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I grew up happy in an amazing time to be alive. Uruk was a farming community, but new things were being created all of the time in the center places where everyone gathered. As children we’d play in the great river. We had a happy family. My father grew grain, and worked hard to take care of our family. He died early on from a disease that began to eat his skin. When he died, I remember it being the first time I wasn’t happy. I ran to the river and cried for days wondering why he left me. My mother tried to comfort me, but to no avail. I was heartbroken, and as far as I was concerned, life was over.
My mother and I became closer than ever. Her family gathered around us, and things became stable again. Happiness is an unstable state of mind though, and I longed for deeper community. The loss of my father created an understanding in me that nothing is permanent. I trusted no one. The men who walked around our home now stared at my mother, who enjoyed their attention, but most of them were already married. Of course that hasn’t stopped most men from quenching those forbidden desires.
My father’s family never cared enough to visit us once my father died, and my mother’s family constantly tried to make sure she married again. Certainly a woman’s life means nothing if she doesn’t have a man to lead her through it.
Though the pain of losing my father burdened me as a child, the light in my heart did not go away. I believed my mother and I would find ourselves engrossed in a community of people who loved and cared for us, whether or not it was a man and his family or a close knit group of people. I wanted real. I wanted true. I wanted to be loved deeply.
My mother married again. He was a nice man and a decent father, but I always believed she settled for someone who could take care of us. He built things with his hands. In fact, he was such an excellent builder, when our tribe decided to build a tower to reach to the heavens, they asked him to lead the construction. I rarely saw him before that. After that, it was like we lived in separate tribes.
But I watched the construction of the tower with great pride. Everyone did. They built in an area we called Shinar. Over time, it grew and grew and became the biggest structure any of us had ever seen. We were proud of our tribes, and those who helped build this incredible symbol. Crowds gathered everyday. Children played while the adults looked on and talked about how big the structure could actually get.
“The gods will be proud of us!” One man said loudly. “This will make us famous and keep us from being scattered all over the world.”
Everyone cheered at the thought. We would be together forever, and I began to think that my community was developing. For the first time since my father died, happiness crept in. Nothing gave me greater joy than the sun beating down on my face, playing with the children, and hearing my new father bark out orders inside the monstrous tower. Everyday proved to be a festival. People started making up reasons to celebrate, and frowns became a rarity in the tower region.
My mother’s smile returned, and she laughed and sang around the house once again. I remember how beautiful her voice was when she sang. I can still hear it ringing in my ears when I work or clean or pray even now, almost 80 years later.
One day when I was a twelve, I noticed several of my friends were not at the tower. I looked for them, and in the case of my best friend Deborah, I ran to her house since it was nearby. Her mother told me to stay away for a while. She was sick. The next day, even fewer people gathered at the tower, which meant even fewer of my friends were there to play with me. A weird hush wafted over the region.
The following day, celebration morphed into mourning, as very few people watched the building of the tower, and cries of terror bellowed out with the deaths of the sick. I was afraid so I walked around the tower looking for my father. I couldn’t find him. One of the workers told me he left early to go home.
My father never left early. He worked hard and when others slacked off, he drove them harder, and he was not a hypocrite. He drove himself the hardest. I walked away from the tower region, turning once again to see its grandeur. I had never, nor would I ever see anything like it again. I walked the road back to my house many times before with groups of children – my friends – but now everything sat silent, and my journey seeped loudly with only the thoughts in my head. What was happening?
I arrived home and as soon as I entered the house, my mother motioned me to be quiet. My father wasn’t feeling well and needed to rest. I heard his deep, dry coughs roaring from the back of the house, and I ran out. I ran to the great river, sitting down by it’s slow moving current, and I prayed to the gods. I asked them with thick tears in my eyes not to take my father. I couldn’t handle another loss. I needed some hope. I needed to know that I could have something in my life that I wouldn’t lose. I heard my father’s cough in my head as the water trickled east down the great river.
I heard footsteps along the grass behind me as I cried. They startled me, but it was only my mother’s brother behind me. He was closer to my age than hers, and he always seemed standoffish to me at family events. He rarely spoke to anyone, choosing instead to keep to himself.
“Why are you crying?” He said to me. I was surprised he spoke.
“My father is sick. It seems like everyone is sick. And…And…And…anyone I get close to, I lose. I don’t know what to do.” I cried again.
An awkward silence filled the space in between my moans. My uncle said nothing.
His name was Ningal. He spoke very little, dressed in all black, and stayed away from people. He said a handful of words to me for most of my life to that point. He had a tiny mouth and beedy eyes that always looked shut. I forgot what his voice sounded like until he spoke.
“It’s not up to you, anyways. You’ll be fine. Just do whatever your mom wants you to do.” He spoke gruffly. I didn’t like his tone, but I really didn’t like the way he looked at me at that moment. His hand extended to the small of my back, and a chill ran up my spine. My soul transformed from sadness to fear. He must have felt that, because quickly he removed his hand, stood up and walked away.
I filled up my water jug, and walked back to my house. I didn’t want to go back. I didn’t want to hear the cough and what it might represent. I didn’t want to lose anyone else. I had no choice, however, as my home was my home and my mom took care of my dad, and someone needed to take care of my mom.
I walked in the door, and heard the cough. I heard my mom speaking out: “It’s going to be all right. It’s going to be okay. We’re going to make you better again.” I announced my entrance and walked in the room with the water. My father’s eyes got big and I immediately brought the jug to him, and tipped the top to his lips. He drank heavily, like a thirsty dog lapping a puddle after a storm.
He looked at me and spoke, but when he did, I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I looked at my mother to see if she heard, but she lifted her shoulders as if to say her ears were getting old like the rest of her.
“Say it again, father.” I said to him.
He repeated the lines, but once again, I didn’t understand. A look of frustration showed on his face.
“Oh, he must be growing delirious,” My mother said.
He clearly didn’t agree but it didn’t matter. He fell asleep quickly.
Sleep did not stop the loud heaving coughs. None of us fell asleep that night. Occasionally spaces of a minute or two pushed my eyes forward, then suddenly, the sound of coughing rushed at my ears. Eventually I walked to the front of our house. My mother lit a fire and sat by it, crying. I wrapped my arms around her and cried with her. We wept until early in the morning when the coughing stopped, and my second father disappeared into the afterlife.
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