“Keep Asking Questions"

Contributed photoJustice Sandra Day O'Connor Source: Contributed photo

There is no firewall in Alzheimer’s.

This pillaging disease —one that can take a quarter century or more to run its deadly course, akin to having a sliver of your brain shaved every day—knows no demographic, no race, color, political party, or any other persuasion. Sadly, it affects women, Hispanics, and African Americans in far greater numbers than white Irish guys like me. But a death is just that—a death, resulting in partners without lovers, spouses without mates, children without parents, grandchildren with fewer loved ones to hold them. In the last several months, I’ve lost five close friends to this disease. Several years ago, I was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s after serious, life-threatening head traumas and after Alzheimer’s took several family members, including my maternal grandfather and my mother.

If there were ever a bipartisan cause to unite in a day of polarization, hatred, and violence beyond measure, it is Alzheimer’s, and other forms of dementia, poised to take out the Baby Boom Generation, then come for our kids and grandkids if we can’t find a cure.

Like many, I was devastated to learn of retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s disclosure of a dementia diagnosis, the start of a journey that nine years ago robbed the life of her husband. While a moderate conservative, Justice O’Connor was a courageous bipartisan swing vote in key cases when integrity and fairness trumped politics of the day. No surprise here: She was confirmed to the Supreme Court on a 99-0 vote, unlike the rancor of recent confirmation hearings. In 2006, she selflessly stepped down from the court after serving 25 years, to care for her husband, John, an accomplished lawyer who died from complications of the disease in 2009.

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In a letter released last week by her family, O’Connor, now 88, declared that she wanted to “be open about these changes (from dementia), and while I am still able, share some personal thoughts.”

The statement brought me back to my days as a cub reporter in the mid 1970s at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix, and to my first court assignment. The gifted woman on the bench in the old Maricopa County Superior Court had little tolerance for those who were unprepared. I could sense it sitting in the back row. She exuded a brilliance and knowledge of the law that far exceeded the prosecutor and defense attorney standing before her. She wasn’t in the mood for suffering fools.

Bang! The judge struck the gavel with the force of a pile driver. She harangued the attorneys for not being properly prepared, then declared the court session over, storming out the door to her chambers with such dispatch that the hem of her black court gown lagged in the breeze.

“My God, what just happened,” I thought? “What do I write?” Worried I would whiff, I followed the judge to her office, staying a safe distance behind so as not to appear to be stalking her. She slammed the door. My mind was racing. “What next?” I felt like the cowardly lion at the gates of Oz.

Finally, I mustered enough daring to knock on the door. “Come in,” I was told. “Who are you?”

I explained that I was a rookie reporter, a rube of a transplanted New Yorker in the throes of flunking my assignment. I asked her—if she would—to explain what had just happened in the courtroom, so I could write this complicated story with fairness and a semblance of accuracy.

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Her mood swung immediately. She smiled, then asked me to sit down. She patiently explained, in simple ways that even a green-behind-the-ears, 23-year-old might grasp, the intricacies of the thorny criminal case and why the attorneys were "wasting the court’s time.”

Not only was I wholly impressed, but fully thankful that I had just ducked the reprisal of my demanding city editor, who expected a story, and a good one. I delivered, thanks to the empathetic judge, who clearly understood the dynamic of a deadline.

The judge then asked me to come back from time to time to talk more about court reporting. I did. She was an exceptional teacher. In time, she was appointed by then-Governor Bruce Babbitt to the Arizona Court of Appeals. I followed her path to the state capitol, covering the state’s high courts, the legislature, and the governor’s office. We became good friends.

She instructed me with patience, taught me court reporting the way it should be, and reinforced numerous times: “Keep asking questions. Keep asking questions until you get the answers!”

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Then one day, this extraordinary judge received a call from President Ronald Reagan , nominating her to become the first female Supreme Court Justice in the history of the U.S—Sandra Day O’Connor, the very same woman who had time to mentor a fledgling reporter.

Little did any of us know at the time, President Reagan included, that we were all on a parallel track. In time, O’Connor—a Stanford Law School graduate in a day when women were relegated to lesser roles—became a steadfast advocate for caregivers and those living with the disease. She was a vital member of the Alzheimer’s Study Group, appointed by Congress, and testified twice on Capitol Hill, helping to make Alzheimer’s a national priority.

All this from someone raised on the “Lazy B” cattle ranch in isolated southeastern Arizona, then a farmstead without running water or electricity, and a place where the young Sandra learned to brand cattle and repair what was broken—skills that made her one of the most inspiring associate justices in U.S. history. There was nothing languid about Justice O’Connor.

“How fortunate I feel to be an American and to have been presented with the remarkable opportunities available to the citizens of our country. As a young cowgirl from the Arizona desert, I never could have imagined that one day I would become the first woman justice,” she said in her statement.

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While blessed with an impressive mind, Justice O’Connor has always led with her heart, finding just the right balance between the two. And now, in her public battle against Alzheimer’s, on behalf of her family and collectively for all of us, she again inspires from the heart, and this mentor to a nation will keep asking questions, keep asking questions until she gets the answers.

Take faith in that.