are stronger on personality than looks: the wood box my father and uncles sat on as children to lace their boots for sledding, a lumpy chaise by the front window in the world’s cosiest reading nook.
Anyway, whenever we have needed to get down to the serious business of life, we have always preferred to retreat to our bed: our war room, cocoon, escape hatch and, at times, dining room.
But these days finding the perfect living room couch has begun to feel like the most important thing I’ve ever done.
Except, just when I find one I love, it turns out I can’t click “buy now”. And commitment issues have not generally been my problem. Houses, cars, job-switching, kid-having, plane ticket-buying, restaurant-choosing, shoeshopping, mastectomy: bring it. Usually I just pick a good-seeming option and don’t look back.
Within 10 minutes of meeting John in the graveyard, I had already mentally signed on for life — although I waited at least a week to tell him that.
But the couch. I can’t do it. Maybe I’m holding off until after my next big oncology appointment, as though something Dr Blackwell may say will help determine whether I am willing to spend the extra money for Dacron batting and polydown cushions. She promised some new thoughts about treatment options: immunotherapy, clinical trials, off-label drugs, acupuncture, the dreaded “watchful waiting”.
It’s a complicated calculus. On the one hand, a basic cost-benefit analysis: how much money do I want to spend on something I may not be around to really enjoy? On the other: isn’t buying an expensive couch a kind of lovely expression of hopefulness? And after I’m gone, don’t I still want guests in my home to feel comfortable and stylish? Then again — O darkest demons! — maybe I should buy something hideous and uncomfortable, something the woman John remarries will be forced to keep because the dead wife bought it.
Despite all the pamphlets the social workers gave us when I was in the hospital, we don’t really know how to talk to the boys yet. They
Isn’t buying an expensive couch a kind of lovely expression of hopefulness?
know about the cancer and the back break, but they don’t really know what it all means.
Instead, I ask Benny, “What do you think of leather upholstery?” “Depends if it’s slippery or nuzzly,” he says.
Excellent point. I think I need to take any bonded leather options — no matter how cute or economical they seem — off my favourites lists and go with top grain.
When Dr Blackwell was sitting on the end of my bed that day in the hospital, I saw her glance toward the pamphlets that had been left on the bedside table: “What to Tell Your Children about Your Progressive Disease.”
“Is it time to despair?” she said during a pause in our discussion about pain management and radiation, maybe reading one of the pamphlet headings. “No!” she proclaimed, staring straight at me. “No, it is not.”
I trust her completely, even after the chemo failed twice and the cancer spread when she said it wouldn’t. Whatever it is in oncologists that makes them want to be oncologists — that crazy mix of fierceness, optimism, arrogance and compassion — I get a contact high from it. It’s like love at first sight, or touching something on fire. It’s like making a choice and refusing to look back.
John is mildly new-couch averse, but he’s
treading carefully. He knows me well enough to understand that when I’m dissertating on the merits of tufted cushions, I’m chewing on something else.
“Custom upholstery, really? With two boys?” he asks, flipping through insurance statements on the counter. “Okay, well, I think you should get whatever you’re into.”
One big upside of being told I have incurable cancer is that after all these years, my husband has finally stopped smugly saying, “It’s your funeral,” when I make a decision he doesn’t agree with.
“Did you spend thousands of dollars on the internet today?” he asks when he gets home from work and finds me with my pillows and hot water bottles on the not-perfect couch where he left me in the morning, a low-slung rattan situation my parents bought as patio furniture in the early 90s. “Not today,” I say. “Nice,” he says. “Do you want to go get in bed together and stare at the ceiling?” I do. We do. In January, the afternoon already looks like evening.
“Can you believe we found out you have incurable cancer on, literally, the darkest day of the year?” John asks as we hold hands and stare up toward the same blank spot above our bed. “Yeah, I totally can,” I say. We both laugh. I have always loved the sound of him laughing: soft and comfortable, understated, offbeat, with unmistakably sleek mid-century lines.
He takes me gingerly in his arms as if we are awkward teenagers. My back spasms, but I wiggle closer to him until I can put my head on his chest and hear his heart beating.
Downstairs on the old futon in the playroom, the boys gaze at a screen. We will figure out what to do about them soon enough. They probably already know what’s up and are waiting for us to figure out how to say it. Their very existence is the one dark piece I cannot get right within all this. I can let go of a lot of things: plans, friends, career goals, places in the world I want to see, maybe even the love of my life. But I cannot figure out how to let go of mothering them.
So maybe I don’t try to figure it out. Maybe I just aim to get the couch right: strong bones, high-quality leather, something earthy and animal and real. A surface that knows something of what it was to be alive, that warms to our touch and cools in our absence.
Also: an expansive bench that fits all of us. Something that will hold us through everything that lies ahead — the loving, collapsing, and nuzzling. The dying, the grieving.
I know my thoughts have probably diverged from whatever John is thinking about in the near dark of our bedroom. He is silent. Maybe he is dozing.
Buying a sofa online, like many of life’s biggest decisions, takes research and trust, but mostly trust. As I lie here — John’s chest rising and falling under my cheek — I’m going to have to believe that regardless of clinical trials and future wives and free shipping, I’ll know it when I find the right one.
Nina and John with sons Freddy (left) and Benny.
on her husband John Nina Riggs and their wedding day.
EDITED EXTRACT FROM THE BRIGHT HOUR, A MEMOIR OF LIVING AND DYING BY NINA RIGGS (TEXT PUBLISHING, $37).