HOUSTON — The only word to describe life here right now is this: hell.
The pandemic is raging, the economy is shuddering and the energy city’s lifeblood, oil, while rebounding from a terrifying negative $37 a barrel in April, is still in the not-pretty $40 range. The state leadership is, at best, useless. Temperatures are averaging around 90 degrees with the “feels like” button on my weather app hitting 99 plus, due mostly to our Kolkata-rivaling humidity.
The prime months for hurricanes, August and September, are fast approaching. All the people who could leave town have done so, with flying tree roaches and mosquitoes taking their place.
It was in this atmosphere that I got the news last week that Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s liver cancer had returned. It seemed like the rotten cherry on top of the bad-news sundae that has come to define life in America in the summer of 2020.
There’s an obvious explanation for this: If illness forces Justice Ginsburg to step down in the next few months and President Trump gets to pick a replacement, it would strengthen the conservative wing of the Supreme Court for as far as the eye can see, despite some recent rulings that might suggest otherwise. (Yes, President Trump could also have that option and more after his possible re-election, but some things are just too painful to contemplate this summer.)
I do not know Justice Ginsburg personally, nor do I own any of the products she has not endorsed but that her most ardent fans seem unable to resist — the coffee cups, T-shirts, socks and now coronavirus masks with her image. Nor am I one of those people who gets into a swivet about whether she should have retired back when Barack Obama could have installed a suitable replacement without Mitch McConnell’s dastardly interference. What’s done is done.
Still, as the mental health professionals like to say, there’s a message and a meta-message in my reaction to Justice Ginsburg’s health report.
In real life, she is an 87-year-old woman with a deadly disease and a host of other ailments. A mother and grandmother, a widow with a long and happy marriage behind her.
Thanks mainly to her career-long fight for the rights of women, she has achieved icon status, which means that her fragility has become our fragility. Anyone of a certain age — anyone who feels mortality knocking on the door — would respond with a shiver to her latest medical report.
But more important, our whole vision of ourselves as Americans feels threatened right now. We are learning just how fragile it is, from our inability to combat systemic racism to our helplessness and embarrassment over the clear triumph, so far, of the coronavirus. The very real possibility exists that the American experiment, and with it our own lives, could break into a million pieces.
Of course, one of the few people standing between us and chaos is Justice Ginsburg, the anti-Trump, the benevolent if steely matriarch to his raging father. “Never in anger,” is one of the lessons she took to heart from her own mother. She got where she is by being studious and strategic, with a bracing, incontestable honesty.
Without complaint, she raised her children, and nursed a sick husband while getting through law school — Harvard, no less, where she became the first female member of the law review. No wonder so many women law students — and so many others — buy those coffee cups as talismans.
This in contrast to a president who is living proof of failing upward, with so many hefty lifts from his wealthy father, with a value system that is invested in only one thing: perpetuating his own myth of success. Her frailty is on the outside; Mr. Trump’s is all internal.
The only quality Justice Ginsburg shares with the president is relentlessness. Her daily workouts, so perfectly satirized by Kate McKinnon on “Saturday Night Live,” are examples of an almost literal determination to fight to the death. You can bet Justice Ginsburg has rarely, if ever, feasted on a taco bowl.
She is, in short, the embodiment of all that we believe is good about the country, of all that has been worth fighting for. The thought of losing that fight is as tragic as, well, losing a beloved grandmother, the one who holds the family together.
Stay safe, Justice Ginsburg. Help me get through the summer.