Chocolate Milk

My interview with Jane B.


When she greets me at the door it’s 7 pm and dark outside, since it’s December. I come inside to the warmth of the fireplace and the TV on to mute. It’s become a way of life. Having the TV on as a constant companion. In her waking hours as well as her sleep. These days, the TV is what lulls her to sleep. Although she wishes this reality were different, she understands it is her new life these days.


Jane lets me in and we sit down in her living room in a beautiful, comfortable home that she purchased after Mike died. It’s decorated for Christmas with a beautiful tree, with hundreds of little white lights, that sits in a corner that just seems to house it perfectly. The house doesn’t hold the same memories of a life lived, with love and laughter as their old house did. Not anymore. But it is still warm and cozy and still a home, nonetheless. Just not the same home she used to know with her husband of 28 years. Today, and to her, it is just a shell of a home. She has no real allegiance to it, because it has no memories, and no real future. It just is.


As we sit down, Jane is still in her black work pants and pumps and a gorgeous pink starched blouse that she just seems to wear well. A fitted shirt with a stand up collar that frames a beautiful face with short blond hair and large glass blue eyes, the shade of the Caribbean. Truly, the shade of the Caribbean. And as the pink from her blouse plays off of her complexion, it gives her tone a rosy glow as her eyes welcome you and engage you from the minute you meet her. Jane is a kind person. In fact, one of the kindest I know. And as she lets me intrude on her quiet evening, I suspect it isn’t as much an intrusion on the quiet, but a welcoming reprieve to the deafening solitude that threatens to consume her on a daily basis, if not for the TV in the back ground. The reliable constant companion.


Jane is a widow. A word she hates, and why wouldn’t she? But it’s the life without her husband that she hates even more. Jane’s husband Mike passed away 6 years ago, on Labor Day weekend, as they together, with their eldest daughter were enjoying a weekend at their riverfront home, located in the Northern Neck of Virginia. It was a weekend home that they built together; a house that they spent more time, more energy, and more enthusiasm picking out features that mattered to them. It wasn’t just brick and mortar. It was a special place, with special touches that meant something to each of them and to both of them combined. Mike had childhood memories of summers with his grandparents as he was lulled to sleep by the sound of the rain hitting their metal roof and the resounding ping of each raindrop became a comforting sound to him, and one that he yearned for again. And so they did. They put on a metal roof. And as they both loved the water, Mike was not a swimmer. But he did love to boat, fish and kayak, and they did a lot of it. Mike’s nickname for Jane was Sweet Pea. Which they dubbed the new river house with the moniker “Sweet Peas.”


Jane was just one week shy of her 21st birthday when she met Mike. He had just turned 23 and had graduated from VMI in Civil Engineering in 1979. Their meet cute happened in a little college haunt across the street from George Mason University where Mike was playing rugby for the Mason club team. Jane and a friend went to the bar to celebrate a birthday and when she walked in, she immediately spotted Mike. Muscular and stocky at 5’10,” he had brown eyes and curly blond hair, and Jane was quick to point out that he was the cutest guy in the bar. At the time that they met, Mike was still growing out his mandatory VMI military hair cut, which accounted for the curls, but even so, Jane said that although he kept it longer than the military cut, it was still always short. Noticing Mike immediately, she mentioned to her friend that he was really cute. Much to her chagrin, her friend started talking to Mike first and the two talked about growing up as Army brats. Mike turned to Jane and asked her if she knew anything about the military. Curtly, she admits, she told him no. In the long list of pick up lines, this was as good as any, especially because it worked. Mike asked Jane to dance and when asked if he was a good dancer, with an adoring smirk, she laughed and said: “he thought he was.” Jane usually gave out a fake name and a fake number at bars – it’s just how she navigated the whole pick up scene. But on this night, and for this particular guy, she was plain Jane with a correct phone number. Asked why she played it straight that night, as I suspected it must have been the smoothness in the pick up line, Jane said it was just something about him that came off as genuine and honest and he was really easy to talk to. She felt he was trustworthy – enough to take a chance on. It’s how she felt anyway, and it’s what her gut was telling her, and so she did. She told him her name and she gave him her number. Chemistry was acknowledged and a connection was made that night which turned into a wonderful marriage and a wonderful love affair.


As she reminisced about the first night they met she shared funny stories about a guy that was exceptionally bright, easy going and just simply had a love of life and a love for those around him. Jane remembers a day when he told her that she needed to talk more kindly to people and to try to do random acts of kindness everyday. Those things, he said, are what will carry you through life. Pretty simple, to be sure, but a mantra that was as profound in its message to all of them, as well as in its delivery. Because the reality is that Mike was an inherently kind person, and he truly believed there was no other way to treat someone but with kindness. Jane said that he rarely got mad, and that he truly found the best in all people. A lesson that Jane and the girls learned well.


As Mike followed up that night with a call to Jane 3 days later, he asked if she wanted to go out; he would make her dinner and they could play darts. Jane said pretty simply but emphatically “I don’t play darts.” Mike said ok, and he would pick her up and make her dinner. As the story goes, rather hysterically, Mike did in fact make Jane dinner, which consisted of steak on a plate: just steak, and a Miller Natty Light. Mike was a beer guy and Miller Natty Light was his beer of choice. Jane, it turns out, was always more of a vodka and cranberry kind of gal. But as Jane laughs, she said that she had never had a meal of just steak. There were no potatoes, no vegetable, not even a roll; just steak on a plate. The image is funny, and even funnier still is the image of Jane trying to sum it all up.   The story she tells of their first date was more about Mike and a personality that didn’t get caught up in the details or pretense, but just had fun and enjoyed what he was doing, whatever he was doing. There was something special in those moments, and something stuck, in spite of the Natty Light, or maybe even because of it. But Jane said she actually did play darts that night and the evening ended with a solid connection between the two of them.


Mike was a smart guy, really smart in fact. He got a scholarship to Brown University, VMI, and a few others, but chose to stay a little closer to his home state of Virginia. Getting a scholarship for pole-vaulting, he was also a great athlete, as well as being incredibly bright. Always math oriented, he didn’t have to study hard to get accepted to these great colleges, but he chose VMI and studied civil engineering while also teaching boxing; being a boxer himself. Once there, he seemed to always be working off demerits. With the tough course load, it would stand to reason that he would be put on probation for academics, but in truth he actually sailed through the courses. But it was a wild streak in him as he was more mischievous than for his own good. As a result, he seemed to be constantly working off demerits for coming in late and missing curfew. Not something to be overlooked in a military college, to be sure. But during his college years, he was hard to tame, and as Jane often said, she joked with him throughout their marriage that she probably wouldn’t have gone out with him if she knew him in college, because he was so wild. Maybe wild is relative. But Mike always had an easy way about him, as he just loved life. But as Mike met Jane, life took a turn as they both fell for each other hard, and as love blossomed, they decided to marry in 1982.


Mike and Jane had 3 daughters. Jane miscarried triplets, then miscarried a second pregnancy as well. As Mike continued to tell Jane that it would be ok, that they would get through this together, she always believed him, as she believed in him and the power of the message. As she was pregnant with their youngest, she decided to keep it to herself until she was 3 months along. She didn’t want to worry him. She broke the news to him by giving him a tri-fold frame with pictures of their other two daughters in them, and the last one that said “See you in June, Daddy.” Mike always made her feel safe. He was strong and steady and the rock for all of them, but Jane said he could just as easily start crying because he was sentimental about everything. And he didn’t care if he cried either. It was just another, in a long list, of endearing qualities.


As Mike worked for a large site excavating company for many years straight out of college, he ventured out on his own, ten years into their marriage. Mike was never about the money, as he enjoyed the work and enjoyed working with people, and he was great at what he did. A good friend of Mike’s, who was also a builder in the area, said that Mike was so adept, that he could come out to their project and just by scanning the property he could shave 100 grand right off the top, saving companies hundreds of thousands of dollars. He just had a knack. As the business started to roll in as well as the money, Jane quickly came to realize that Mike was not the hottest of bookkeepers. She laughs at the memory. He wasn’t really into the details, or those kinds of details anyway, and as Mike enlisted Jane’s help she realized they were in arrears in some cases, by 6-9 months. Mike just wasn’t about the money, although you still needed to collect your receivables as Jane was quick to point out. So as Jane took over the day to day books and caught the business up to date, she laughs at the big bonus they got that year, because they were actually getting paid for the work he had done. He just didn’t do it for the money, he did it because he loved it and was great at it.


Jane said, every morning Mike would kiss every one of them goodbye, even if they were in their rooms, still snug in their beds asleep. He called the morning kisses his “karma for the day.” If he left the house without kissing them, he would literally turn the car around and come back to make sure he got his good karma kiss. These days, the hardest part of the day for Jane is the morning, because of karma time. Truly, the hardest part is the kiss goodbye. Jane tears up as she tells this story as she recollects all the special parts about their relationship and about a marriage that was unique and complete. With all its collective little pieces that together made the two of them whole, which ultimately was the bedrock for the entire family. Jane said Mike would come in every day and say: “how are my girls?” She misses that, but more than anything she misses his voice and when he would call her during the day to check in and say: “hey baby girl.” The absence of his voice and the gentle touch of his rugged hands is what hurts her to the core, and what she longs for every day. Still.


Early one morning, ten years ago, as Mike played golf with Jane’s younger brothers, he had an episode on the course where he had to be resuscitated. They called Jane and said get there quick, they weren’t sure if he was going to make it. After running specified tests, plus additional ones once he was released, they were never able to find anything conclusive. Their supposition was that he was dehydrated on a very hot day, playing golf, and the affects were and could have been dire. Mike survived, to live and thrive. As Jane said he would come into the house with arms up shoulder height like he was lifting a barbell and he would hit one bicep and then the other and say: “no one can hurt this!”


As I sit and listen to this great tale of two people immensely in love and even better, in like, it is hard not to get emotional right alongside Jane. I feel the love. I feel it in every word that she says and in every tale that she tells. I feel her love for Mike, and although he is not here telling me his side, I feel the love Mike had for his beautiful wife and 3 daughters. It’s palpable in the story of their lives. It’s there in the room as Jane fills me with an image and a glimpse into all that she had with her wonderful husband and all that she has lost. I feel it all. I feel the love and I feel the loss. I don’t know which one I feel more profoundly. Both are inextricably profound. It hurts me to feel her pain. And that I do. As Jane contemplates her life today and what it means to her, she admits that they are not down and out daily but she would love to know what it would feel like to go 5 or 6 days happy. As she tries to envision this new life of hers she hopes for a new normal and a new happiness. That does not necessarily mean meeting someone new, but she is hopeful to possess that same kind of contentment again, no matter what form it comes in.


As Jane tells me of the weekend Mike died, she tells me that she and her daughter Paige drove to the river earlier in the day on Friday, to get the groceries, mow the lawn and take care of everything so that when Mike got there after work, they didn’t have to do anything, they could all just “be.” That was the mantra of the Sweet Peas cottage – just be. And so they were – all of them.


On Friday evening, as Paige and Jane were getting ready, Jane got dressed with Mike in mind. She said it was starting to feel like they were dating again. The girls were in college and Paige had graduated, and it was going to be their time again. Life’s full circle. Time to reacquaint and rekindle the love that was so obviously the bedrock of their relationship. As Jane dressed, she remembers Paige telling her how cute her dress was and Jane remembers thinking to herself “I hope my boyfriend thinks it’s cute too.” Jane was almost giddy with the anticipation of meeting Mike there that night. And when he walked into the bar, she couldn’t help but think how cute he was with that same shit eating grin on his face that hooked her so many years before.


With beautiful weather and a perfect night – they met at the little local pub in town. A little honkey tonk place that was a favorite, and maybe, one of the only bars in this small Northern Neck town. In this little hole in the wall, there was a band playing Oldies, as it was the hot spot for all the locals. There was dancing and as Jane watched Mike dance with Paige, she was filled with the love for her family and how blessed she felt to know such love and tenderness. As she and Mike got up to dance she said she had to tell him to watch out, so he didn’t hurt her – the dancer that he was, and all. On Saturday, they spent the day on their boat and in the evening went to a winery outside of town to see The Robbin Thompson Band, an all time favorite for both of them. And listening to them sing “Sweet Virginia Breeze,” was taking them all the way back to their days of dating. Jane was embracing the emotions and the deeper connection between she and Mike, simply because they were now able to concentrate more on just the two of them again. That surge and excitement of feeling like they were dating again was ever present. Jane remembers the feeling of being blissfully happy. Those were her exact words: blissfully happy. As they headed off to get dinner at one of their favorite little restaurants that also doubled as the grocery store, Jane remembers Mike tasting the ribs and the barbeque and dripping sauce on his shirt. Mike’s plan was to order both dishes for the following weekend where 20 of his buddies were coming down to their river house for their annual “Hack and Cast” golf and fishing weekend.


As they all returned home, Jane was tired and went to bed early, as she normally did. As she went to sleep, Mike and Paige stayed up to watch football on TV. After Paige went to sleep, Jane got up around 11 pm to see if Mike had fallen asleep in his recliner. He was still up watching the game and she said “Mike, come to bed.” He told her he hadn’t had his snacks yet, which consisted of chocolate milk and fig Newton’s. This snack combination was pretty much exclusive to Mike but one he partook in every night before going to bed. His favorite chocolate milk was Over the Moon, but Nestle’s was a second best.


As Jane went back to bed, she left Mike in his recliner. As she got up around 6:30 in the morning, she came into the family room to find Mike sitting up on the couch. On the coffee table in front of him sat the half full glass of chocolate milk and the sleeve of Fig Newton’s. As Jane scanned the room, she knew immediately. As she yelled to Paige to call 911, they had friends that had a house a few blocks away and they came over and helped Jane and Paige handle the details and answer the questions from the paramedics. As one question was in regards to the spot on his shirt that was the barbeque sauce he had dripped on himself while at the pub earlier in the evening. An irony that Jane still considers. As Jane sat next to Mike holding his hand, she knew, even before she was told by the paramedics, that he had passed away sometime during the night.


As Jane recounts the details of that night, she starts to cry and then she starts to sob. As she is letting it all out, she probably hasn’t allowed herself to go there, to this place, for several years, yet she knows she can do it with me, because I understand. I understand completely, as I am a widow also. Unfortunately and thankfully, Jane and I have had each other to cry with, and to, for the last 5 years. But as Jane cried harder, with both hands now covering her face, and tears running down her cheeks, her shoulders started to convulse. I knew she was bringing up the pain that had been suppressed for a long time. I knew it because I was watching it. Suppressing the pain was her tactic to just simply get through her day to day. But here it was, in all of it’s pained glory, and I got scared. I thought, I can’t do this to her. I can’t let her go to this place and upset her like this. But on the other hand, I thought – go for it Jane – let er’ rip. I get it – I get it completely. And as I waffled on whether I was causing her to go to the darkest part of her life, I also realized that for her to cry so intensely, she felt safe and she needed to let it out. Jane holds a lot in because she doesn’t want to burden anyone with her day to day turmoil and the lingering and lasting grief for the greatest person she has ever known. But sometimes, you just have to let it out. And as I cried there, right along side with her, I found myself missing Mike as well; missing a guy that I had only met briefly a couple of times, but knew that I would have loved to have known him better. Jane didn’t sugar coat Mike, nor did she put him on a pedestal, she just told a story. A beautiful story, in fact. She told a story of a great guy and a great husband that loved wholly, loved honestly and loved unconditionally. Mike was a guy that taught by example, with a love for life and love for people, and with an uncanny ability to laugh and love truly uninhibited. His qualities were a gift to possess, to be sure, and an even greater gift to have received.


As we packed up for the night, I could tell that Jane was spent. Emotionally spent, that is. The night was incredibly emotional and powerful. For both of us, actually. But it was testimony to the connection that she and Mike shared. The emotional toll of death is not completely exorcised just because it’s been 6 years since Mike has passed. In fact, her love for him just gets deeper and more profound, and certainly more appreciated the more it’s reflected. As Jane contemplates the episode 10 years before as Mike was resuscitated on the golf course, she realizes that he may very well have escaped death at that time, and that the last ten years they had together were even more of a gift. She knows Mike was a gift, as she knows their daughters are the everlasting parts of Mike as he lives on in each one of them.


As we were concluding the evening, in front of the warmth of the fireplace, Jane walked me to her kitchen. In the refrigerator, she showed me the carton of the Over the Moon Chocolate Milk as well as a sleeve of Fig Newton’s from the night Mike died.   Both have occupied the top shelf for the last 6 years. As I took it all in, I understood the magnitude, the symbolism and the comfort of having one of the last items that Mike touched in her refrigerator, as it serves as a constant reminder of what was and what she still wants it to be. And by having those items close, it still feels like home. Well, sort of. And I also understand what it means to hold on to something that makes us feel that we are still part of a larger picture; one that was complete and whole, instead of one that is splintered and pained. And as I stood taking it all in, I also couldn’t help but notice the sell by date stamped on the top of the chocolate milk carton, as it hit me harder still, for Jane and even for myself. The carton read: September 28, 2009. I understand Jane.  I understand completely, because I am a widow too.


Note:  Thank you Jane for sharing Mike with us.  Thank you for showing me, more times than you know, that there is always one more step we can take, even in our worst moments.




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