My ordeal, like most variations of personal hell, felt isolating, immense and unshareable. Some years later, when I reread the Gilgamesh epic, it dawned on me that what I’d experienced was written there. In this ancient Mesopotamian poem, Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, expends vast energies in his city and in heroic ventures with his alterego Enkidu. When Enkidu dies, the bereft hero, overwhelmed by the realization of his own mortality, goes on an soul-purging, exhausting journey to the ends of the earth in a vain quest for eternal life.
What resonated with me was not the loss of a friend as close as a second self– though something like that had happened years before; nor the terror of death, though I’m sure that such terror could take much the same form as what I experienced. But the self-consuming energy, the vast exhausting world, the body as an engine driving toward final irremediable loss – that I understood. The epic of Gilgamesh came to represent whatever was wise and heroic in what I experienced at this great transition in my own life, as it speaks to many people about their own losses and transitions.
[Source (Excerpt begins on the bottom of page 462)]
What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one . And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are–underneath the year that makes you eleven.
Like some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay. That’s what I tell Mama when she’s sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling three.
Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That’s how being eleven years old is.
You don’t feel eleven. Not right away . It takes a few days, weeks even, sometimes even months before you say Eleven when they ask you. And you don’t feel smart eleven, not until you’re almost twelve. That’s the way it is. Only today I wish I didn’t have only eleven years rattling inside me like pennies in a tin Band-Aid box. Today I wish I was one hundred and two instead of eleven because if I was one hundred and two I’d have known what to say when Mrs. Price put the red sweater on my desk. I would’ve known how to tell her it wasn’t mine instead of just sitting there with that look on my face and nothing coming out of my mouth.
[First three paragraphs of the short story taken from Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories]