News, Views, Happiness Pursued

What About Bob Colby?

by | Mar 31, 2019

Bob Colby. photo/courtesy John Nichols

Editor’s note: Portland actor and writer Bob Colby passed away last month. His contributions to The Bollard include “Shafted: Riding the elevators of Portland” [July 2008] and “Food stamped: My adventure getting food assistance” [Sept. 2009]. We asked two of Bob’s many friends to write about him this month. 

Do they ever wear Irish Handcuffs* in heaven? If so, Bob Colby will be too pissed to concede there is indeed a heaven to report back to us here on the other side.

Our friend Bob died March 13. He had cancer, endured horrible treatment, worse side effects, myriad complications, then even more cancer, and died anyway. Fucking cancer don’t care. His sister Kathleen wrote that even while very ill, “he wanted his cable channels, his chair, his weed, and his beer. When he couldn’t enjoy those things, we knew it was time [for hospice],” where he passed a few days later, surrounded by family.

Bob was so smart, so funny, so well-read, so opinionated. Anne Lamott’s advice for writers: “Have one honest, tough, loving friend who will read and mark up your work for you, and bust you on your overwrought bullshit.” Bob Colby was that friend for me.

You know how it’s said that to have a rich, full life, people should have home, work, and a third place? Bob is the reason I have my third place: Brian Ború, in downtown Portland. Brian Ború is a true Irish pub where all are welcome. Bow-tied wealth managers and lawyers dressed for court clink glasses and talk politics, stocks and baseball with old hippies in paint-spattered Carhartts and members of the robust, notorious group to which I am proud to belong: The Women of Ború.

In 2011 I was recently widowed and grieving, an empty-nester just beginning to peer out from under that dark monolith, to extend tendrils of human interaction. At a funeral I reconnected with old friends A and her partner, S. I knew they frequented the pub, so on the way home from work I would sometimes stop in and drift through the throng. If they were there, I’d stay and talk with them on the sunny brick patio. If not, I went on home for another night alone.

One evening I was floating anonymously through the happy hour hubbub when a scruffy dude in a jean jacket and baseball hat said, “Hey, aren’t you S and A’s friend?” I allowed that I was. That dude was Bob. He generously introduced me to the gang of regulars who are now my closest compatriots, and when Bob and I started talking, a conversation began that lasted the next several years. Bob had strong, expert opinions on many subjects. He was not shy to share his positions loudly and definitively, and, if necessary, to debate them with such force of logic that minds were changed — but never his.

Bob also introduced me to the man who became my new husband. The night I met him, everyone was discussing football except Bob and this stranger, who were having a lively conversation about grammar — specifically, the prohibition against ending a sentence with a preposition, a folly up with which I will not put. (I lifted that line from Bob.) I’m always happy to discuss grammar with anyone who will listen, so I sidled up next to Bob, insinuated myself into their conversation, met David, and changed the course of my life.

Bob paid me the best compliment ever when he commented on my wordy Facebook posts: “When it says ‘Read More,’ I always click.” Then he ruined it by saying, “except when you get too maudlin,” but quickly added, “I always read the whole thing, then decide if it’s the M word.”

When I looked up the definition on Google — “self-pityingly or tearfully sentimental, often through drunkenness” — Bob’s remark seemed much funnier, because I’d been writing about our bar.

I had been trying to summon the courage to visit Bob in hospice. I know all too well that it’s important to show up if you can. But every time I thought about it, I couldn’t stop crying. I was waiting to feel stronger.

Ha. That’s not what strong is. Strong is showing up anyway. The later stages of Bob’s illness brought up a lot of emotions from the last few days and weeks of my late husband Jeff’s life, some of which was very precious, all of which was very, very hard. I had the nerve to text a friend all my supposed reasons why I couldn’t visit Bob. Many were valid, but there was also “busy week.” It was a busy week, but no. No. We make time for the things that matter.

The truth is, I wasn’t brave enough to go see Bob in time, and now it’s too late. I regret not showing up to thank him, to talk about all this and more. He would have taunted me, called me maudlin. He would have been right again. But there are worse things to be accused of.

You are well loved, Bob Colby. The day you died, we clinked in your honor a tall, clear, nut-brown pint that stood on the bar sweating and untouched. We all cried. All the friends you helped me make at the pub will mourn your loss, tell your stories, lift a glass. You will be long remembered here.

Rest easy, my friend — or easily, as you would doubtless correct me.

*Hold a drink in each hand.

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