I’m heading to the ballot box with my dear friend and neighbor Ruth Bader Ginsburg by my side. Not literally of course. In fact, I’m reminded daily in ways large and small that Ruth is gone.
My worst moment this year came on Sept. 28, during Yom Kippur, only 10 days after Ruth had passed away in her apartment next door to ours at The Watergate, along the Potomac River in Washington. Ever since the death of her husband, Marty, in 2010, Ruth had joined my wife, Sue, and me for Yom Kippur services at the Adas Israel Synagogue on Connecticut Avenue — reciting the Kol Nidre together as we asked for forgiveness, for ourselves and our nation. Because of the pandemic that tradition was going to be painfully absent. But now Ruth was too.
Reason and loss don’t always go hand in hand. When I walk down the hallway past Ruth’s door, I still often find myself reflexively waiting for that “Good morning, Sandy!” of hers that had lightened up so many of my days for 40 years.
I never saw Ruth. I lost my vision almost two decades before we met. But I saw with blinding clarity from our very first moments all of those wonderful qualities the world would come to know: her intellectual rigor, the vast breadth of her interests, the magnanimity of her spirit. Opera could move Ruth to tears; Shakespeare, to great oratory; a good joke, to unrestrained laughter. Local theater troupes and opera companies seemed to become almost accustomed to having a sitting justice of the United States Supreme Court slip backstage to praise their performances.
Sue and I were afraid that Marty’s death might break Ruth — their bond was so deep. But within that fragile frame, Ruth was tough as steel. These are the qualities out of which the sightless must form an image — a tally of character, not physical attributes.
She lived up to her name, that proud heritage of indomitable biblical women, loyal to faith and family but willing to take on the unknown. When I asked Ruth, with great trepidation, to write a brief foreword to my recently published memoir, she leapt at the chance despite her failing health and a work schedule that would have taxed someone half her age. (I’ve learned since her passing that my memoir was on her bedside table when she died, an honor I will take to my own grave.)
For those of us fortunate to have known her personally and the many millions who benefited from the legacy of her jurisprudence, the weight of her loss remains incalculable. But I also know that a beautiful soul like Ruth’s never really leaves us and that what Ruth stood so powerfully for — a more just nation, the civil exchange of views and a dedication to democratic governance — is more needed and threatened than ever before.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg knew for certain that history bent in the direction of our better angels, but also knew that sometimes circumstances are such that history needs a good push. And she helped give it that nudge time and again in her life and career.
To me, that was never more evident than at another fraught moment in our voting history, the contested outcome of the 2000 presidential election, when Ruth pointedly omitted the customary preface “respectfully” in her dissent to the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decision in Bush v. Gore. Sometimes flimflam and sloppy reasoning have to be called out for what they are. Justice Ginsburg never flinched at that role. We the people must not flinch now either.
Sanford D. Greenberg, the chairman of the board of governors for Johns Hopkins University’s Wilmer Eye Institute, is the author of “Hello Darkness, My Old Friend,” which features a foreword by Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
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