Absence and Abundance: Reclaiming Home After the Loss of a Spouse

by Ruminate Magazine June 23, 2016

By Margaret Manning Shull

Looking out the plane window, I couldn't tell if I was just seeing clouds in the distance. Newly married, my husband and I were traveling westward for our honeymoon from our home in Boston. This white column in the distance towered over the horizon of the hoary foam layer of cumulus nimbus.

What I didn't realize is that I was looking at the tallest peak in Washington state. Mount Rainier, rises up just over 14,000 feet from sea level and welcomes all westbound travelers to its domain. As it filled my view, I was overwhelmed by this place that would become my home some fifteen years later. This trip was the very beginning of my journey to the Pacific Northwest.

For the many years before my husband and I moved to Seattle to settle, we made annual trips to visit his family who lived just south of the state capital. I thought the overview of the area the plane rides afforded was spectacular.

But once on the ground, the beauty of the landscape overwhelmed this young woman from the plains of the Midwest. The towering evergreens soaring up into the cyan sky formed a canopy over the streets and highways as we drove. Weekend trips led us into the pages of the National Geographic magazines I had enjoyed as a child: from the Ho Rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula with gigantic old growth trees covered in moss, to Deception Pass, the spectacular saltwater canyon cut by ancient glaciers and the swirling green waters of the Salish Sea. Each visit to the area introduced me to another place of overwhelming natural beauty.

The abundance of the geographical beauty was matched by the abundant bounty of farm and local food producers.

I remember one particular visit when I tasted my first, fresh apricot from a local farm. Having grown up in the Midwest, all I knew of apricots was the desiccated, candied variety. And for most of my life, I did not enjoy them. But, when I savored the real thing, I felt like I was consuming a piece of art. Blush-orange in color, the fruit's soft, supple flesh caressed my hand. My first bite extruded a juice both delicate and potent with its sweetness. I had come to a land of plenty.

Washington state finally became our home in the winter of 2009. Our move coincided with an epic snow storm that had shut down the city and dumped over five feet of snow on the ground. We trudged through the snow moving our lives inch by inch into our tiny Seattle bungalow. Finally, we would settle in what to me was a place of enchantment and wonder, of beauty and bounty. Now that we were residents, I saw our future ahead as one filled with abundance just like what we had found in this land of the Pacific Northwest.

But not a year-and-a-half after moving, my husband died suddenly from cardiac arrest.

He had just celebrated his 47th birthday. After seventeen years of marriage, I was now on my own. For a time, as I was grieving his loss, it felt as though one thing died after another, piling up successive losses like stacked coffins.

Not only did I lose my husband, I lost the life we shared and all of our hopes for our life to come. Absence, not abundance would be my new place of residence.

Grieving my husband's death landed me in a place of personal famine. The food that had been a celebration of this beautiful place in the United States, of life and of living things, now became a constant reminder of his death.

Our local corner market became a coroner’s market, pronouncing my husband 'dead' to me every time I had to get something to eat; once a place of shared delight now was a place of shame and mockery. I entered by myself, single, widowed, a loser who ate alone. Always on the verge of tears as I looked at the familiar produce that once encouraged a healthy appetite, now I walked the aisles to hurriedly purchase boxed cereal and frozen dinners.

While this place of self-imposed austerity held me in its grip, after two years and twenty pounds lost, I began to feel homesick, but for what home I wasn't sure. The place I missed so desperately I knew I would never be able to return to—it simply didn't exist any longer. And every step I took seemed to take me further and further away from my deceased husband.

Yet, I found myself routing my paths closer and closer to those places that held all the abundance I once shared with him. The neighborhood farmers' market continued on, held every Sunday, rain or shine. The mountains and the ocean were still a steadfast presence.

Could I move back into this place we inhabited together by myself? Would I?

And if so, how would I create a new place of abundance as a widow? Would I allow myself to want abundance without him?

While I was unsure about where I was going and not exactly sure where I would land, I decided to plant a garden. With a donated, raised-bed frame, I planted my two-foot by five-foot plot of earth with radishes, bush beans, beets, and a small tomato plant.

And like the taste of my first, fresh apricot all those years before, I harvested the first fruit of my garden; a tiny radish. Bright green leaves with red and white flesh, it made it to my sink and then quickly into my mouth.

With a succulent firmness and just a hint of heat, I felt my appetite grow with each bite. A tiny radish was a first step for me towards a bountiful place.

I could survive on boxed cereal, but, I could actually want more. I could learn to feed myself, become my own chef, and nourish what had languished after my husband's death.

Perhaps now my memories of my husband and all that we shared would contribute to growth, rather than hold me back. Like the soil for my garden, composed of dead but vital layers of nourishment for growing, living things, these memories could nourish me. This could be a place I called home.

Margaret Manning Shull lives in Bellingham, WA and works for RZIM Ministries as a writer and speaker. She is an ordained minister and served local churches for seven years. She loves travel–particularly road trips–hiking, running, growing her own fruit and vegetables and being outdoors in the Pacific Northwest. She has been written for RZIM publications A Slice of Infinity and Just Thinking.


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