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She did the best she could. This catch phrase, this sodden cliché used to rankle me. It reeked of insincerity, of implied failure. It felt like an apology for a life poorly lived. At least that’s how I heard it when I was younger and believed that the best was yet to come and that it was within my power to seize and deliver it.
Little did I know that out here in the middle distance it represents the truth about most lives. You do the best you can with what you’ve got.
Two weeks ago, my cousin Maurice died at 72. The obituary said he passed following a brief illness. The truth is that Maurice was born at home in 1938, way out in the country, with no medical assistance, and he lived a long and vigorous life with severe cerebral palsy. When I was growing up, I saw him nearly every Sunday when my family loaded into the station wagon and traveled across the Kentucky border to visit relatives in Tennessee.
Maurice’s mother, Aunt Bernice, fed us ham and potato salad and coconut cake, and bossed everyone around like a drill sergeant. She worked as a licensed practical nurse at the local hospital delivery room and pronounced judgment on the qualifications of every young mother to raise a child. “She ain’t fit to tie her own shoes,” she’d declare, or in a more tender moment, “She’s a good little mother.”
Maurice walked and talked and ate and dressed and moved through life laboriously — like a tightly coiled spring that never relaxed. He took great pleasure in telling jokes and never quit until he reached the punchline, no matter how weary his audience from the effort of following his tortured speech. He loved country music and never missed the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night radio. He didn’t go to school, because where he lived they didn’t have schools for people like him. But he read voraciously and taught himself to type, and at age 62, earned his GED.
What the obituary didn’t say was this: After his father died, Maurice’s mother cared for him ferociously and single-handedly. She challenged him and doted on him. When she got old and he reached middle age, she determined that he’d be better off living in a group home where he’d have a social life and a job. And when he was abused in his first group home, she marched straight to the State House and demanded that Maurice be repaid for the suffering he incurred at the hands of one of their employees. She fought for his life until she won, and for the rest of his life she talked to him every day and monitored his care like a hawk.
Aunt Bernice is in her 90s now and recently moved from the red brick house we visited every Sunday to a nursing care facility, a nice one with a pretty name. She fought it at first, telling the attendants they might as well have left her on the concrete steps where she fell and let her die as put her in a home. But after a few weeks, she began to like it except for the food. Her bedroom furniture surrounding her and her basic needs attended to, her only worry was Maurice. When he died, she told my mother she was relieved. She hadn’t died before him. She’d done the best she could.
A few years ago, I wrote and published a book, a harrowing true story about a group of teenage boys whose bad decisions resulted in three deaths, a lifetime of punishment, and a ripple effect of suffering for all the families involved. It was a tough book and its publication marked the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
But just as the book was undergoing final edits, my life stopped when my 22-year old son died of suicide. The publication of my book, four months later, came and went like a dream and not a good one. I walked through the motions. I talked on the radio and gave a few readings and trudged through the fog of my own grief. That book I had worked on for five years was a ghost to me.
Last week, for the first time since I finished writing it, I re-read my book. I was scared to read it, afraid of what I might find there. But there it was, good and strong and surprisingly life affirming. I finished it with a strange sense of satisfaction and no regrets. I had done the best I could.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feaest: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.