I met Ruth Bader Ginsburg once, right after watching her sit for a case at the Supreme Court. I’d been assigned to teach Constitutional Law for a semester and although I wasn’t fully prepared to teach it, I took it on with zeal. I spent much of the previous semester reading court cases and planning out lessons. Sure, I wasn’t a lawyer, but I could still teach this course, right?
As I was laying out my final syllabus for approval that fall, Shawn went into the hospital. I kept working on it, taking notes as he slept next to me and drafting lesson plans in between his bouts of nausea from the chemotherapy. I wanted to show my school that my husband might be sick, but I’d still be a great teacher.
I actually went in for the first week of classes that January. I handed out a syllabus and stacks of court cases and I enthusiastically introduced myself to the class. The students knew that my husband was ill. But they didn’t know how ill – and honestly, neither did I. Because if I had known he would die just a few days later, I would never have left his side.
I didn’t show up for classes the next week, or the week after. I took ten full weeks off after Shawn died. I thought about coming back earlier, but every time that I did, I was crushed by the idea. I was really lucky that my school allowed me the time to grieve. My job teaching constitutional law was filled by a math teacher who was a retired lawyer.
I came back to school the week we went to meet Justice Ginsburg. I re-introduced myself to the students and taught alongside the math teacher that day. The next day, we went to the Supreme Court. It was a snow day and the rest of the school was out, but we were not about to miss this opportunity. And although the rest of DC was shut down, the Supreme Court closes for nothing.
It was quite the experience, sitting there in that courtroom. I’d seen a lot at that point, but the Supreme Court can take your breath away. For the first time in months, I didn’t think of Shawn. I didn’t think of death. I didn’t think of the bills I needed to pay and the repairs I needed to make on the house. I simply sat there, in awe, and listened.
Afterwards, we were ushered to a large room where we waited, a nervous chatter in the air. Eventually, Justice Ginsburg entered, and the last whispers of my students went quiet. Everyone knew that we were in the presence of greatness.
She talked about her life, her career as a lawyer and her role on the court, and the students sat there silently, transfixed.
I was wonderstruck as well, though not for all the same reasons as the students. I was impressed by her personal story and by all the work she’d done. But I also kept thinking about how strong she looked, how steady she was, and how totally focused she seemed. She did not seem like a woman in her 80s. She did not seem like someone who’d faced numerous hardships in her life. And she certainly didn’t seem like a widow.
“Tell me how to do it,” I wanted to say to her. “Tell me how to keep going. You have wisdom I don’t, and you can tell me what to do. This is my first week back with these students and I have no idea how I’m going to keep working and parent my kids and manage my life. Just tell me how you keep going, how you steel yourself for everything that you do in a day. Tell me how to do it.”
Of course, I didn’t say this. Instead, I asked a question about women in politics, because I thought it was important that the few girls in my class hear her answer. I liked what she said, but honestly, I wasn’t listening to the words. I was watching her mannerisms. She stood tall, stopped students who were rambling, and spoke with conviction.
I was awed.
Afterwards, we took photos, and I shook her hand. “Thank you,” I said, simply. The students buzzed with excitement as we walked back in the snow. It was contagious, and I realized that I was smiling when we arrived at the metro.
It was one of the first times I’d felt that way since Shawn died. Like I was alive.
On the day I met Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she didn’t tell me how to keep going. She didn’t provide a blueprint that showed me the way forward. She didn’t hug me and tell me everything would be okay.
But she showed me all of those things by example. She showed me that an 85-year-old woman who’s suffered through cancer and the death of her husband can get up on a snow day to listen to high school kids ask about the most important questions our country faces. And she can do it again and again and again.
Watching her was like reading an instruction manual. To me, it was as though she was telling me a secret about how to keep going through the tough parts of life.
She was showing me that when things are hard, you don’t stop and give up. You just do the hard days alongside the easy days, and no matter what, you show up. You put yourself out there, try your best, and keep going as long as you can.
You are so missed, Justice Ginsburg.
Rest in peace.