Next month, I’m expecting the birth of my first great-grandchild. So the future is very much with me. And yet, this glorious, life-inspired event will take place in the shadow of climate anxiety. What will the future be like for this little boy who’s arriving this spring? It is in the spirit of that question that I offer this piece entitled “Don’t Forget Me/Last Wishes.”

Sometimes climate change feels like the plague, smallpox and ebola all rolled into one, a pandemic showing up in town, the end-time of everything we have known and counted on, everything that has always been real to us. We gather to sit shiva in the house of mourning and weep together over our loss except it is the entire house of mourning itself that has died. No matter how much we have graduated to Buddhist ideas about transience, no matter how much we have meditated on impermanence, this, this is too much to accept. How can we understand it? We are being called to find a plot of land in which to bury all the Earth.

In California recently, I visited with an old friend from the Berkshires. He told me that after forty years away, he still missed the maples in October. The discomfort rose up in me. His remark left me feeling like a surgeon coming out of the operating room with bad news. “They don’t always turn red anymore,” I said. “The nights aren’t cold enough. There’s too much rain.”  I saw his face fall, the anguish in his countenance. What can you say? I’m sorry for your loss and yours and yours?

During the same trip across country, I sat with other members of my family in my sister’s hospital room. A young medical student struggled to frame the hard questions that have to be asked. If your heart stopped, would you want to be resuscitated? Do you want to be put on life supports if you can’t breathe or eat on your own? Many people have great difficulty answering these questions. Not me. I belong to the let me die when my time has come school. Of course this pretense of casually letting go, as though my life were a balloon escaping the grip of a small child, is predicated on the assumption that the world itself will remain after I die. Everything will continue much as before and my loved ones will keep my memory alive as best they can.

This is the way it’s always been. Flowers die off and make room for new growth. People grow old and die passing their wisdom and error on to new generations. Everyone understands this, at least in theory. But my sister, God bless her, said she wanted to be kept alive as long as possible as long as she’s not in pain. “I have a lot of living to do,” she said, gripping her aluminum walker and shuffling the few steps between the bed and the recliner. 

Now in the throes of climate change, each of us confronts not only her own mortality and the loss of her loved ones, but the whole shebang, the entire wild and crazy, planetary vaudeville. We don’t know if or when the patient will die and whether there are still heroic measures that can be taken. Should we seek a second opinion? Are there alternative therapies? What is to be done? We are being called to reconcile our witness to the impermanence all around us with our profound disbelief in the possibility of an ultimate end game. I’m supposed to sign off on a script that says the Earth arose out of nothing and in the fullness of time will return to nothing. Are you kidding me? What would the Earth say if it had to fill out the pink form regarding its last wishes?

Something tells me it would be less like me and more like my sister. It would not want us to pull the plug. Don’t let me go, it would cry, begging for more meadows aromatic with wild thyme, more fiddleheads and coral. I’m not ready, it would wail, craving another season of lilac, another summer of snow peas. The Earth, like my sister, might explain that it wants to live as long as it’s not in pain, but how will we know? How will we know how much suffering the Earth endures when its tender skin is scorched by wildfires? How much terror it feels when its oceans rise and it starts to drown?

There will not be a definitive answer to these tortured questions. The best we can do is to stay present at the bedside and listen to the patient’s story. Remember when you went to the mountains in the summer and gathered bouquets of my wildflowers, the planet might say. Remember when you got thirsty and drank clean water from my streams. Don’t forget me.

Susie Kaufman is a retired hospice chaplain. You can read her blog seventysomething at Susie has been previously published in the anthology Writing Fire: An Anthology Celebrating the Power of Women’s Words, as well as Lilith and America magazines and the journal Presence. She is a regular presenter at the open mic IWOW (In Words Out Words) in Housatonic MA.