The Things I Wish I had Said 

My great uncle is dying, a man that I have memories of as far back as I have memories.  He likely has a few days to live.  He is, and will always be in my mind, an amazing man.  He has been present for monumental events in my life, from graduating BUD/s, to celebrating my wedding with family and friends. He was like the grandfather I never had. Every time I would make it home to Santa Cruz while I was in the Navy I would try to visit him. I love his house, I love his wife, and I will forever miss the ferocious hugs he gave me when I knocked on his door. He is the patriarch of the Stumpf family, and there are few men who will ever walk this earth who could hold a candle to him.  

I started this blog with the hopes it would help someone, somehow. Please learn from my shortcomings, and don’t make the same mistakes I did.

My mother died August 26th, 2010. She was with my father and sister. I wasn’t there.

I knew my mother was going to die long before that day arrived. I saw the look in my sister’s eyes when she recognized something was wrong on her chest x-ray, I could see it in the way she was walking. I left for my last military deployment less than two weeks later. I left early in the morning, in an attempt to make it easier. I did not want to wake up my three young children, I didn’t want the potential last memory they had to be of me walking away, headed to a place they will never understand, to do a job I never want them to do. Only my wife, and my mother and father were with me at the door. I knew as I hugged my mom it may be the last time I would see her. I could have stayed. I could have stayed for another week or two at most, but at some point, the deployment was happening. I left as scheduled.

Eight months later I received a Red Cross message in Afghanistan, a notification that begins the process of allowing a service member to depart an active warzone due to an emergency at home. I received the message, packed my things, got on a helicopter, conducted the final combat operation of my career, and then boarded another helicopter to Kandahar, all in the span of 24 hours. I was home 72 hours later, and at her hospital room 24 hours after that.  

I will forever regret the last conversation, and the last days I had with my mother. As a family, we knew that my mom was coming to the end of her life. She was fighting with her second round of cancer, and had survived long enough after her first that she was the only living member of the survivor group. It was her choice to not continue chemotherapy, it would have killed her just as surely as the cancer would have.

In the days before she died, family and those close to her came to say their goodbyes. I tried, and failed miserably. It was completely my fault. I had spent the proceeding eight months living in an environment where life and death decisions were sometimes daily. You function differently when you are in those environments for long periods of time. You learn to process information differently, constantly work on controlling your emotions and remaining emotionless in order to make good decisions in critical situations. The taking of life was part of my job, and to be truly lethal, you learn to tune out death. It becomes part of your daily experience and exposure. You become capable of making life and death decisions in moments, in instants. You do it to be better at your job, you do it to deal with your job. It doesn’t turn off like a light switch just because you change the scenery. I don’t know if it ever does. When I saw my mother for the first time after coming home, I had one thought pass through my mind, “she is dead.” I looked at my mother, and in that instant accepted the fact she was dead. It was binary, it was unintentional, and it haunts me.

The last words my mother said to me where “please hand me that trashcan.” I had just given her a hug, the last hug I would ever give her, and the movement of raising her upper body made her nauseous. I have never seen someone that frail. She was a skeleton of the woman I remember growing up, and yet, still every bit my mother. That was my goodbye. I could not go back into that room and try again. I will regret it until the day I die.

There are so many things I wish I had told her. I hope that she died knowing the love I had for her. I hope she died knowing that I would not be the man I am today without her. I wish I had told her thank you. Thank you for believing in me, for raising me, and supporting me through every phase of my life, even when the things I chose to do and pursue scared, and hurt those that cared about me the most. Thank you for the values, the boundless love and acceptance, and compassion. I wish I had said those things to her, not to make me feel better, but so that she knew how I felt, in the hopes it would give her peace. Maybe she knew them, and maybe it would have helped eased the pain she was in. I will never know, because I could not get myself to say them. I drove home that day with my brother in law, it was the last time I saw her.

I have learned most of the lessons in my life the hard way. This one is no different. Don’t leave things unfinished. Don’t leave things unsaid. 99.99 percent of what we voluntarily surround ourselves with does not matter. It is meaningless white noise that we somehow convince ourselves is more important than what truly does matter, the ones we love. There is no strength in putting on a tough face, it’s just a face. When I had the chance to say my goodbye, I was not able to. I did what I needed to do for me, instead of what I needed to do for my mom.

Say the things to the people you need to say them to, now, not later. There is nothing to be gained by waiting.  Your world can turn upside down in the blink of an eye, and you will be left with nothing but regret.

Don’t make the same mistake I did.

20 thoughts on “The Things I Wish I had Said 

  1. Andy, I am a mother and as a mother of now adult men, I can tell you. She knew. You were there and that is what she was waiting for. She wanted to stay until you made it home. You gave her what she was hoping for just by your presence. You came home from the other side of the world and she knew you were safe. That is what she needed to be able to go in peace.

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  2. I can so relate to that story. I lost my mom, dad and sister within 9 months.
    Working as a firefighter we see death almost daily. It does change you. It is “no big deal” until it is.

    I had the great honor of being my fathers “cancer buddy” every appointment, every treatment for 18 months. I would never give that back. I dosed his last drops of moriphine as he passed away, peacefully at home.

    17 days later my mother died on the same bed, after 50+ years of marriage, she went with him.

    Stay strong brother
    This too shall pass

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  3. Your mother knew you were there, and she knew how you felt. Just as you know how proud she was of your contributions and accomplishments.

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  4. Andy – your blogs always move me. As the mother of a son who is currently at BUDs, believe me when I say your mom knew everything you couldn’t say. My son is the same way – he doesn’t tell me much and is pretty silent about his feelings. But I know he loves me with his whole heart and soul! And I don’t want him agonizing some day because he neglected to tell me. I know. And your mom knew too. Trust me, she did!
    Suzanne

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    • Andy, I cried when I read your story. My mom only lived 5 minutes after I got to the hospital. I said many of the things you wanted to say to your mother, but she was already experiencing the death rattle. I want to believe she heard me through those horribly long 5 minutes. However, it haunts me that I didn’t tell her sooner. You did the best you could at the time. If you believe in heaven, or not, your mom already knows how you feel. Losing someone you love is the worst thing to happen to us. Thank you for your post, and God bless you. I’m sure your mom is proud.

      Stephanie

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  5. Andy, I knew your mother because we had Marie as a common friend . Your mother was a lovely lady and I adored her. I know she loved you very much and she wanted you to do the things you needed and wanted to do. She wanted you to continue with your life and the last thing she would have wanted was to have been a burden. You were a good son.

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  6. Tears for you. Your mother knew. Forgive yourself. That’s hard to do but do it anyway. Your used to doing hard things, right?

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  7. Andy,
    I agree with all those above who say your mom knew. She would not want you having those regrets. But it is important to share your wisdom because there are those who needed to hear your words! I am also married to a firefighter. We appreciate every moment. Be at peace.

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  8. Andy,
    Physics teaches us that there is no beginning or end to energy but that it just transforms from one type of energy to another so your mother has not left you. It just seems so because she is no longer physically present but she is with you spiritually. The essence of who we are is our spirit, which is something which cannot be seen or contained or held, yet it is the driving force behind everything we do. Whether you believe in spirit or not doesn’t negate the presence of spirit. There are many energies which are unseen yet are right in front of us, some of which you are very familiar with. Gravity is a force which cannot be seen or held or controlled, and is a very weak force according to science, yet as you know, pulls you towards planet Earth at between 120 to 180 miles per hour. The energy called gravity cannot be seen and is a weak force but it is ever-present. There are other forces, energies and things which cannot be seen by the eyes or held in our arms or stored in a box but are still present such as the colors of the spectrum, another type of energy which you are very familiar with, which is infrared. IR is always present but cannot be seen by the naked eye. Just as gravity and IR are energies that are always present yet are unseen and go unnoticed, there are many, many other energies and forces that are always present but cannot be seen or touched or held. Love is an extremely powerful force. The love that you have for your brothers is an unconditional sacrificial love so strong that you will sacrifice your life to save your brother yet it cannot be held or touched or put in a box although it is always and ever present.

    You don’t need to have hope that your mother knew all of the ways that you felt about her or that you were grateful for her. You need to know that she is fully aware of these thoughts and feelings. Your mother knows how much, how deeply and how grateful you truly are to have her as your mother. You don’t need to have any regrets anymore about things that you did not say to her because she is with you now in spirit and knows all of those things and how you feel and furthermore she is very proud of you and loves you very much as well.

    As a special missions unit operator, you hold yourself to a very high standard, the highest in the world, and in doing so, you are also very demanding and hard on yourself in every situation you encounter and endure. You didn’t say goodbye to your mother because you didn’t want to accept the reality of the finality of the circumstance however in this very very special and very personal experience, this is a perfectly understandable reaction and behavior. It is called denial. As a special missions unit operator, one of your greatest strengths is your ability to compartmentalize and as you said, “just changing the scenery doesn’t change the behavior”. As a highly elite warrior operating at the very tip of the spear, this is perfectly understandable but please don’t confuse your choice and coping mechanism with your mother not knowing how much you love her and how much you respect her and how grateful you are to have her as your mother. She is fully aware of these things and she is with you now in spirit always, in all ways, as she has been since the day you were born and will be for all of eternity. Your mother is now omnipresent in your life in spirit.

    There is no reason to carry the heavy burden of regret any longer and your mother does not want you to live for one second longer carrying the heavy burden of regret. She is fully aware of how you feel about her, how much you love her and how much you miss her. She is with you right now in spirit and will be so for all of eternity. You will see one another again.

    I agree with you that we should seize and make the most of every moment. Carpe diem. Life is extremely precious and time and love are the greatest gifts we have so we should let those we are very close to know how much we love and cherish them but it doesn’t end with death.

    I am very sorry to read about your uncle and I pray that the Good Lord blesses him with peace and comfort as he crosses over to the other side and I also pray that the Lord blesses you and your family with peace and comfort during this time.
    God bless you and your family brother. I love you man!

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  9. As a man, I can 100% relate to how you feel. Although not totally relatable to you losing your mom to cancer. May She Rest In Peace. I lost the love of my life to an unwated divorce last summer. It’s something that will haunt me forever. The two biggest things I will forever carry with me from now until I’m no longer drawing air on this planet, is to never leave anything unspoken and live with no regrets. Never be afraid or too full of pride to speak your thoughts and feelings to the people most important to you, because in a moment they can be gone forever.

    Justin

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  10. Andy, I speak from my heart in telling you that your Mom knew. She was a very special lady and was very intuitive about those close to her. As others here have said, she will always be with you and be one of the biggest reasons you continue to do the things you do. Accept that and go on, remembering to not leave things unsaid to those that you still have around you, and in distant places. It won’t change the way you feel about not having said these things to your Mom, but it will lighten your load and give you a mental break from the beating you are giving yourself over it. I will tell you that I often have conversations with your Mom while on my morning walks, and other times also. Not a day goes by with out her crossing my mind in some way. Share her memory with the kids and the rest of us, it will always be special.

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  11. Dear Sir: All you had to do was walk through the door of her hospital room. She KNEW. No words needed. You are a wonderful son. May the peace of the Lord be in your heart and soul.

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  12. THANK YOU ALL FOR YOUR WONDERFUL AND HEART FELT COMMENTS. ANDY HAS REACHED US ALL ONCE AGAIN, HIS STRENGTH AND CLARITY REACHES INTO OUR HEARTS AND SOULS. THANKS AGAIN, MY DEEPEST RESPECT AND LOVE TO YOU ALL. DAD

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  13. Pingback: The Things I Wish I had Said  – Qui me amat, amet et canem meum ~St. Bernard of Clairvaux~

  14. Respect you. When we go home- she will be there, because Jesus Christ did not lie to us and those who now live in this world for Him and the God who sent him, everything else is 99.9% noise. But that kind of love is not. That is the love of God. God with you Andy Stumpf. Now the long walk.

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  15. This life is only one more evolution. One time through, each step, each word, each day. THEN we go home for eternity where there is no death and all those we have loved and those who have loved us will be, for those who knew God here and He knew them: and loved them. This is the truth. Paid for in blood.

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  16. proud of you i am, kid.

    this will be short.. it’s difficult to see through the tears,

    it took me a long time to figure out donnie was one of the good ones, the b.s. your grandfather used to pull kept me from seeing the real donnie.

    didn’t take but a couple of minutes to see that with your mom.

    net her in june of ’69. had already met your dad, seems like just a few minutes ago.

    she turned me on to photography,.

    that led me to take the pic of you running on the beach.

    thanks patty. for every thing you were.

    i wish i had said that sooner.

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