Remembering my father, ten years after his passing

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 parents’ wedding picture, July 1945.

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.”

My parents shortly before their deaths with their great-grandchildren Sophia and Lucas.

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!

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8 Thoughts to “Remembering my father, ten years after his passing”

  1. larry

    The single thing that keeps me from full-time RVing is quality medical care. I wish no one, myself included, end life with less than quality doctoring. A tragic end of a brave man.

  2. Mark Busse

    Death is the price we pay for life. It takes a story like the one you wrote to bring up the memories that we seem to bury in order to get through life.
    I noticed in your parents wedding picture that your dad was in 8th Army. My dad was too, was also a bombardier on B 17’s. He flew 28 missions, and like yours, came home to an enriching life. Hard to get too many stories out of the old buzzards, when they were around.
    Mine passed in 2003, his ticker just went out while he was on an Elderhostle trip. I was just wondering if you knew where your dad was stationed. Mine was in Deenthorpe, England.
    Thanks for the story, and for bringing back the memories.

  3. Steve B

    Twenty three years ago, my dad, a Korean war vet, died in an understaffed VA hospital 6 blocks from a Level 1 trauma hospital. I’ll spare the details but he went in for a minor problem and they grossly mismanaged him so badly that he died. When he needed emergency care after their incompetence caused a heart attack, they wouldn’t send him to the heart center at the hospital down the road.

    On the Korean War memorial in Washington DC there is a sign that says “Freedom Isn’t Free”. Neither is “free” government health care.

  4. RONALD

    Thanks for sharing,he lived a good life,served his country,family man,cherish the time you had,look at what you have become,a big thanks to both your parents,you have been blessed,peace and calm Chuck.

  5. Captn John

    I know~~ I miss my dad every day. Dad was unfortunate enough see both the Battle of the Bulge and Normandy. He came home to work 2 jobs until the day he died. Dad died in December 1976 2 years before the retirement he was looking forward to. He was my hero. The only time I saw his eyes water is when I left for Nam and when I returned.

    1. Harry Mustard

      Know what you mean, John. Could easily have been killed in WW2,but died far too young (49). Still my hero every day.

  6. Tony Sauer

    Chuck, thanks for writing this piece. My parents are aging and I’ve spent way too much time at that same hospital in Grass Valley the past two years (I also have great memories of my wonderful daughters being born there decades ago). Fortunately they’ve saved my parents lives more than once but age, Alzheimer’s and dementia are slowly taking them away. Watching the big burly WW II Private and later self made logging contractor fade away is tough, as is watching my mom who worked most of her life to make sure her kids and grandkids had more than they needed, lose her bearings to Alzheimer’s.

    It’s hard letting go and hard being away from home when I get a report from a caregiver who says Dad isn’t showering or Mom fights them off. I’m the point person on their care and financial issues now, so we tend not to stay on the road more than a few weeks at a time. It’s just a tough time for them and us.

    Lastly, forgive yourself. Your dad loved you and surely knew you loved him. Yesterday I had to give my Dad a long lecture on the phone about letting people help him shower. He was mad and hurt when he hung up, and I felt very sad. But, I know in my heart of hearts he understands and that he would do the same for me if the roles were reversed. The bottom line is that getting real old sucks, but that’s why we retired early and are traveling as much as possible while we have our health.

  7. Glenn

    So tragic and sad. My condolences. Too many untimely deaths caused by those in the medical profession. Many blunders are never reported or covered up. Sad state of affairs!

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