Thursday, July 31, 2008

my brother skateboarding...

I watched him do this for hours when I was about half his size....

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Why Sydney Bristow is my Friend

The night after wedges open--and tears.
I think of Salinger: His Franny, and her prayer:
Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
I never asked for mercy before.

An earlier draft of this poem, written 7 years ago, began with these lines: "Until I can sliver them out, until / I can face them / wholly, these shards must work their way out / on their own."

I remember how grief seemed fractured and fragmented, dispersed through my body and soul like a thousand splinters from a rough-cut plank. Each fragment, sharp. Each location of entry--a memory or a killed hope--was swollen, infected. The extraction of grief (if grief could be extracted?) was time consuming; extraction was painful. The successful removal of one sliver indicated no promise for all the others, nor did it instantly cure the infection.

It was the last time I felt the way I do now, in grief. I wrote, "these shards must work their way out / on their own" because I remember then not being able to look at grief head-on, the way I don't look at it head-on very often right now--except when it overtakes me and forces me down on my bed. In the grappling, it pushes tears out my eyes, and sounds from my larynx. It swells my sinuses until my head pounds.

But most of the time right now, the way I let the shards work their way out on their own is by watching Alias reruns, sometimes until 1 in the morning, until my mind is so full of Sydney Bristow and her crazy FBI, double-agent life, that I can go to bed and not see my brother's gravel-skidded face, his blood that stained the ground on that country road, the stitches like treadmarks across his ear and skull, his body bloated by formaldehyde the day before the visitation. My mind will be so full of secret missions and bonfire-red wigs that I won't be able to miss seeing his living, ink-slung body cradling his seven-month-old baby girl. And I won't get lost--or caught--wondering what would have happened if I'd been at the hospital as he lay dying, if only a phone line had rung into my bedroom in the middle of the night, how I would have said goodbye or prayed for a miracle, how this might all feel different if I had.

If I wrap my mind around Agent Sydney Bristow, who lost her best friend to murder, and her other best friend to witness protection, and if I cry along with her when she tells Vaughn:" You wanna know how I am? I'm horrible. I am ripped apart,"--well, when I cry with her there, it feels like maybe one of those splinters dislodges just little bit, without my having to poke at it.

I have three seasons left to buy me more time.

Death and Skateboards

I told my friends last night that the grief I feel over my brother's death has exploded much of my theology about the afterlife*. Maybe "exploded" is the wrong word. Maybe what I mean is that what I've thought about the afterlife is in many ways horribly incomplete, but I never knew it until I desperately wanted to see a bigger picture. Oh how my head butts up against that invisible barrier between heaven and earth, between the sphere of earthly bodies and those of heavenly ones. I want to be a fly on the wall in that other realm, want to know the mind and wisdom of the creator of the universe, the creator of this whole system. And I want to reach across the boundary and grab my brother's hand (except he doesn't have one), pull him back here, speak to him one more time.

I simply don't have a way to answer the questions that currently run through my head:

1) What was his experience as he lay dying, while still on life support, when his brain was showing no signs of life? Where was his spirit?

2) Was he in some earth/heaven limbo for those 7.5 hours?

3) Did he see a bright light/Jesus/God? I feel so Oprah for phrasing it this way.

4) In heaven, will Jesus let Henry know how much I love(/d) him? Will he be reminded how much we all loved him (because the death of one we love compels us to wonder such things)?

5) Or would this knowledge stay hidden in the shadows of whatever marvelous things happen in heaven? In other words, is it only the living who ask such questions?

5) Will my brother see us grieving here on earth? Will Jesus let him hear and watch his funeral service, the letter I read for him (because if he never hears it, what good does it do--after all, it was addressed to him)?

6) Why are these my questions?

6) Where are the wedding pictures of his I took two years ago on my digital camera? My husband and I cannot find them, despite tearful searching. (ok-so theology can't tackle that one.)

7) The last question is from my three-year old: Did his skateboard die, too?

*Thank you Ali for saying this is an appropriate response to grief.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Henry "Hank" Bertka

My brother Henry died this week after a car accident. He was no small celebrity in the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City community because of his talents as a tattoo artist and business owner.
Here's the letter I wrote for him and read today at his funeral.

Dear Henry,

So, this is a little embarrassing, but you were my first crush—I guess in the way only a big brother could be to a little girl. Even if you did throw me around and upside-down a few times, I have to admit to loving you hard enough I snuck into your room, that wonder-world of your creations, just so I could breathe in the smells of a teenage boy mixed with baseball mitts and skateboards, markers, paints and glues. There on the desk were your drawings, the wood bowls you made in shop class. There on the floor by the closet was the fake electric guitar you’d cut out of plywood and wrapped in grey duct tape and black electrical tape—what you used to air-jam to Stryper, that bunch of hair-sprayed musicians in their yellow-and-black ensembles: puffed sleeves, flight jackets, yellow spandex with zebra stripes. Those boys with the teased and sprayed manes and made-up cheekbones were in the poster on your bathroom door. They watched you and I watched you fiddle around on your imaginary strings on your made-up guitar. Then you handed the guitar to me, and smiled at me, when I felt the weight of the plywood heavy in my arms before I air-jammed to the hard beat coming out of the speakers on your floor. I wanted to play guitar if you played guitar—or fake guitar if you faked it—just to be like you. This is why I wanted your BMX bike so bad, why it was no small miracle when you passed it on to me. It’s why I coveted your skateboard, and your shoes, and the very ground you walked on, because it touched you and it was where you were.

I want to say thanks for doing things first, so I could watch and learn. Thanks, too, for the skateboarding lessons, although I couldn’t keep my balance on a board to save my life. Thanks for every mix tape, every birthday card, every ride, every secret you ever told me, every smile directed my way, each an occasion that caused my heart to leap.

If I could rewind time for a little while, the thing I might most want to do right now is find the room that belonged to you, first boy I ever loved, and sit and sit and breathe you in and pretend that you’ll be here in a few minutes, you’re just riding your moped home from the late shift at Taco Bell.

But since I can’t rewind, I guess I hope that in heaven you can do the equivalent of motorcycling down freeways in the middle of rolling fields and mountain passes. I hope there are endless warehouses full of art and building supplies (maybe ones you’ve never seen before), with which you can continue the art you began here on earth. When I get there, I hope you’ll show me your room and everything you’ve made.

Your Sis,