This grandma’s in love

Late in life I am experiencing two new kinds of love. I’ve never before felt the acute, fearful and grieving love of life on Earth that overwhelms me, even just sitting at my laptop looking at the sky, because loss intensifies that love. And I don’t love anyone quite the way I love my three grandbabies, aged from three years to six months. It’s not the profound, way-of-life love I’ve felt for the last sixteen years for my husband, Leslie, and it’s not the way I love my mum, brother or two grown-up children who are now parents themselves. Strangely, it isn’t even exactly the way I loved those parents when they were babies, because that was equally intense but a full-time responsibility with all the demands, exhaustion, sense of doubt, failure and insecurity of motherhood. As Grandma, I’m less anxious about getting anything wrong because from a practical perspective my role is limited and defined. I’m given instructions, kit and advice from the person who knows best. Experience and delight give me a certain assurance, and I’m grateful for the chance to be useful, offering just a little compensation for my own parental mistakes. It’s an opportunity to love unconditionally and blissfully, before I leave and make do, until the next visit, with smiles in framed photographs and screen savers.

This love of mine, just as it is, won’t last any longer than those smiles that I can count on just for now. They’re an expression of the uncritical acceptance that comes with complete dependence, and with a degree of innocence that humans can’t maintain. They’re a reflex response to being loved, a reflex that doesn’t operate quite as reliably as children grow. The passion with which I love them will have, in time, to absorb pain, awkwardness and regret as we inevitably disappoint each other or face generational disconnections – as I have as a mum and a daughter, and may do again. The love will endure and mature with them, but it won’t be so heady. Their smiles will lose the magical element of their power, which currently illuminates me from within. All of which is sad. It’s a recognition that something wonderful will be over once no baby sleeps on me, and that while a baby often seems – especially to a grandma who doesn’t lose sleep to night-time feeds – a completely perfect being, humans aren’t. So logically what I feel is a kind of dreamy illusion. Like being (madly) in love, many would say: a wildly heightened phase that can only, realistically and for our own preservation, be temporary. Otherwise, to quote Celine in Before Sunset (middle movie in my favourite trilogy) romantic lovers would die of aneurisms. But I believe in love, in its breadth and strength and ability to develop and adapt to survive in order to remain unconditional, as I want love to be. I don’t expect my grandchildren to love me in the same besotted way I love them. I will become increasingly peripheral in their lives. So relatively speaking, a grandparent’s love is unrequited. It has to be, if the objects of our love are to survive our death.

But the real sadness is something other and beyond, because climate science tells us that today’s babies, even those in the less vulnerable Global North, will experience the horror of climate breakdown, which will trigger social breakdown as people are displaced, hungry, betrayed and angry. It’s a prognosis of doom with which most people don’t want to engage, and which, in a disastrous example of chicken-and-egg, the media largely ignores. It’s also the source of my commitment to personal changes, campaigning and peaceful civil disobedience. We have, in our millions, to force governments to abandon fossil fuels. Not just because it’s the right thing, since for our leaders morality is clearly an irrelevance, but also because it’s what the world’s people absolutely demand. So the love that fills me when I’m with my grandchildren has a desperate, jagged edge. I can hold them and be the best grandma I can be, but I can’t protect them. No one can. The identity shift from activist to grandma is emotionally challenging, yet being a grandma adds heavy emotional weight to my activism. I can’t cuddle a baby made homeless by climate change in Namibia or Pakistan, but the loving reminds me of them. That we can only protect those closest to us, as Dr Gail Bradbrook says, if we remember our love for those furthest away.

Leslie told me recently, when I was numbed and sealed in by despair, “We can only love each other.” Far from undermining relationships as irrelevances, the climate truth can bond us more tightly than ever before – as it binds the central characters at the end of Don’t Look Up – and it must, because we need all the love we can find. As Dr Carmody Grey said in a recent lecture, the facts themselves are not enough motivation to inspire the changes necessary. It’s our shared humanity, and our love for each other and for life, that really matters to humans once we’ve shed the trivia, the dross and the ‘normal’ consumerist/competitive/socially engineered preoccupations. At our deathbeds all we have left are the values that overwhelm the superficial. We’re left with love. Our challenge up to that point is to translate love into inspired action. That’s why this love-struck grandma will continue to rebel for life.

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