Earlier this month, Bob and I spent a couple weeks with our 3 1/2 year old twin grandkids in the Washington DC area. We hadn’t seen them since last December and were amazed at the changes we saw in them, especially in their language development.
I had some alone time with my grand-daughter, Holly, while her brother, Owen (and Bob, AKA Pawpaw) were napping. She was playing with a stuffed animal kitten, and I mentioned that her mother’s first pet was a cat, that she named Lassie. Holly wanted to know what happened to Lassie, and I told her that she had died of old age. “Were you sad”, she asked me? I said “yes”, but that Lassie had lived a good, long life and, eventually, everyone dies. She looked at me with her impossibly big blue eyes and asked quietly, “Am I going to die?” I guess I should have seen that coming, but I was taken aback, and all I could say was, “Not for a very long time!” We moved on easily to some other topic of conversation, but it reminded me of how terrifying it had been for me, when I was a child, to think about my own death. The thought often kept me awake at night. I can vividly recall hot summer evenings, looking at the sky through the open window in my un-air-conditioned bedroom, trying to fathom the inconceivable notion of a world without me. I felt it viscerally, in the pit of my stomach. Eventually, I just stopped thinking about it.
When my first child was born, I frequently did what I imagine lots of parents do—I risked waking the baby I had painstakingly lulled to sleep, to make sure she was still breathing. When my kids learned to drive, I tensed every time I heard a police siren. As a parent, my fear was no longer about my own death—it was about something awful happening to my kids.
Now, I am a grandparent. I don’t suffer the day to day worries about something bad—an illness, an accident—befalling my grandchildren. That’s partly due to the fact that they live far away, but more owing to the fact that I am not directly responsible for their health and well-being. But I do have a concern that I do not recall having with my own kids. I am worried about the world my grandchildren, all grandchildren, will inherit.
Admittedly, every generation has its share of crises to face and endure or overcome, some seemingly existential. For my parents it was the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe, followed by World War II. For my generation, it was the Cold War, the Viet Nam war, and the threat of potential nuclear annihilation. My children, on the threshold of adulthood, had their sense of security shattered by the terrorist attacks on 9/11, which ushered in the endless war on terrorism.
Right now, the world is reeling from a pandemic, which has upended every facet of our lives. In the United States, we’re facing a reckoning on a racist system that has been our national shame since before we were a nation. Gun violence has penetrated the sanctity of our churches and the hallways of our schools. Our democracy is imperiled to such a degree that we are contemplating how we might respond should the typical peaceful transfer of power between presidential administrations be violated.
Yet, looming over all of that is something larger and even scarier to me because we have no precedents to guide us, no formula for beating it. And the scale of the potential disaster is massive, affecting not only all people of the world but all future generations of people and all living things on earth. I am talking, of course, of global warming.
I am worried that, as my twins grow up, global warming will result in more severe and deadly weather events—floods, fires, hurricanes, killing heat waves. I am worried that the current pandemic could easily be followed by another, that a warming planet could see the spread of more infectious diseases, perhaps more mosquito and tick-borne illnesses as habitat destruction brings more animals and a growing world population into closer contact.
I worry that climate change will precipitate larger and larger waves of people migration, as homes are flooded or burned, and farm land becomes incapable of supporting crops, and that mass migration will result in more and more civil unrest. I am worried that climate change will cause the planet to be a most inhospitable place to live.
Honestly, I no longer worry about my own death. I know that I have fewer years ahead of me than I have behind me. And I’m okay with that. Bob and I both feel that we’ve been remarkably fortunate in the lives we’ve lived. What keeps me awake at night now, is the fear that, collectively, we will not act in time to effect the change that must happen in order to avoid a potentially nightmarish future, and that it is our children and our grandchildren who will suffer for our failure.