I recently spent a little over a week in Boulder. While there I visited the Boulderado Hotel, the scene of a deeply heart-wrenching visit with my father when I was only nineteen.
On that long-ago visit, I was meeting him for dinner after a class on Buddhist Psychology I'd attended at Naropa Institute. My life was full and I was feeling light and peaceful that night as I walked through the cozy Boulder streets on my way to see him. A jazz pianist filled the open lobby with the full, booming sound of a Steinway grand piano as I walked up the wide, carpeted staircase. The hotel reminded of the huge mansion my father bought on a whim with my mother on a Sunday drive. Built by a German architect, it had nineteen rooms, endless stained glass windows, oval-shaped rooms, a wine cellar and a wide wooden staircase leading from the main floor up to the bedrooms. My father liked to do things in a big way and this house, the first he and my mother ever bought, was a symbol of his long sought-after prosperity. A reward for years of sacrifice and dedication to his own business.
When I knocked on his door, I expected him to be ready to head out to wander the streets in search of a good local eatery. Instead, he stood before me with his face soaked in tears. He pulled me inside the sparsely furnished room and insisted I sit down. Grabbing onto me, he started sobbing uncontrollably. I pulled him close and held him the way a mother would, stroking his hair. He kept saying, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." He mumbled other things I couldn't make out. Finally, the intensity passed and he sat up, his face mottled red and wet. I went into the bathroom and pulled some tissues from the dispenser on the wall and brought them to him.
I spent the next hour listening to him explain that he'd missed everything, that I'd grown up and now it was all over. I was a grown woman and he hadn't been there when it mattered. He apologized some more, releasing deep blobs of regret that had been festering inside of him, eating at his soul.
Here sat the man who asked my mother to abort me in 1959 so that his life wouldn't be interrupted, realizing that he'd somehow made the wrong choice by focusing so much on himself and his career. I looked into his sea blue eyes and saw oceans of pain that couldn't be contained. Instead, I took his mistakes and regrets and let them wash over me, knowing that some day this experience would teach me something far more than I was learning in my Buddhist Psychology class. I knew that he was giving me some kind of enormous gift. Really, he was planting a seed for my future; his sudden death in a car accident two years later was the fertilizer that made it grow inside of me so that I would never forget what matters. People matter, not things or money or career stuff. In the end, it's our relationships that hold and sustain us, not the 23 Cleos he won or the real estate in seven states or the four grand pianos we inherited.
His mistakes made me a better mother, a better writer and a better person because he taught me that one part of life doesn't require that you sacrifice another part of life. I learned balance because I couldn't bear to arrive at his age and feel that much regret.
Three days before his death he called me in California, where I was living at the time. A record deal he was trying to get in LA had fallen through and he was reaching out to me to stave off the swells of failure and despair that were pulling him under. He begged me to drop everything and come and visit him. I said no, I was in the middle of a number of things that needed my attention. I asked him to visit me instead. He refused. A standoff in which neither of us yielded to the other. That was the last time I ever spoke to him.
All of these memories flooded back as I wandered through the Boulderado Hotel recently. Time and distance have healed their intensity, but not their underlying message.
Thank you Dad, for the gift of your choices. I have been blessed and saved from much heartache because of their wisdom. I am still learning and finding my way, but I'm doing my best to remember what matters.