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,


Laura Amy E. said...

I love your letter, thanks for sharing it.

nancy said...

what a beautiful memory...keeping you in my thoughts, heather.

Anonymous said...

my robert swehla has alot of memories of hank! I have heard them all!!! He misses his friend! I like ur letter! God bless

Michele said...

What a way to remember your brother.