At 6:34 pm (central) on Friday, September 18, my cell phone pinged to alert me to an incoming text message. I glanced at the screen. My pulse accelerated rapidly at the two words that appeared under the name of a former student–one with whom I traveled to Washington, DC, last May for a two-week learning trip.
I said, “OHHHH NOOOO.” I repeated it multiple times. I was sitting in my comfy reading chair, watching Act I one of an episode of The Daily Show from last week. My stepdaughter EJ was on the couch next to me, fiddling with her iPad.
“OHHH NOOOO,” I said, loudly.
“What is it?” EJ asked.
I flipped off the recording. MSNBC live came up. They were talking about something else. For a fleeting moment, I thought, “It’s not true. She’s OK. False alarm.”
I changed over to CNN. I heard a half-syllable of Jeffrey Toobin’s voice, and I knew:
We lost Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Notorious RBG, as she became known in recent years, has a cult following. In my lifetime, I’ve watched her become something of a cultural icon, which I think always surprised her in equal measure to the delight it brought her. Unflappable in style and focus, Ruth devoted her life to fighting for equality for those who couldn’t take an equal shot for granted.
Being a Supreme Court fangirl is a mostly innocuous lifestyle, an amusing thing I can share about myself in icebreakers, often augmented with my no-longer-available-for-sale Supreme Court lunchbox keychain, approximately large enough for a half-dozen jelly beans and with an operational old-school metal lunchbox latch. That dazzles at workshops and parties.
The hidden cost of this obsession, though, is in moments of national trauma, such as the news of RBG’s passing Friday night. My phone turned into a chirping nightmare, with a dozen or more friends, colleagues, family members, and former students getting in touch to share a moment of connection over the shocking news.
The texts all had the same basic message:
“Oh my god.”
“I FUCKING HATE 2020.”
“I’m fucking losing my shit.”
Do I have a deep insight to share about what this moment means?
No, sadly, I do not.
I had to turn off my phone within 15 minutes of the first text. As was the case immediately after the 2016 election, I needed some space to process before I could begin consoling my community about how this didn’t have to mean the end of all progress made during RBG’s lifetime. I couldn’t reassure panicky friends that we weren’t imminently drifting into a Margaret Atwood-esque dystopia. I couldn’t even grieve with my friends.
I was just numb. Terrified, sad, overwhelmed, numb.
Objectively, we all knew this day was coming, and probably soon. I was prepared for the fact that Ruth couldn’t live forever. As I have told students for a decade, when you saw her sitting on the Supreme Court bench, she genuinely looked like a strong wind might turn her into dust. When she spoke, though, her voice was quiet but firm, belying her appearance.
The partisan rancor and division that the timing of her passing would bring, though, felt–and feels–like true grieving is ill-advised. The work to which she devoted her life cannot allow for a pause to grieve our loss. But I’m still not quite ready to arm myself for battle. I still cannot believe she is gone. I haven’t yet moved past the denial stage of grief.
And so, rather than spin out endless hand-wringing in this post… rather than devoting myself to consoling you… rather than trying to find some silver lining… I’ll instead share this, a letter I sent to RBG on January 21, 2019. I’m glad I took the time to send this, although I have no way of knowing whether she ever received it or read it. I hope she did, though.
Be well, friends.
Dear Justice Ginsburg,
At the beginning of 2019, I set a goal of writing one letter per week to a dear friend to express gratitude for her friendship, and one letter per week to a hero to share my admiration and gratitude. This is my first ‘hero’ letter, and it only made sense that it come to you.
I am a longtime fan of your efforts to bring parity for women (and men) in legal and social realms. I’m hardly alone in my admiration of your work, of course, which only speaks to how broadly your efforts have rippled throughout the country and, indeed, the world. The first time I attended oral arguments as part of a college course in constitutional law (I attended GW), I was struck by how outnumbered you and Justice O’Connor were on the bench. It was 1997, so you were sitting on the far left end of the bench, and I was so impressed by your commanding presence on that high bench.
I am a political science professor at a community college now, and I’ve since been back to oral arguments whenever my schedule permits me to be in town on argument days. When it’s time to cover the courts in my introductory American government course, I share with my students the adventures I’ve had in attempting to secure a spot in the public gallery of the courtroom on argument days. I confess I take great delight in regaling my students with how much I’ve learned from the people who line up for one of those seats; lawyers who worked on court cases at lower levels, fathers bringing their daughters to the Court to see what it does; a newly minted patent lawyer who came to hear a patent & trademark case before beginning his job at the PTO the next day. I’ve benefitted as much from standing in line at the Court as I have in the courtroom. Well, ok, maybe not as much, but certainly a great deal!
I’m sure you’ve been told of the RBG action figures that FCTRY made. My admiration of and affection for you and your work is so notorious among my own friend circle that I was gifted two of them. I started an Instagram account called “road trip with Ruth,” where I occasionally post pictures of the places I go with the action figure in tow, and with messages of solidarity, action, and support. I wouldn’t call it the most unusual thing I’ve ever done, but it’s certainly one that brings me (and many others) a great deal of joy, a fact that belies just how much the women of this country respect you.
I wish you all the best as you serve our country with the distinction and tenacity you’ve always brought to the SCOTUS. You are a true American heroine, and I thank you for your service.
All the best,