By Chuck Woodbury
My father died ten years ago today. He was a healthy man. It should not have been his time. I will forever believe he was killed by the doctors in the small hospital in Grass Valley, California, who performed a minor surgery on him that went horribly wrong.
My father survived 35 missions piloting a B-24 bomber over Germany during World War II. Had one German anti-aircraft gun been pointed slightly differently he could have perished. Had one German fighter pilot had a better aim he’d be gone. I would never have been born. It seems so wrong how he died.
On the morning of February 6, 2008, my father had a routine physical exam. “I don’t know anyone your age as healthy as you,” the doctor told him. My father returned home elated. He spent the day tending his yard. Besides traveling with his motorhome, it was his favorite pastime.
At 5:30, he sat down for dinner. It was always at 5:30. My mother always prepared the meals, and right on time. That night, she served homemade turkey soup. At some point, my father got a piece of the meat stuck in his throat. Finally, after an hour, he told my mother he was going to the hospital emergency room to see what they could do.
The doctors tried a few things, but they didn’t work. My father was not suffering or in danger of dying. He just had a piece of turkey caught in his throat.
The doctors decided to dislodge it themselves rather than send him to specialists in Sacramento, 50 miles away. Whatever they did, they messed up. They poked a hole in him that somehow let toxic stomach acid invade his body. He was rushed to urgent care.
I WAS IN MEDFORD, OREGON, in my Winnebago View on my way home to Seattle after a long road trip. At 4 a.m., my phone rang. “Dad is dying,” my sister said, crying. It was a call I had anticipated for most of my adult life — that awful time when I would lose a parent.
Medford is about a seven-hour drive north of my parents’ home in Grass Valley.
Within a few minutes I was on the road. I arrived about 1 p.m. My father was still alive. I raced to the hospital with my niece. My father was heavily drugged, but in agony. I held his hand and apologized to him for a terrible argument we’d had the last time I saw him. I had said awful things — unlike me — but it happened.
My father and I had grown apart in recent years. The argument was the worst I ever had with him. I became so angry I got into my RV and left his home, where I was visiting. Later, I felt incredibly sad and empty, and then mad at myself for not keeping my mouth shut.
And there he lay, in terrible pain. My niece swears he said “Chuck” to me. But I’ve never been sure. I wish I had listened more closely. Did he know I was there? I don’t know and will wonder the rest of my life. I stayed with him for a couple of hours. There was nothing I could do, and the drugs had put him to sleep.
I returned to his home, only a short walk from the hospital, to be with my mother. The hospital called later and said he seemed to be improving. “Of course,” I thought, “he’s not going to die. He’s my dad.” To this day, I do not know why I did not return to the hospital to be with him. I suppose I just assumed I’d see him in the morning and he’d be back to normal.
At 3 a.m. the phone rang. “Better get over here,” the nurse said. “He’s not going to make it.”
We were there in 20 minutes. The doctors were working on him, and wouldn’t let us in. An hour later, a doctor came to the waiting room. “He’s gone.”
And so, that was it. A life over. My dad, my childhood hero, gone. I took care of my mother for the next five months — a wonderful time with a woman with a wicked sense of humor who always kept me laughing. How lucky I was to have that time with her! And then it was her turn.
Through the years I have found it ironic that a World War II hero — a man who had survived 35 missions over Germany — was, in the end, done in by a turkey. If he could look over my shoulder now and read this, I think he’d probably shake his head and maybe even laugh at that. Strange, isn’t it, how life goes?
Missing you, Dad!