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IDEAS | ESSAY

In a shrinking world, what will we pass on to our children?

There’s a very specific role I want to play in my young nephew’s life, and it has everything to do with the world he’s entered: one shaped by a climate in decline and pandemics on the rise.

Aurélia Fronty for the Boston Globe

WHEN I WAS 2 years old, two of my mother’s beloved uncles became terminally ill. My mother was determined that I would remember these men who had brought so much magic to her life. She took me across Birmingham to visit them as often as possible. Over and over, she’d say “this is your Uncle Tweet” and “this is your Uncle John Allen.”

When they weren’t around, she would ask me if I remembered them. I did, in that fleeting way that toddlers experience “memory.” I recognized them when I saw them. I imagine I ran to them — pigtails flying — and threw my arms around their necks and kissed their cheeks. I’m sure I loved them.

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But I don’t remember them.

MOST OF MY family lives in the South, but I have one cousin who, like me, lives in New York City. We didn’t grow up together as children, but we grew into this city together as adults. She’s become as close as a sister to me. Three years ago, when she told me she was pregnant with her first child, I told her I was an aunt. She didn’t argue.

There’s a specific role I want to play in this child’s life, and it has everything to do with the world this beautiful, curious little boy has entered: one shaped by a climate in decline, deeply scarred by one pandemic and more sure to come. I want to help teach him about his place in a vast and wondrous ecosystem. When he’s older, I have dreams of taking him to museums and botanical gardens — which are hauntingly empty as I write this. Because he is a little Black boy, more than anything I want to make him know that this world belongs to him.

I want to teach him how to recognize a beautiful day, a happy moment, and then how to notice each sensation — the smell, the feel, the sight — and breathe it in for at least eight seconds. Memorize it. Treasure it. When he realizes why he needs that skill, when he understands how deeply he’s been betrayed, I want him to bring his questions to me. I’m already practicing my answers.

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But he’s not asking those questions, largely because he can’t yet string together sentences. I’m not ready to answer them either. But since he entered the world, I’ve laid the groundwork by showering him with children’s books about all the magical animals all over the world: giraffes, elephants, sloths, narwhals, bats.

Sometimes I worry that I’m doing more harm than good this way. How many of these precious creatures will be left by the time he’s old enough to go to a zoo, much less study abroad, assuming he will know a world with crossable borders. How long will words like “seasonal” and “glacial” hold any meaning for him? Will “April showers bring May flowers” sound like the ramblings of a Mad Millennial? Instead, will “social distance” be a more natural concept for him? More importantly: will he resent me for teaching him that there was so much magic in this world that he’ll never see?

Maybe I’d be better off teaching him about fanciful things that never existed at all: dragons and mermaids and unicorns and friendly vampires. Or monsters — at least those are real.

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But as broken as this world is, it’s still his birthright. Besides, truth is power and I want him to be able to speak it. I want him to bear witness to the crimes committed against him and his generation.

Yet, even my gleeful shopping sprees in children’s bookstores, that I miss so dearly as I sit locked in my apartment, come with parameters. I draw the line at buying books about polar bears and koalas.

AS A RELATIVELY (and reluctantly) visible woman in the climate movement, I’m often asked how the climate crisis has affected my desire to have children. I’m not only a woman, but a woman of “a certain age.”

I am, at the risk of outing myself, single — a condition that I feel all the more acutely now in solo social isolation, which is surely a circle of hell. About a year and a half ago, I let a particularly painful heartbreak stop me from wading into Big City Dating. Since I’ve been socially isolated, I’ve awakened many times late at night and early in the morning to regret all the dates I didn’t go on.

And yes, of course, you can have children without a partner. But I watched my mother raise two children alone, and nothing about it looked easy. And she did it without a climate crisis underfoot and outside the shadow of a gruesome pandemic.

My reticence aside, it’s still possible that I could become un-single at some point in the future. In that case, though, the “kid question” won’t be mine to answer alone. It will be up to me and my partner. I’d rather cross that bridge if or when I get to it, thank you very much.

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Not to mention, people rarely ask this of men in the climate movement. When they ask me about climate and children, it translates into something like “So! You seem like someone with a uterus! Plan on using it?”

Maybe, maybe not. But I don’t think I have to have children to have children. In other words, I don’t know if I want children of my own, but I know I want children in my life, and I’m grateful that there are so many in this world. How much would we lose if we didn’t have their laughter, their wonder, their innocence? We’ve already lost so much.

If anything, our crises have deepened my commitment to the collective responsibility to children. We, each of us, owe all of these children everything we have, because they are all we have left — whether or not they’re “ours.”

MY COUSIN LIVES in the Upper East Side. I live in the South Bronx. In the Great Before, she was a quick train ride away. Now, she’s a whole world away. We text regularly. We’ve even done a video call, but I still worry that when I’m able to see my nephew again, he won’t recognize me the way I recognized Uncle Tweet and Uncle John Allen.

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Even before all of this, I didn’t see him as often as I’d have liked, although my cousin made it clear that I had a standing invitation to visit any time. Sometimes it was because of work. We don’t talk enough about how climate work — in which you confront a terrifying, gut-wrenching existential threat head-on — is a full body immersion. Yes, it demands the time you spent working on the project, speaking on the panel, writing the essay. But then there’s the recovery time: the hours, maybe days, you spend mentally and physically wrecked, staring into space, exhausted of empathy.

More often than I’d like to admit, I didn’t see my nephew because I could look into his beautiful brown eyes and see all the things he’ll never see. Like the millions of animals that burned alive in Australia just this year. Or I could see the world on the horizon when melted permafrost has unleashed a world in permanent pandemic. While his eyes sparkle with joy, mine well with tears and I have to look away.

It’s such a heavy, heavy thing to watch this world become so empty.

I know that his parents — who love him in a way I can only begin to fathom and is so beautiful to behold — will keep him as safe as they can, and I have no doubt that they will do a remarkable job. That, at least, is comforting.

Each time I’ve seen him, he’s just passed some tremendous, irreversible threshold. First, he could laugh. Then, he could crawl. Now, he runs. During our video chat, I discovered that he’s expanded his vocabulary beyond “mama” and “dada” to include “happy” and “baby.” I’m terrified that the next time I see him, however many weeks or months from now, he’ll have graduated from babbling to talking. Getting closer and closer to asking: What’s wrong?

Before he knows what’s wrong, though, I want him to know that someone fought for him. While his parents were providing for his every need — bathing him, feeding him, choosing his clothes and his schools — someone else was thinking about his future from a different vantage point, trying to shape the world he would grow up in. And not just any someone. Someone whose hand he kicked from inside the womb, who loved him before he was here. Someone who spoke his name, who belonged to him. That Someone fought, with everything she had, to kiss it and make it better. For him. Specifically.

I DON’T REMEMBER my Uncle Tweet or my Uncle John Allen, but I did know them. I can recall their faces clearly not only because I’ve seen so many pictures, but because they both had sons that looked exactly like them. I know they were funny and generous and that they loved to laugh. I know they were whip smart and devilishly handsome. Uncle Tweet liked to play cards and tell stories and Uncle John Allen liked to go fishing and whistle. And I know they were both mine.

I’ve heard so many stories about them that I have to remind myself that I wasn’t there. When I need to feel warm or held again, I go to these memories. I heard a lot of those stories from their wives and their sisters and brothers because they watched and cared for me while my brother and cousins were in school and our parents were at work. Since I didn’t have any cousins my own age in Birmingham, I had this Greatest Generation all to myself. It’s hard to explain how lucky I was.

But my favorite stories are the ones about how hard my mother tried to pass just a little of what they gave her on to me. I’m eternally grateful to her for that. I can only hope that my nephew — the great grandson of my Uncle Tweet’s only living brother — will extend the same grace to me. There is still magic in this world and I will save as much for him as I can. One day, I hope he understands how hard I tried, and forgives me for how badly I failed.

Mary Annaïse Heglar is a writer, communications professional, and podcast host based in New York City.