I fretted and racked my brain, but I just couldn’t remember. I’d packed our stuff, but did I get everything? Did I get “it”? I’ve got to find out.
“Hey, Kev, can you pull over at the next exit?” I’m hoping he won’t question why, but…
I didn’t meet his curious eyes. Instead I rapidly said:
To his credit, Kevin didn’t immediately slam on the brakes and make a U-turn on the highway. But he definitely sped up to get to the next exit. I jumped out, ran around to the cargo area, and checked. And there it was, layered under the diaper bag and a suitcase. I sighed in relief; we wouldn’t have to turn around and go back.
I climbed back in the Explorer, smiled at his worried face and said, “Nope, we’re good. Let’s go.”
Much like my cat was non-negotiable when we married, so was his pillow. It’s flat and hard and heavy, like a fifty-pound bag of flour with a pillowcase. And honestly, Kevin couldn’t remember exactly how long he’d had it, which wasn’t exactly comforting, although I’m sure carbon-dating scientists would have fun trying to figure out its age. I tried not to think about it. In all the years we were together, it sported a single pillowcase; he owned two in the same pattern that I alternated on laundry day. I tried twice to replace it with a new pillow, something with more neck support, something fresh. Both times, he thumped and tossed and turned and finally retrieved his old pillow from whatever corner I’d tossed it toward.
“It’s perfectly broken in,” he explained.
“Perfectly broken, you mean,” I retorted.
I gave up. The ancient stinky pillow won.
If he had to stay overnight somewhere, the pillow traveled along. To his mom’s house, on vacations, even on work trips if he was driving to a site visit. If he wasn’t feeling well, he’d drag it to the front room and hug it while watching TV. He loved that blue paisley-covered brick.
I’m sure we laughed the first time we heard our pastor joke about things he and his wife would do when the other died; he’d buy a seersucker suit and she’d get a live Christmas tree. We were just married and it seemed ridiculous to think that one of us would ever die and leave the other behind. We’d just started living – no time to think about dying.
“I’m putting that pillow in the casket with you someday,” I teased.
That was before.
For five years, we lived as though days were a dime a dozen and we were millionaires. They flew by and we let them. Then we found out Kevin had cancer and the days were more precious and we scrimped and saved and squeezed every drop of joy out of each one, desperate to buy as many as we could.
When he felt good, we ate ice cream with the Bear and took road trips and played in the park and watched movies.
And when he didn’t, he stayed in bed, clutching his pillow, the chemo drugs making him shiver or sweat or vomit. Anti-nausea meds took the edge off, but made him lethargic and entire weekends would disappear, the days and nights blurring into nothingness.
Then he died and the days and nights blurred again and I couldn’t sleep and when I crawled into bed for some relief from the grief and exhaustion, I reached for him and found nothing.
But his pillow.
I clung to that battered old pillow that laid under his head when he died. I squeezed it and my tears soaked it and the idea of burying it with him was now absolutely inconceivable. He’d had it so long, his scent was indelible and I needed to breathe him in.
We made the bed the other morning, the Bear helping me since she’d finished her bed and I was dragging behind. We pulled up the sheet, then the cover, then she smoothed the wrinkles and carefully placed Kevin’s pillow on his side.
“I like Daddy’s pillow there,” she remarked. “It looks right.”
I agree, Little Bear.
In this new Daddy-less life of ours, where so much looks wrong and the days feel so broken, that ancient, stinky, hard as bricks, perfectly-broken-in pillow looks exactly right.
Once again, the pillow wins.