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.