I was 19 when my father died. Since then, I’ve consciously and subconsciously adopted surrogate father figures – men whose intelligence, values and humor reminded me of my dad’s. Jimmy Burke was one of those men.
I met Jimmy Burke when I was about 12 years old at Avon Oaks Country Club in Avon, Ohio, where my father was a member even before I was born in 1970. Jimmy was Mr. Burke to me then, of course, and I knew him as one of my dad’s good friends. Mr. Burke was an avid golfer who played with my dad often, he was one of Cleveland’s most respected trial attorneys and he was one of the funniest people I had ever met.
What I did not know until later in my teen years was that Mr. Burke got sober, like my dad. It was one of the things that bonded them as friends, especially at a country club where there was a lot of drinking going on.
I always looked forward to seeing Mr. Burke at the club, on the driving range or on the course. Because whenever you ran into Mr. Burke, you knew you would get a good story or a solid joke. Part of his comic gift was his ability to tell you a ridiculous story with a completely straight, deadpan face, which is one of the secrets to masterful comedic delivery. Many people I knew compared his comic sensibility to that of Gene Wilder. (He even resembled him in a darker Irish kind of way.)
Mr. Burke even helped me once when I got into a little bit of teenage trouble. After his intervention, the problem went away and everybody went to their respective corners, but not before he sat me down, looked me in the eye and told me how disappointed he was with my lack of good judgment. And he was 100% right.
When my dad died in 1990, the Burkes were among the first to call. (I vividly remember the phone call with his wife Teen, hearing the devastating reaction on the other end of the phone.) When the Burkes came over, Mr. Burke gave me a hug that I’ve never forgotten, and his mere presence gave me a semblance of assurance I so desperately needed at the time.
When I went away to college in Boston and eventually moved to New York, I had fallen out of touch, only seeing the Burkes occasionally when I came home to Cleveland for a visit.
Upon my relocation back to Cleveland in late 2016, I would see Jimmy Burke almost every week. In the time that I’ve been back home, reconnecting with Jimmy had been an indescribably wonderful experience.
His comments, his insight, his humor and his mere presence meant so much during a time when I felt so unsure about my own life. At times when I felt worthless and uncertain about my future in Cleveland, Jimmy would say something, give me a look or a good one-liner or a gesture that would remind me that as long as I stayed sober and took the next right action, I would be okay.
I’ve written before about the emotional mine field involved with returning to Cleveland. I hadn’t lived here since my father died, and Cleveland was a place I always associated with dad. Jimmy was a touchstone who was there then and was here now. He was one of the few remaining people who could tell me a funny story about dad that I’d never heard before. He also had brilliant stories of his own. I could listen to him tell stories all day about his time representing Shondor Birns and Danny Greene, arguably Cleveland’s most notorious mobsters… like how Danny chose Jimmy to be his attorney basically because Jimmy was trustworthy (i.e. Irish)… or how Danny would visit Jimmy’s mother in the hospital, claiming he was Mrs. Burke’s other son (Jimmy only had a sister)… or how it felt when he got the news that Danny was killed… (There is a wonderful archival news clip of Jimmy in the film Kill the Irishman.)
One of my other favorite recent lines from Jimmy was when I was telling him about the beautiful work done on the conversion of The Standard building in Downtown Cleveland into nice apartments. Jimmy told me that, many years ago, he had an office in The Standard building, with a view of the Justice Center across the street. I jokingly cracked that he could wave to his clients if they were in jail. Without skipping a beat, in his deadpan delivery, he said, “Georgie, my clients never went to jail.”
The humor. That’s one of the things I admired about Jimmy the most. When it came to living a sober life, he never lost sight of the seriousness of alcoholism and addiction and the real work one does to recover. But he also never forgot the healing power of humor. He understood that life is hard, sometimes cruel even. If we’re going to survive without losing our minds, we’re going to need laughter. My old boss Joan Rivers used to say that when you make someone laugh, you give them a mini vacation. Time spent with Jimmy Burke was a mini vacation, often with a little education thrown in for good measure.
As I said, Jimmy was like a surrogate father for me. When my phone rang yesterday with his daughter KC on my caller I.D…. KC… my sweet KC. KC was one of my favorites among the crowd of kids at the pool at the country club. With her long platinum blond hair, straight bangs and bright blue eyes, she was our own little Carol Anne from Poltergeist. She was a shy and sweet little girl of whom I always felt protective.
Over this past Father’s Day weekend, I saw Jimmy a couple of times. On Saturday, he shared the story about going on vacation with KC and Teen after he’d been sober for about a year or so. KC was just a little girl. One day, on that vacation, KC said to him, “Daddy, this is the best vacation I’ve ever had. Because you’re not drinking.” That story – the story of what a sober parent means to a child (a story to which I can personally relate) – meant so much to him.
I saw KC for the first time in many years when Jimmy was in the hospital last year recovering from back surgery. She was all grown up and married to a good man, according to her father.
So when I saw KC’s name on my caller I.D. yesterday, my immediate thought was that Jimmy had another setback with his back recovery. I immediately answered the call.
“Hi KC Burke. How you doin’?”
“Not so good,” she said, sounding a little shaky. I think I knew then what she was about to tell me. “My dad died today.”
The rest of the conversation is a blur. I just remember my knees buckling and my breathing getting short. I had enough sense to keep it brief with KC, as she was surely surfing grief exhaustion from making phone calls like this. Before hanging up, I remember telling her that I loved her and her mother. After I hung up, I fell apart.
Jimmy apparently had a heart attack on Thursday morning.
Later in the evening, I made it over to their house as one does, in hopes to comfort and be comforted in the haze and shock of such a stunning and sudden loss. As I write this now, it just doesn’t feel quite real.
I’ve been so lucky in my life. I’ve had the privilege of knowing such amazing people – people who made a difference, people who helped shape who I am. These people in our lives are temporary and on loan. That’s what makes them so valuable and important. Jimmy Burke was one of those people. He was valuable and important to me and to so many others whom he helped in his career as an attorney and in his personal life. In my experience, many people in recovery stick closely to a principle of staying sober and working with others who need help. Jimmy Burke was the embodiment of that principle.
Jimmy was also an adoring and proud husband and father. Whenever he spoke of Teen or KC, he beamed as if he were the luckiest man in the world, talking in the tone of someone who had won the lottery. And he did win that lottery.
When Jimmy was recovering from his back surgery last year, I had taken to texting him humorous bits of media I thought he’d like. We had such fun with clips of Richard Pryor, Garry Shandling, George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Maher, Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert and, most recently, Michelle Wolf. He was someone who respected the writing that goes into good comedy, and I loved talking about it with him.
After a coffee with Jimmy and some other friends a few months ago, something occurred to me. I imagined that spending this time with him was what it might be like spending time with dad if he were still alive. I texted him later that day with the following message:
“Seeing you every week as we laugh… tell stories… make other people laugh… It makes me imagine what it would be like if dad were around. You’re a tremendous comfort to me and I treasure you beyond words. Thank you for… being you. (I can’t tell you this in person or I’ll get too emotional.)”
An hour later, he replied:
“Thanks Georgie. We can never get too emotional. Ain’t it great to have feelings and be able to show it. I too wish your dad was still with us. The three of us would be a riot. But we have memories. And now we’re making our own memories. Look forward to seeing you every week and hearing your fantastic sense of humor… Love you Georgie.”
“Love you back, buddy.”
So I sit here, crying and writing, thinking about my friend whom I loved and admired so much, wishing I could text him another joke, thinking about how hard it’s going to be to not see him anymore. But this is life. This is the deal. This is the human experience. It still hurts, though. A lot. The best that I can do to honor him is to follow his example, stay sober and help others who want to get sober. And to do it with humor. Otherwise, Jimmy would be very disappointed in me.