by Hannah Hutchinson Clarke
Editorial Mentorship Letter
Northeast Ohio Writer
May 2017: Melo was a swaggy, fun loving pre-teen with a charming smirk when we became friends. He was the kind of guy I looked forward to seeing at church, disappointed on the weeks his mom whisked him out the door before we had a chance to mingle. I cannot remember who told me he got into a tragic motorbike accident and lost his life, but I remember weeping at the funeral. Upon leaving the church which still housed Melo’s open casket, Jeffrey called to tell me his father – my uncle Buff – had been shot and killed. Block boys were scrubbing Buff’s blood from the concrete steps that led to his Germantown home when I arrived. The smell of the bleach still lingers. Rest in peace, Melo. Rest in peace, Buff.
May 2018: Just like that, no one in my family could attend my brother’s graduation from the University of Delaware. My uncle – who we affectionately called Unky – was on his way to the cleaners. A delivery driver saw him collapse. They tried to save him from his heart attack. He was known for his big heart. His loss left an equally sized hole in all of ours. I can still feel his bear hugs. “There wasn’t a soul like his.” Rest in peace, Unky.
Unky speaking into a microphone
Sunset: May 18, 2018
Sunset: May 18, 2018
May 2019: Conversations with my mom became unusually frustrating. She was stressed all the time, sad and lonely most of the time; caring for patients through her own challenging life changes was hard on her. In her post-divorce apartment an hour outside of Philly she paid her landlord extra, as a gift. She ordered overpriced records and vintage Sesame Street DVDs from private sellers on Amazon. She danced. She had difficulty with computers. Was my mom’s brain dying?
May 2020: Conversations with my mom became shorter, truncated discussions using a set of recycled phrases. She shared fragmented stories of narrowly escaping that hurricane with her cousins, of religious leaders abusing children, of churches not accepting gay people, of tourists killing swimming pigs in the Bahamas. She moved back to Philly. She did not answer calls from friends and family, except her children. She called to wish me a happy birthday. She bought fresh grapes from Captain Andy’s Market and baked goods from Weaver’s Way Co-op for her colleagues every week; COVID was hard on healthcare workers. She bought twenty five of the same pantry item and ten of the same refrigerated item. She hardly ate. She danced in public. Computers were the bane of her existence. I begged her to visit the neurologist. My mom’s brain was dying.
May 2021: My boyfriend ran into his evil ex-girlfriend at a college party, twice, the night before my birthday, then drunk-called me speaking so incomprehensibly that had it not been for my spidey senses, I would not have understood what transpired. A few more hours into the morning, my mom called. She had been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia. That is the last time she wished me a happy birthday. That birthday was the most devastating. Nobody came to save me from myself. The following week still nobody came for my dual graduations from college and grad school. Find rest, Mommy.
Mommy enjoying watermelon
May 2022: We celebrated our five-year high school reunion at Popky’s house under a chilly, starless sky. I say “celebrate” but really I mean some of us reminisced while others stewed, maybe because we seemed happier than them. The morning after, we learned that our classmate died by suicide a couple neighborhoods over from where we gathered the previous night. The first time I met him I told him he was handsome. I know why the sky was starless. Rest in peace, W.N.
W.N. looking into the camera, smiling
Sunset: May 14, 2022
Sunset: May 14, 2022
My birthday is cursed.
May 2023: I decided I would listen to voicemails and respond to texts, but I would not pick up the phone the entire week of my birthday because I could not take any more bad news. I would hold my breath, even if it meant losing consciousness, in a desperate act of self-preservation.
But then something else happened. Three days before my mom’s 58th birthday, she was hospitalized with a stroke of “undetermined age,” which then led me to believe that maybe her birthday is cursed, too. Or maybe everyone I love is cursed. Or maybe everything I touch is cursed. Or maybe everywhere I exist is cursed. Or maybe this is just life: a corrupt, targeted ad that makes me feel invincible and powerless in the same breath; that presents itself as both a privilege and a scam; that is defined by purpose and by coincidence.
My birthday has been colored by mourning and, in some of the more intimate circumstances, immobilizing grief. It is so easy to make sense of jubilee because I believe I deserve those moments, but how do I process hardships? How do I make sense of tragedy without resigning to this curse? My answer comes in a string of unfinished thoughts that leave me fearful, dissatisfied, and defenseless. Maybe this is just life. Happy birthday to me, happy birthday dear Hannah.
Hannah Hutchinson Clarke has been living in Cleveland since 2017. She is a medical student with West Indian roots who uses prose to examine grief, illness, and loss. She is the incoming editor-in-chief for Mosaic in Medicine, a peer-reviewed narrative medicine publication. She enjoys gardening, martial arts, and sewing.