Caroline Gleich grapples with the fears that come with an aging parent and the pressure she feels to have a child before her dad is gone.
My 90-year-old dad, Jerry, was getting apprehensive as we ventured on to the steeper slope. I asked him, just to be sure, if he really wanted to ski it. “Yes, I’ve got this. No problem,” he said. Still, I could sense the hesitation in his body language, maybe a slight shakiness in his legs. On the first few turns, he was solid. Then, the slope rolled over. As he went to make another turn, his rear edges slipped out and he started sliding down the slope. I yelled at him to self-arrest, but there was nothing I could do to stop him. He started spinning around and going faster and faster. Several hundred feet down the slope, Jerry finally came to a stop.
I skied down to him as quickly as I could to assess the damage.
“Are you OK?” I worried we’d need ski patrol, but he seemed alert and oriented and seemingly perturbed by the “fall alert” on his watch beeping, asking him if he needed emergency services. He turned off the alert and said, “Don’t worry, I’m sturdy. But I need a hand getting up.”
It’s a strange shift when you become the one who has to watch out for your dad. He spent a decade and a half teaching me how to ski, but now, we wait for clear bluebird days. I know Jerry’s depth perception and eyesight are changing, so I ski close and guide him down the mountain, yelling which way to go or cueing him to keep his chest tall and core engaged.
As I crouched down and extended my hand to grab his, I felt a wave of relief tinged with sadness. It’s not easy to see your parents age, to see your dad go from being the superhero who could do anything when you were a kid, who was always there to pick you up when you fell, to the one being scooped off the slopes. It reminded me that there is a limited amount of time to do the things we want to do in life.
Seeing the shift in my relationship with my dad has given me an extra sense of urgency around kids … as if society didn’t put enough pressure on women to have children. I’ve recently started wondering if I should hurry up so he gets to meet them. There’s so much of his wisdom I would want my kids to learn: lessons of frugality, living life with passion and care, cultivating a mindset of growth. I want to celebrate him before he’s gone. I don’t want to wait to tell him how much he means to me.
But do I need children in order to pass on his lessons? Do I want them?
Jerry is older than most dads. Born in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 1931, Gerald “Jerry” Gleich used to come to my elementary school to talk about the Great Depression. Being born during such a challenging time in American history instilled in him an ethos of frugality. “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,” was the Depression-era motto, and he embodied that. He taught me that cars are for functionality, not for form. My family of six had only one car for most of my childhood, and I grew up walking almost everywhere. We’d pinch pennies on road trips, cramming all six of us (two parents, my three brothers and me) into a single motel room when we weren’t camping or staying with family.
One of my most prized family heirlooms is Jerry’s 1975 BERNINA sewing machine. He and my mom sewed their own tents, sleeping bags and backpacks for camping and backpacking. I grew up wearing my brothers’ hand-me-down ski clothes. I never had a new pair of skis until I was sponsored. Instead, we always rented or bought used from the gear swap.
Growing up with parents like this inspired me to carry on that ethos—to darn a hole in a sock or sweater instead of throwing it away, or to cut up an old piece of clothing to use for cleaning rags in place of paper towels.
Jerry still works, because he loves it. Even at his age, he’s clocking 40 to 60 hours a week because he’s so committed to his work as a doctor, and to helping people. He is a specialist in allergic inflammation and has a reputation for figuring out difficult conditions. He’s analytical, empathetic and knowledgeable. But mostly, he’s a detective and a fixer. He loves tackling problems. Patients go to Jerry when they’ve run out of other options.
His example drives me to be curious about the world around me, to ask deep questions and have the courage to see the answers through. Jerry motivates me to make my life about more than just skiing—to make sure that we protect the air, water and environment and do everything we can with the short time we have.
It’s in the mountains, though, where Jerry comes alive. He is always trying to improve his time on the 1.5 mile 1,500-foot hike he does up the backyard mountain. He still wants guidance on how to perfect his ski turns. “Keep hiking and find things that you like to do and keep doing them,” is his advice for staying active into advanced age. Keep moving, keep dreaming, keep setting goals. No matter how old you are, you can always learn, grow and improve.
But Jerry is an outlier for a 90-year-old, even though he doesn’t classify himself as such. I don’t like to tell people my dad’s age because I worry about the stereotypes that come with ageism, the low expectations we have for the oldest members of our community. I worry about how, as our parents and grandparents age, our expectations for them can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our society puts a premium on youth, and I worry that we aren’t taking the time to absorb the lessons of our elders and that we will lose their knowledge and wisdom. That I will lose his.
On a personal level, I worry that I’ll disappoint my dad by deciding not to have children of my own. At 35 years old, I’ve officially reached “advanced maternal age,” or to put it bluntly, my eggs are geriatric. I feel the pull between my own goals and dreams in the mountains and becoming the person that my father would be proud of. Jerry values having children.
The sacrifices mothers have to make are not equal to men’s, and society still measures success in masculine metrics. I fear I’ve internalized the patriarchy. I still have a deep hunger to climb and ski big mountains around the world. I measure me in these terms. It’s a lie that women can have it all.
The days I get to spend skiing with my dad, they aren’t training days to help prepare for my own goals in the mountains. They are spent moving at a slower pace—skiing slowly, lots of bathroom breaks, stopping for lunch, staying on easy terrain. They are days I could be up on the high peaks, skiing big lines. It’s part of the journey of understanding that we can’t do everything we want to in life. It makes me wonder: What is most important? The mountains we’ve climbed? Our own definition of success? Or the relationships we share with our loved ones? How do we honor and respect our elders?
The truth is, I don’t know. But when I get to hear my dad share his stories on the mountain, there’s no place I’d rather be. I want to write it all down, record it all, so that someday, I can go back and keep learning. Jerry’s wisdom is to never stop doing. I am beginning to understand that there are ways to parent even if you choose not to or can’t have children, and that my worth as a woman has nothing to do with my marital status or fertility. I can pass Jerry’s wisdom on to the next generation by sharing his story and inspiring others to pick up an old sewing machine and learn how to mend garments. To lace up our shoes and go hike up that damn mountain. To get our boots on and keep perfecting those turns.