Sandra Day O’Connor Shamed Me by Example




She served on the highest court of the land as its first female justice. She sustained a “nondoctrinaire, context-attentive approach,” rare today, that kept her decisions aligned with the social consensus. A moderate Republican appointed by President Ronald Reagan, she received the nation’s highest medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from Democratic President Barack Obama. But the achievement that boggles my mind is a private one.

How do you watch your beloved husband fall in love with someone else and keep smiling?

John Jay O’Connor lived with Alzheimer’s for almost twenty years. As his illness progressed, Sandra began bringing him to court with her because he could not be left alone. After the dementia intensified in 2005, she stepped down from the U.S. Supreme Court in order to spend more time taking care of him.

Meanwhile, a cruise off the coast of Turkey made her realize just how fast the disease was moving: she had to remain on constant guard to keep John from blithely jumping overboard. When they came home, she knew she could no longer keep him at home. Now she had to find the right facility, someplace where he would feel at home and could be watched closely without feeling trapped.

She brought him to the Huger Mercy Living Center. A few days after he moved in, he fell madly in love with another resident.

His wife of fifty-five years continued her faithful visits, which she now spent watching her husband holding hands with another woman and gazing at her, besotted. Gone were all his memories—the intimate laughter, the births of their children, the holidays and trips, the affectionate wrangles and teasing, the shared passion for justice. He no longer even knew who the woman was who showed up so often and sometimes took his other hand.

Shakespeare unwittingly anticipated this response, pointing out that “love is not love/ Which alters when it alteration finds.” But in a culture where you earn stature by putting in time and working hard, to see years of marriage—the hardest job of all—dissolve before your eyes as though none of it ever happened? God, how disorienting. Did it scour away her own tender memories, the small lived moments that take their joy from being shared? Or did she feel she must carry those memories alone now, honoring their past because he could not? A marriage is woven of memories. Thumbed photo albums, shared looks when something reminds you, a trove of shared stories, objects whose provenance was that auction bid he dared you to make, or that rainy Saturday flea market, or that impulse purchase in a street bazaar on your honeymoon….

Suddenly you are starting from scratch, staring at someone who knows nothing about you, nothing about the life the two of you built. Would you fall in love with him all over again? Maybe—but there is no starting from scratch. Yesterday will be erased by tomorrow. And even if a fresh start were possible, John O’Connor had already chosen someone else.

I wonder how he introduced his new love. What qualities he found in her that maybe Sandra never had. It is easy to be dismissive, and I hope she was able to be, because that would hurt less. This was a care facility, after all, and no one was bringing a full and lively mind to the exchange. The crush was as meaningless as a kindergarten infatuation.

Yet something drew the two together. This new woman was able to give John joy and solace in a way his wife no longer could. Her graceful acceptance of that fact was nobler than any judicial decision, because the detachment and altruism she prized were harder to muster. I am afraid I might have visited a little less—quick dashes once a week, say, and then maybe every two weeks, and surely once a month was enough, since he did not even know me. (That snarl is ego, talking through clenched teeth. The imagined hurt is entirely irrational, and I know it.)

Thank God for Supreme Court justices who are able to move beyond such pettiness. Sandra Day O’Connor’s role on the bench was big picture, as big as it gets, taking in the past and the future, precedent and legacy, along with the current context. Maybe her judicial work was what trained her to seek perspective, consider the situation, and want what was best for whoever was suffering in the moment. Maybe it tugged her away from her own ego and stopped her from seething at a loss—of pride, of love, of her husband.  

I should have such skills. Who knows what might back me into a corner in years to come, forcing me to choose between my own wishes and the needs of someone I love. Those are the ultimate decisions, tests of how we have lived and who we have become. Youth is for figuring out what will make you happy; age is for forgetting yourself, now that you have all that settled, and helping those you care for—even those who are, or turn into, strangers. By now you know what C.S. Lewis discovered late in life: “Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken.”

Dementia makes a lie of romance. Two become one, pressed close for strength and comfort? You have been pried apart. You can no longer give your whole heart to your beloved for safekeeping. You no longer have someone to come home to, someone who will worry if you do not show up. And those who see romantic love as physical might have another think, because if the change were physical—paralysis, say—it would barely register on the heart, compared to a loss of memory.

Before I grow even more maudlin, I should acknowledge that Sandra O’Connor’s decision might have been easier than it sounds. After all, what choice did she have? Wave her wedding ring about and recite the high spots of five decades of marriage on every visit? She cast the situation in lawyerly terms: “How enforceable is the contract of marriage, when one does not remember the marriage?”

Still, her practical acceptance had to be laced with horror. I am haunted by movies about amnesia in which someone comes home and looks around without recognition, eyes blank, unsure who these strangers are that they apparently once loved. Sandra Day O’Connor faced something even worse: she was replaced, supplanted. Old divorce suits used to cite an “alienation” of affection. The word perfectly captures the chilly strangeness of watching your husband cuddling up with another woman.

To be forgotten seems the cruelest fate that could befall a deep love. But was it worse to see him distressed, frustrated, and dejected about moving to that facility? Sandra was just relieved to see him so happy again, one of her sons assured the media. The family had no problem with the romance being publicized; maybe it could help others understand the loneliness of Alzheimer’s, the need for intimacy, the relationships that often form after the memory of marriage dissolves. Sandra had gone public just as readily when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, speaking about her mastectomy to ease other women’s anxieties.

She was brave from the start. Had to be, as the only woman in her class at Stanford Law School. First she dated classmate William Rehnquist, the future chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. But after she and John Jay O’Connor were assigned to proofread the same article—both were on the staff of the Stanford Law Review—they began spending time together, grabbing a beer after a work session. Not even an impetuous marriage proposal from Rehnquist, mailed in a letter five weeks after their breakup, could interrupt a romance that was fast deepening. Sandra Day and John O’Connor married in 1952. When she was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1981, he packed up their three sons and followed her to Washington, cheerful about putting her needs first.

Years after her husband’s death, Sandra also developed dementia, most likely also caused by Alzheimer’s. Haunted by what she had seen her mother, aunt, and husband endure, she hid from the realization, once covering by grabbing friends for an impromptu panel discussion because she had forgotten what she was meant to speak about. In 2018, when she could no longer pretend, she wrote an open letter to the American people, sharing her diagnosis and explaining that she was stepping down from public life altogether. She urged U.S. citizens to put the common good above self-interest.

The disease, combined with a respiratory virus, would take her life five years later. I hope she had time to fall in love.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.