Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Last Gift She'll Give Him

I never have known quite what to make of Sandra Day O'Connor. I admire that she was the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, and that she slipped into that robe with a tremendous amount of dignity and personal integrity. But clearly, her politics are not my politics.

Though never coming out directly against Roe v. Wade, as is now the fashion of the Alitos and the Robertses of the Court, some of her first rulings opened the door to allow states to interfere with a woman's right to abortion. In her opinion, she said states could pass laws that interfered with a woman's right to her own body, as long as those laws didn't place "undue burden" on the woman. That uncorked the genie from the legislative bottle which produced prior parental and spousal consent laws, laws stipulating waiting periods, laws requiring "educational programs" (usually consisting of many photos of mutilated dead baby corpses), etc., etc.

Still, as much as I resented her rulings with regard to abortion, sexual discrimination cases and (lest we never forget) Bush v. Gore, I couldn't help but admire the fact that her rulings throughout her judicial career, were kind of... well... all over the political map. Appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1981, she was to have been the conservative "sure thing," casting votes along a conservative party line that forced the court into a right-leaning body. In practice, though, Day O'Connor proved unpredictable and, at times, downright capricious. She proved particularly bothersome to conservatives in issues involving the separation of church and state, and in decisions where the use of the death penalty was controversial (such as the execution of the mentally handicapped and minors). Conservatives found her an untrustworthy enigmatic, and liberals found her an occasional uneasy ally. Clearly, Day O'Connor looked at each case put before her as a new opportunity to test state and federal law against the only measure that ought to applied to any law -- its Constitutionality.

Always a bit aloof and austere in her appearance, but still attractive in a grandmotherly way, Day O'Connor was always the picture perfect representative for what the court should be -- a smart, educated, open-minded expert in the principles on which this country was founded, driven by desire to keep us on the right track. Disagree with her or not, you could never accuse her of carrying someone else's water.

When she retired in 2004, Day O'Connor cited her husband, John's, then-13-year battle with Alzheimers Disease. His condition was deteriorating, by all accounts, and she was needed at home to care for him. She retired, and we heard little from her. Until today, that is, when CNN ran this story about her husband, John, whose disease has progressed sufficiently that it became necessary earlier this year to place him in an assisted living facility. O'Connor reacted so negatively to his institutionalization that he began to talk about suicide, according to the O'Connors' son, Scott. But in an odd, and apparently not uncommon turn of events, Justice Day O'Connor's husband has fallen in love with a fellow patient at the facility. As Alzheimers patients live longer and longer, and drugs that slow the progression of the disease become more and more prevalent, this is happening more and more. Patients' dementia advances to the point that they literally have forgotten their spouses, and so fall in love with fellow patients, who are nearby and more readily available every day.

Scott O'Connor says that his father's attitude has improved dramatically, that he is no longer talking of ending his life. Even more surprising, the son reports that the former Supreme Court justice is not jealous at this turn of events. She is, he says, just grateful that her husband has finally found something at his new residence that makes him happy and comfortable. Setting aside all romantic ideas of afterschool and disease-of-the-week t.v. movies, the truth about dementia is it robs people of themselves and those they love a bit at time over the long haul by destroying the continuity of relationships. What on earth do you do if the man you love, that you joined your life with over a half century ago, that you bore and reared three children with, hugged and cuddled grandchildren with, slept beside for decades, suddenly doesn't know you? I couldn't tell you what I'd do.

If you're Sandra Day O'Connor, though, you apparently do what you've always done when faced with a tough case. You think about it rationally and calmly, you keep your wits about you, you keep your mind open and mouth shut, and you do the only thing your conscience will let you do. With all her education and her smarts and her good intentions, she couldn't save her life partner from this horrible thing that ravaged their lives for nearly two decades. The thing she could do was to give him a gift as his life winds down. Maybe the best gift you can give a person. Maybe the same gift she's always given him, though we who live outside their marriage will never know that. She's given him the gift of a brand new love, a love which requires neither history nor shared memory to bind it.

It only solidifies my respect for her. For all my gnashing of teeth over some of her rulings, I am grateful (in this season of approaching thankfulness), if we as women had to wait so long for a woman to sit on the highest court in the land, that the first one to wear those robes was Sandra Day O'Connor, with her bearing and her poise, with her open mind and her sharp, critical common sense, and, yes, even with her right-leaning principles. Because at least she has them. Principles, that is to say. And a glimpse at the Court without her makes it clear that not all who now wear those robes do have them.

I wish Sandra Day O'Connor and her family all the peace and serenity in these upcoming difficult months (perhaps years) that they can find.

And I wish the same for you all as well.


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