Suf­fer­ing from ter­mi­nal can­cer, Nina Riggs is on a mis­sion to find a new sofa — but dis­cov­ers it is fraught with is­sues

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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.


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