Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a national treasure that many of us would defend as fiercely as the Statue of Liberty, and that’s why it was distressing to see her tiny frame and outsized presence missing from the Supreme Court bench as the first arguments of 2019 kicked off Monday morning.
But just because the Notorious RBG, as she’s affectionately called, is taking time to heal after a recent surgery doesn’t mean it’s cause for panic. And perhaps that panic says more about our societal view of self-care and unrealistic work ethic than it does about the actual health status of the veteran SCOTUS Justice.
On December 21st, Ginsburg underwent surgery at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to have two cancerous nodules removed from her left lung, according to a court spokesperson. There is reportedly no further evidence of the disease in her body, and Ginsburg plans to continue serving as long as she can.
We’d already had a bit of practice in Ginsburg Health Panic when, back in November, she fell in her office and fractured three ribs. (This lead to many generous admirers offering up their own ribs as a public service.) It was during treatment for her ribs that the cancerous nodules were discovered. Some joked that Ginsburg’s fall was designed to miss a photo op with new Justice and accused sexual abuser Brett Kavanaugh, but really it seemed like her body’s way of warning her of a more serious health threat. To this, I can relate.
Late last January, I visited a specialist to see if he could diagnose a persistent pounding sound in my right ear. After two years of other doctors looking at me like I was reporting an alien living in my head, this doctor was able to put a name to it: pulsatile tinnitus, or the condition of being able to hear one’s heartbeat as a result of a partially obstructed vein in the head near the ear. The good news: not life-threatening and treatable via a fairly simple procedure. The bad news: An MRI revealed a completely unrelated tumor on my pituitary gland that was secreting excess growth hormone, and could lead to serious health complications down the line.
Fortunately, I was able to have the tumor removed in mid-November. But nearly two months later, at 31 years old, I am still recovering. Friends, family, and colleagues have been more than understanding of my slowed pace, but personally, I’ve been quite hard on myself for taking “this long” to get back at it, and being disappointed in myself for taking an extra few days off from work to get through excruciating migraines. Why am I not stronger? I continually ask myself.
So when I heard that doctors estimated Ginsburg’s recovery from cancer treatment at four to six weeks, I was like, “That’s it?”
Ginsburg is an 85-year-old woman — albeit one with a rigorous exercise routine — whose body just underwent intense trauma. The effects of general anesthesia alone threw me, a woman nearly one third of her age, off my game for days. That’s why it’s frankly unreasonable to expect someone in Ginsburg’s condition and at her age to jump right back up like the Kate McKinnon version of herself and keep kicking ass and taking names without missing a beat.
In a recent essay, Buzzfeed reporter Allison Willmore lamented the treacly depictions of Ginsburg in the 2018 documentary about her life, RBG, and feature film On the Basis of Sex, while also discussing how Ginsburg has quite literally been made into an action figure and transformed into a cartoonish girl power superhero. Willmore wrote how she craved depictions of Ginsburg and other powerful feminists that show “how messy and complicated and difficult it is to be a woman or a girl in this world.” And right now for Ginsburg, life is somewhat complicated as we watch her deal with a serious health issue. Even superheroes get cancer.
It’s natural to worry about Ginsburg’s health: She’s acted as a crucial liberal voice on the highest court in the land since being appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, and is one of only three women on the bench. Losing her spot on the court while Donald Trump is President would mean almost certain death for so many civil liberties that women, people of color, LGBTQ, and working class Americans hold dear.
But here’s the thing: We should be celebrating Ginsburg for taking the time she needs to make a full recovery. As it is, she’s reading transcripts of oral arguments from home, will still be voting on everything brought before the court, and could return in person as early as sometime this week.
Being a woman in power means never showing weakness, often at a personal expense. If Ginsburg needs a few extra days to recuperate from major surgery, let her have them. On her worst day, she’s still light years ahead of most of us on our best days. And we need our nation’s foremost jurist at her best to resist the forces that threaten our democracy.