RBG, one year later:
600,000 deaths, and legislation taking us backwards. This is still worth saying.
In the midst of 200,000 deaths, writing about one person’s grief seems small. Writing personal stories of grief feels selfish and self-indulgent. Promoting books and essays about grief feels base, almost dirty.
We are all so tired of grieving.
And then, one tiny woman dies. One barely 5-foot-tall, soft-spoken lover of opera, who laughed often, and never mentioned the aging spine that curled her shoulders forward as though to force her gaze to sink. But it would not. Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not look down.
She was 87, the age my mother was at her death. A fair age to die, I consoled myself then, and even now admit it’s true. Dare we expect more?
RBG was ill for years, more ill than most of us could have borne. Her work, her intellect, her purpose kept her alive, like the giant brain that sat atop Steven Hawking’s emaciated frame for decades longer than any ALS patient should expect. His mind, determined to solve the mysteries of the universe, demanded to live.
What was Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life force? What seeded her resolve, and kept her going in her unique way: gently, softly, with powerful dignity? I do not dare answer that question.
But I can answer another. Who was she to me, and to so many women who followed her generationally, who watched her fail and be pushed back, and want more, and hold on, and then rise. Who was she to us?
She was the mother I wished I had when my family asked if I wanted to be a teacher or a nurse when I grew up, who did not laugh when I said, “neither.” The woman who mourned silently with me when my PHD application was declined, and the Ivy League School called my college professor before they let me know. “She’s qualified in every way, but we can’t invest in someone who is 21 and single. We can’t risk she’ll drop out halfway through if she meets the right man. We’re so sorry.” they told him. He had the courage to tell me himself, but his eyes never left the floor.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the loving mother, the devoted wife who refused to deny herself family, yet persisted with her career. She was the silent model for those of us who did not want to choose. Watch us do this, she said without words, loving a man who had no need to overshadow, only to partner. She did not need to march or rale, or be unkind.
I thought of her the day I began my doctoral program, three days before my son was born. Be silent, be serene, be sure, I thought as I squeezed into the student desk. Be like Ruth.
Ruth was the mother I wanted to have when I struggled to balance it all. Keep going she said, quietly, in her work and in her life. Barriers become doorways in time. It all matters, and you have the right to persist.
I never knew Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but her spirit nurtured me. I am grateful for her work, for the decisions she made on the Court, and the ones she made in dissent for future generations. I am grateful for her humble awareness of how important it was to live as long as she could, hoping a woman President might rise to replace her, but determined to work through her pain and disappointment when that did not happen.
Why do I tell my story of grieving a woman I never knew? Because one lesson seems beyond me. Do not waste time with emotions like anger and envy and jealousy, she warned. They sap energy and waste time.
But I am angry. Angry she did not get to retire with dignity, as she might have if Hillary had been elected. Angry her last wish will not be honored, and those who oppose her policies will try to force their will on the country she loved. Angry that if they succeed, the rights she spent her life championing on the Supreme Court could be reversed for generations.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg deserved to die in peace. I fear she did not.
In ways I know all too well, my grief pulls me toward the darkness, the unfairness, the injustice. Not now, not her, not this.
I suspect I am not alone.
I need a chorus behind me, alongside me, encouraging me, to hear her voice again
Persist, resist, be patient, be firm. Move toward justice.
Be like Ruth.
I so hear this. My niece died of ALS recently, also, and in her decline she looked like a cross between Stephen Hawking and RBG. I know that as an attorney with the federal justice dept in Calif and also a firebrand school board member she would have loved being compared to RBG, and I did that in the talk I gave at her memorial. I wish I would have had a mother who was fully supportive of whom I wanted to be also, and looked to role models like RBG. I wept when she died. And now we see that the future we feared without her in her influential position may be realized, another grief. Thanks, Mary.