It'ês rare that I engage in hero worship. But for Sandra Day O'êConnor, there is no amount of esteem that is too great.
She was, of course, the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court. But I'êm not so easily swayed. This impressed me; it did not inspire awe. What grabbed me was her graceful resignation from the bench in 2005 to care for her husband, John, who had Alzheimer'ês. And — even more profoundly — her grace and extraordinary generosity, two years later, when she went public with the fact that her partner of 50 years had forgotten her and taken up with another woman: a fellow Alzheimer'ês patient whom Justice O'êConnor accepted and cared for and visited in the memory unit as well.
I was 41 years old when this news broke. I'êd been married for two years to my second husband. And I remember remarking to myself that I finally, thanks to this woman, understood what real love is.
Further, I took a cue from Sandra Day O'êConnor who stood straight and refused to apologize for the oddness that had befallen her family. She soothed thousands (maybe millions) of spouses when she spoke honestly about the twists of her marriage in its golden age. She made me proud and jealous. I wanted to be the kind of woman who would be clear and forthcoming about reality because it links us together — joining us in this messy business of being human — and reaches out to people who feel alone.
It is in large part because of the O'êConnors' story that I wrote an essay for Salon in March, disclosing my autistic son'ês violence. I told the story as honestly as I knew how: admitting that I both fear and dearly love my mammoth, sometimes dangerous adult son. And in return, I received letters from around the globe thanking me for publishing the truth that so many other families live with but are too afraid to disclose.
Yesterday, John Jay O'êConnor died at the age of 79, after suffering from Alzheimer'ês for nearly 20 years. I cannot imagine the sadness, or the relief, of his family. But I think of his wife. Brave, dignified, pure of heart. What she did on the Supreme Court was the stuff of history. What she did after was the stuff of real life.