Why Did I Think She Wouldn’t Die?

I’m not sure why I imagined Ruth Bader Ginsburg would live — not forever, maybe, but long enough to protect us. Long enough to vote to preserve Joe Biden’s victory in what will surely be a contested win and assure the expulsion, finally, of the troll from the throne and the resumption of recognizable government. The complete version of the fantasy, if I’m honest, includes the troll, in handcuffs, and a perp walk, although I would also settle for a military escort and a helicopter. Ginsburg wanted to enable this fantasy, and I allowed myself to believe that she could.

Magical thinking is so seductive right now. So calamitous is our actual world that even the most rational of us is tempted away from evidence-based thought. When news of Ginsburg’s diagnosis came in July, I knew what it meant, but somehow I was able to levitate from reality sufficiently to dismiss the brutal prognosis. Metastatic pancreatic cancer usually has a three- to six-month course, and Ginsburg’s 87 years would not have helped her case. Some part of me must have understood that she would be dead by December — so, in the most optimistic scenario, still leaving an open seat a month before Inauguration Day. Might it not have been better to absorb this information and be at least mentally and emotionally prepared? Apparently not. “Let’s pray for Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” I said cheerfully, flippantly, to a friend in the park not two weeks ago. If anyone could delay death through an act of will, it would be Ginsburg, and — as a believer — I would help her achieve this feat with the silent, meaningful contributions of my own juju.

It was as if no one could see this coming, or, rather, as if everyone was so busy looking at the fires and the conspiracies and the climbing COVID infection rates, the death of an octogenarian with a terminal disease felt like an ambush. In the Wall Street Journal, Gerald Seib called Ginsburg’s passing a “surprise” and “a shock to the system.” “I’m shocked,” agreed Trae Crowder on Bill Maher’s show. When I heard the news Friday night, I was lying in bed after dinner, my belly full of Rosh Hashanah brisket, the souls of my brisket-cooking foremothers close at hand. I was feeling, if you can believe it, contented and soothed. Earlier that morning, I had tapped into their tutelage, preparing the brisket according to the sacred recipe in my head, and braising it for more than three hours in the very same robin’s-egg blue Le Creuset Dutch oven that my grandmother once cooked brisket herself. These are the tentpoles of religious observance: rituals, liturgies, sacred objects. The notice of Ginsburg’s death came through on my phone like a sucker punch. And it shattered the protective shield my household gods had given me.

This naïve belief in Ginsburg’s superhuman strength was not my individual mistake. It is everywhere in the mythology about her: in the accounts of her discipline, steeliness, ability to go without sleep, in her previous victories over cancer — colon! lung! pancreatic, part one! — and her refusal through treatment to take a day off of work. Her ability to bounce back, the defiance of the misogyny she encountered at every stage of her career, the bear-trap mind inside the diminutive body. Ginsburg made perseverance into a dogma and brilliance an accessory to that. The industry that grew up around her myth — the T-shirts, the bobbleheads, the songs and books and movies and mantras — this is late capitalism’s version of folk-hero worship, cynically produced by mass marketers but earnestly consumed, cherished, adored, and repeated in choruses by a whole generation of women and girls who saw in Ginsburg a human above other humans. If we had lyres we would have strummed them to sing her praises.

As it was, on the night of her death, she was transformed from superhero into the Jewish version of a saint. “According to Jewish tradition, a person who dies on Rosh Hashanah, which began tonight, is a tzaddik, a person of great righteousness,” wrote Ruth Franklin on Twitter. As I lay in my bed with my grief, I watched that tweet explode like a firework peony, drawing hundreds then thousands then hundreds of thousands of hearts.

Now, confronted with the unforgiving truth — she was mortal, she is gone — I am forced to examine why I imagined she might live. And I see myself, like a small farmer in Canaan, trying to control outcomes — the weather, tribal enemies, the greedy critters who eat crops and farm animals — by naming gods and goddesses for their power to protect me and then serving them with my most desperate belief. I hoped Ginsburg would save me, us, by controlling the timing of her own death because she represents all the values and virtues I most cherish: feminism, motherhood, friendship, earnestness, hard work, light humor, self-deprecation, rigor, and justice. The loss of these, truly, is darkness.

But I see now that attributing to Ginsburg superhuman strength doesn’t do her enough justice. She was extraordinary — not because she had magical powers but exactly because she did not. It is perhaps better to look reality in the face, as she did: to protect those who need protection, to extinguish the fires that we can extinguish, and to set about dethroning the troll and his minions with all the stamina, endurance, and tactical brilliance we can. If we elevate Ginsburg to a goddess, then we relieve ourselves of the responsibility of emulating her. She was human, and the example of her long, strong life is attainable by us.