Yesterday, my wife and I traveled to Boston to visit my mother-in-law, who lives in a residence for people with special needs. She is in a ward where the doors are kept locked. But she does not really see this as a prison. She suffers from dementia, you see; and in her late-eighties she seems somehow helpless now.
I would never have imagined her as helpless before she began this slow slide into what I assume will be the oblivion that awaits us all. She was a tenured Harvard professor when she was my age. She wrote books, presented papers at conferences, shepherded graduate students through the tortured process of completing doctoral dissertations. But mostly, she kept track of the world, always alert, always keen, always informed about the day’s events. Even now, as she ambles along behind her walker, she keeps the day’s copy of The New York Times ready at hand. When I think of her I summon an ethic of responsibility; hers was a serious generation, forever and always engaged with the world. Now the gears of engagement seem to slip. She can ask a perfectly sensible question, absorb the answer, and then, after a moment’s hesitation, ask the same question all over again. This is something more than forgetfulness and it unnerves me. But she is much loved and each question will be answered no matter how many times it is asked. She wanted to know why I was not happy with President Obama’s choices for the Supreme Court. I tried to explain to a Harvard Brahmin why a court composed of Brahmins made me uncomfortable. The law is not theory, I tell her. Experience in a courtroom matters. The grandest issues of jurisprudence typically begin with a seemingly small conflict involving great principles. “But the court decides great principles, doesn’t it?,” she persists. Of course, she is right. I tell her that no one on the current court ever really worked in a courtroom representing ordinary people in disputes with the government, with corporations or with one another. There is a caste-like quality to those on the court now. They all have same pedigree, and similar career paths. I tread warily here. This is a Harvard professor I am lecturing about the perils of her perspective. We discuss this as my wife listens. She is anxious. Two headstrong bulls she loves are locked in a struggle about ideas. I watch my wife and my admiration grows even greater. She loves those in her life so completely that I see no moment is every really wasted for her so long as she can give. I silently count my blessings, a loving wife, a reasonably sound mind. “So what you are saying,” my mother in-law says after several passes over the issue, “ is that you want a justice with a bottom-up, rather than a top-down, perspective.” “Yes,” I tell her. “That is exactly right.” “That makes sense,” she tells me. “I actually agree with you.” I am relieved to have passed this test with so fearsome an interlocutor and inspiring an intellect. And I am at once humbled. She managed, even through the maze of dementia, to summarize my position so much better than I have done in all that I have written and said on the topic. The conversation turns elsewhere. I sit back and marvel as I watch mother and daughter navigate through a world of words and idea. I sit back and marvel over the good fortune to have the love of two exceptional women. Some luck is undeserved.Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.