“And while I’m still able,” Sandra Day O’Connor

Our heroes succumb. It is the circle of life, regrettably.

I am a woman of middle age. I occupy that space at the tail end of the baby-boomer generation. My career was spent in high tech and I stood witness to the struggles women faced for recognition, acknowledgement, equal opportunity and equal pay for the same work as men.

I have had my heroes. The women who made it. The women who crushed the glass ceiling. The women who earned my respect.┬áSandra Day O’Connor has been one such woman.

Sandra was the first woman to serve as a justice on the United States Supreme Court. Justice O’Connor was the very first “Supreme” paving the way for Ruth Bader Ginsburg (the notorious RBG) in 1993, and after O’Connor’s retirement, the appointments of Sonia Sotomayor in 2009 and Elena Kagan in 2010.

Justice O’Connor did not shrink from a deciding vote on critically important cases, often as she stood encircled only by men. Controversial cases included issues around women’s rights, abortion, affirmative action, campaign financing and the 2000 dispute over the Bush/Gore election. Lisa A. Tucker, an associate professor at Drexel University and author of two children’s books about the justice said, “Justice O’Connor did not want her gender to dictate her legacy”.

At 88 years-old (the same age my mother was when she died from the complications of dementia and Alzheimer’s) Sandra Day O’Connor shared with the world that she had been diagnosed “some time ago” with “the beginning stages of dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease.” And that she, “wanted to be open about these changes, while I am still able.”

Justice O’Connor is surviving with grace.

I wish we could erase the stigma of brain disease. The fear we feel in saying out loud, “I’ve been diagnosed or that my loved one is living with the disease.” Too often, we wait before sharing the news of that diagnosis. Or write the obituary by making only a passing reference to “the long illness.” Fear may come from knowledge that today there is no cure, that others may walk away unable to accept the changes seen in our behavior or because we’ve heard that the end stages of this disease are debilitating.

I’m saddened by an eerie sense, a reminder of the early 1980’s when we knew so little about AIDS. When fear caused segregation and victimization of those diagnosed. AIDS was not well understood, had no cure and scared all of us to death.

Brain disease is complicated and we fear what we don’t understand.

Repeating mistakes of our past is regrettable. And a dementia diagnosis is usually not an immediate death sentence. There can be a lot of life left to live, as fully as possible and for as long as possible if we are willing.

Although fear may seem to control, acceptance and reassurance often are the only acknowledgement our human frailty can provide. Offer them with grace.

I’m saddened by the news of the day, the decline of one of my heroes.