Gotham teacher Cheryl Burke passed away in the summer of 2011, but it takes more than death to stop a determined writer from publishing a book, and, sure enough, this fall saw the release of her memoir My Awesome Place: the Autobiography of Cheryl B. Cheryl had some help from the members of her writing group, who lovingly put the finishing touches on the manuscript. The book is a helluva ride, with all kinds of stuff about family, drugs, the queer life, and the wild arts scene of the East Village in the '90s.
Here’s a passage where Cheryl spends time with her dying father:
My father’s eyes are open but blank. I don’t know what to do, so I grab his hand and say hello. His gigantic hand is limp, his breath is rancid. At some point, my aunts leave, then my mother. I’m on night duty, alone with my father for the first time in years.
He’s in a double room, but the other bed is empty. A nurse comes in to show me which button to press to call for help, where the visitor bathrooms are and how to adjust the air conditioner. She also tells me that he is probably going to go soon and I picture my father getting up and leaving the room. I sit on the edge of the other bed, watching him sleep. I get up frequently to pace, from the spare bed to the air conditioner panel, to fiddle with the blinds to wash my hands. I get out my notebook and try to finish a poem. Instead, I hold the notebook open in my lap and stare into space until it slides onto the floor. This setup is not so different from our usual interactions, the two of us sitting separately, with little to say. It might even be less awkward. He looks diminished, like a large tree that has been cut down. When I lean over his bed, I notice the creases in his face, lines formed from years of working in the sun. I have never looked at him so closely, and it’s like studying a familiar specimen, something that has been around all your life, but you never paid it any attention.
I know I was supposed to spend this last night with my father telling him the things he didn’t know about me, like a confessional. In my mind it would go something like this:
Forgive me father, you don’t know this about me, but I’m a lesbian and I am currently mainly sleeping with a man and occasionally still sleeping with women. I am, as you put it when I was a kid, “doing my thing.”
I can hold my beer just like you. Hard liquor is another story, as you know since you couldn’t really handle it either, but that hasn’t stopped me from drinking it flask by flask. I didn’t appreciate that time you hit me in public when I was sixteen and you didn’t have to kick me up the stairs when I was four and I wish you’d come to see me off when I left for college.
Do you remember the trip to the water park when I was ten? You went down the giant waterslide before me and you thought it would be funny to hold on to the sides of the slide and surprise me as the water traveled around you. Your head was thrown back in laughter. You were hooting and splashing about in the shallow stream, as I rounded a corner of the slide, head first on my mat. You didn’t move even when I screamed that I was going to crash into you. Just as we were about to make contact you let go of the sides, the top of my head hit the back of yours, hard. I held on to your shoulders and we traveled down the rest of the slide together. After making your gigantic splash in the wading pool, you looked happier than ever, I didn’t mention that my head hurt.
“That was something else!” you said, looking down at me with an enthusiasm you usually only reserved for Elvis Presley, “let’s do it again!”
Reprinted by permission of Topside Press
You can read a nice tribute to Cheryl, from a member of her writing group, here.