I took care of an elderly man tonight who taught me a lot.
He had cut himself accidentally and needed stitches. As I sat and stitched him up, I asked him about his life. He told me he was the oldest and longest surviving member of a large family. He told me about the work he’d done before he retired. I asked him, as I usually do, if he was a veteran. He was.
He served in the Korean War aboard a ship that is legendary from World War II, which is now a museum ship that I have personally visited. He told me the stories of how thrilling it was to be young and aboard that ship. And yet, he said, how very unglamorous and ugly war is. He talked about how mundane war can feel, how others saw his work as heroic and yet he felt like he did the same thing each day, attacking the same target that would then get rebuilt so it could be attacked again, how the rationale for war was so utterly pointless. He did not speak with bitterness, but he certainly felt strongly about it and did not think too kindly upon theoreticians of war.
He then told me, unprompted, about what it is that he felt gives meaning in his life, and in every life. He said simply, “Best effort.” That was the important thing. Best effort.
I asked him, reflecting on his life, what he was most proud of, what his best effort was. He gave me his answer immediately: “Family.”
He choked up as he talked about his family. His sons. His grandchildren. How smart they all are. How hard they work. How accomplished they are. He spoke about the son who finally decided to get married late in life and gave him his youngest grandchild.
I finished his stitches and cleaned them off. I told him that I hope that my own “best effort” did right by him, referring not just to the work I did tonight l but that I try to do each day.
He told me one last important thing: “I told this to my grandson. If you’re not going to do best effort, then make sure you lie down and do absolutely nothing. That’s the next best thing to best effort.”
I shook his hand and told him I was happy we had met tonight. He said the same.