My favorite vet wanted to stand up and salute before being taken off life support. I miss him everyday

Sylvester Cobbs

Last year I wrote an essay that was heard on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, and another version appeared in the Kennebec Journal. I wrote it to honor my closest friend, confidante and mentor who was a veteran of both the Korean and Vietnam wars. He passed away in 2013. Up until 2013, Memorial Day weekend was a special weekend for us, as I explain in the essay.

On Saturday morning, Memorial Day weekend 2013, my friend called me and said, “Trish, I miss you. Can you come over?” We rarely went more than 24 hours without one calling the other, but it had been a few weeks since our last sit-down visit. He said he really wanted to see me.

In a moment I’ll regret for the rest of my life, I said that I had too much going on but what about later? He said he had to photograph a wedding that night, as a favor to a friend. I told him not to worry, it was Memorial Day weekend, and we could do our visit Sunday or Monday. I told him I’d call him the next day.

Sunday morning came, and I was awakened by his wife calling me to tell me there had been an accident, and my friend was in critical condition, paralyzed from the neck down. She said the doctors had operated overnight to try to drain the fluid from his head, and she asked if I could come to the hospital on Monday. The next two weeks were a roller-coaster ride of thinking he wasn’t going to survive, then he was, then he wasn’t.

Amazingly, my friend remained lucid through it all —  head swollen up like a weather balloon, unable to move — but our conversations never skipped a beat. He even participated in the decision to take himself off life support. On his last day when I went to say good-bye, there was a group of well-wishers in the room with him, including some of his fellow American Legionnaires. I was sitting next to his bed, holding his hand, when he asked in a gurgled whisper if I could please stand him up.

A proud seaman to the end, he couldn’t bear saying good-bye from a prone position. He wanted to go out upright and saluting. I tried to comfort him by telling him everyone knew he couldn’t get up, and they were okay with it. I saw many different emotions in his eyes that afternoon while we whispered to each other, but the hardest was this glimmer of disappointment that he couldn’t rise to the occasion just one more time.

War — an ancient paradigm that represents some of humanity’s worst inhumanity toward itself — can somehow bring out the best in the troops that serve and protect our country. My friend exemplified this paradox. If you are lucky enough to be close to a veteran, love that person up this weekend.

As I face my second Memorial Day weekend without my favorite vet, I have no thoughts except of him and the essay I wrote last year.

Active-duty veterans make the best friends. They give you this sense that they are always there, walking by your side, even when they are not. They are always ready to have your back. Sylvester “Cobby” Cobbs, local photographer and teacher, was that way for me and many others in the Augusta area. I associate Memorial Day Weekend with him and dread the absence of our flurry of phone calls and our regular visit.

I’d even take our last visit in a hospital room over no visit at all.

Cobby was a proud Navy man who convinced his mother to sign him in at age 17 in 1947. He said he remembered seeing the servicemen come and go during World War II and couldn’t wait for his chance to serve. He was a photographer, serving active duty in Korea and Vietnam. His assignments were to photograph “things of interest” to the military and federal government.

He told me once about crashing behind enemy lines in Vietnam. Two choppers went in, had completed the mission, and were shot down on the return trip. I asked him what he was thinking as he was falling. His eyes grew distant as he time-travelled in his mind for the answer. “I was gripping my camera tightly to protect it and praying that I got the picture.” He said he was hoping that, even if he died, the camera would be recovered and the film used for its intended purpose.

That kind of discipline, loyalty, pride and desire to serve — the traits that made him such a great friend — were honed during military service. Cobby would be upset if I made him sound too perfect, though. He’d be the first to say that he wasn’t perfect, personally or professionally. He’d insist that some character development comes from mistakes and spoke of his own quite candidly.

In recent years Memorial Day weekend made Cobby increasingly emotional. He knew that hairs of circumstance kept him from being one of the fallen. He truly appreciated the gift of each day and believed living life to its fullest was the best way to honor the sacrifices of his peers. He cherished his wife Mary, his family, and his friends.

Active duty veterans carry a unique, exquisitely painful burden. They have had to witness and participate in some of humanity’s worst inhumanity toward itself. They do so with noble intent. After their deployment they have to carry this heavy burden back with them. The load is inscribed with the names of soldiers who paid the ultimate price. It is a load that vets never get to put down.

Because I had a childhood trauma history, I understand about carrying burdens you can’t put down. Because Cobby had always been so supportive of me and my burden, I considered it an honor anytime he came to me for help carrying his. This shared understanding forged the strongest bonds of our relationship.

Sure, we shared our skin tone and our knowledge of Augusta back when most people knew the names of the few dark-skinned families living here — along with Cobby and that Callahan girl. We had our running jokes and games we’d play when people didn’t know us and assumed we were related.

The depth of our friendship, though, was found in the dark moments when one of us found the burden too heavy and reached out to the other.

My oldest son once asked us how we met. At first neither of us could remember — it had been almost three decades. In that moment of not remembering, I realized that it felt like Cobby had always been there by my side. Time before I knew him was just time that I didn’t know he was there — sort of like time now, since he passed and I can’t see him anymore.

Still I sense he is walking by my side.

Best wishes for Memorial Day to veterans, their families and the families of the fallen. I very much appreciate your sacrifice and your strength. I miss my favorite vet every day.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.