The fish in the baseball diamond were my first clue that something was wrong. I had lived in Iowa City less than a year: I didn’t know the snow didn’t usually pile along the sidewalks four feet high, so the walk downhill to the grocery store became an ice maze. I didn’t know the strange rumbling of that spring — the ice melting among the dead leaves and gooshing up around my feet as I walked through the park — was so much louder than it should have been. I didn’t know the river wasn’t supposed to be so high. But when I took my mom walking by the ballfield near the river and saw trout spawning in a big puddle on home plate, their fins sticking up out of the water like they were tiny sharks, I knew something unusual was going on.
I mentioned it to Mom, but only in passing. We had other things to talk about. My grandfather had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma in March, and while we’d initially been told he might have a year, even two, by April it was clear we were talking about months. I felt his death coming at me as from below. I kept imagining a basement flooding.
That year I was trying to find a place to call my home. I’d lived in California all my life, always among family or friends. I’d been with the same man for five years; we rented a little light-filled house with a garden. We planted sunflowers. When I left him and our house, I was afraid that part of my punishment for rejecting that life would be to never again find a place I belonged.
I worked at belonging in Iowa City. The winter helped. The snow piled up all January, and then in February the temperature dipped below zero and didn’t crawl above it for weeks. Walking outside made my face burn. A boy passed out drunk while peeing outside a bar and lost his penis to frostbite. I’ve heard that frat initiations work like this: if you’re putting up with all this torture to be a part of something, you must really love it.
One night in March, my new boyfriend and I spotted something we hadn’t seen in months: a puddle.
“Liquid water!” he exclaimed. I was excited too, but also surprised by my own excitement.
“You’re talking about our town like it’s the surface of Mars,” I said.
It felt that way to me too, a place so dry and cold we were afraid to drive anywhere at night, because our cars might stall and then we’d freeze to death in the parking lot. But still: our town.
And also it wasn’t. My boyfriend was already talking about where he was going next. Few grad students stayed longer than a few years. When we were gone, new students would take over our furnished apartments, as we had taken them over from others, drinking from their weird glassware, sleeping in the hollows they’d left in the beds.
I had no future in Iowa City, and I also had no past. I didn’t know that we’d had nearly a foot and a half more snow that winter than normal, the seventh-most snow since the state started measuring over a hundred years before (the snowiest winter ever was 1983, the winter I was born). I didn’t know that the first half of the year would be the wettest in state history. I knew there weren’t supposed to be fish on the baseball field, but I didn’t know the water could just keep rising and rising. I came from Los Angeles, where in the summer a hot dry wind burst the blood vessels in our noses; I’d never seen a real flood before.
Early in June I went to visit my grandfather in the hospital in St. Louis. He had always been a big man, but now he was bald and small in his hospital bed. His skin had turned a yellowish-brown color; he looked like he was made of some light and deeply weathered wood.
I brought a book to read to him — the Odyssey, which he’d given me when I was twelve — but he was too sick and tired to be read to. He was a doctor himself, and so he explained to us what was happening to his body. The disease is a cancer of the blood, and it had sown tumors throughout his organs. He was taking oral thalidomide to shrink them, but they weren’t getting smaller. And he was on dialysis, which meant that several times a week, machines took all the blood from his body, cleaned it, and put it back in very cold. My grandfather was freezing from the inside. The first day I visited him in his hospital room, he talked about my great-grandmother, who had said many times in the last year of her long life, “I wish God would just take me.”
My grandparents’ pastor came to talk to us when my grandfather was sleeping. He said my grandfather was at peace with death. He said he trusted in God. I have always been envious of people who feel this way. It calmed me to know he wasn’t afraid.
We didn’t want to let him go yet. He had talked about stopping treatment, but we — my mom, my grandmother, my aunt and I were the ones in the room with him that day — wanted his body to give us a little bit more time. He decided he would keep up with the drugs and the dialysis a while longer. I spent a second day with him and another night in my grandparents’ house full of antique windup toys — I remember I lay awake worrying about my own life — and in the morning I flew back to Iowa.
I could see it from the air — the river, once a neat bright stripe, spread sloppily all over the land. The water was brown with the earth it swallowed — the whole landscape looked diseased.
Still it took a few days for the flood to come. The town was muggy with waiting. I bought flood rations from the liquor store — canned tuna, canned pineapple, bottled water — while the kids across the street were still drinking to celebrate graduation. They were leaving, and I was staying to weather the flood, and I felt slightly superior and also lonely.
Finally we had one more dark night of rain. My boyfriend and I walked to the nearest bridge, the one that linked us with the park. In winter the ice had lain ten feet below the roadway there; now the water roiled high, level with the surface of the bridge, and black, and fast. A man was standing on the bank; he looked at us with a stricken expression.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“It’s flooding,” I said, and he turned back to the river, uncomforted.
By morning the bridge was underwater. The next bridge, at the center of campus, was underwater too, and the only other bridge in town had plumes of brown river gushing over the top of it like a bad amusement-park ride. Someone set up a blog to track the height of the water, its progress toward our classrooms and houses. The numbers kept getting higher.
The blog put out a call for volunteers, so I walked downtown to look for people I could help. I found a crew filling sandbags to pile around the low-lying buildings at the center of campus. One person shoveled sand from a giant wet grey heap into a sturdy plastic bag, another secured it with a metal tie, and then they passed it along a line of people until it got to the building threshold where it could — maybe — keep the water out. For a while I did the tying. The metal ties were stubborn in my hands. I worked next to a middle-aged woman — bossy, maternal, her hair blunt-cut. She seemed to know a lot of the other people there; she talked with them about the flood, trading updates. She seemed so at home — this was her community, these were her neighbors, working together to protect their town. I wish I could say that I got to know the woman, that I left feeling I was her neighbor too, but I hardly said a word to anyone. I have always been shy in situations where there are no established norms, and what is the script for flood talk?
Later that day I joined a crew in the university library. We stood in the stairwell, one on each stair, and passed books up from the basement to the second floor, where they’d be safe from the water. The books in the basement mostly turned out to be bound masters and Ph.D. theses. It was strange work; in our classes we’d laughed at the university’s promise to bind our theses. Who would ever read them? I didn’t open any of the books I passed up the stairway, but it felt good to deliver them, to keep them safe.
My grandfather called me while the river was rising. He wanted to know if I was okay. All his troubles, and he was asking after me? I almost laughed into the phone. Yes, I said — I lived on high ground then, on the third floor of a house on a hill above the river. I had my canned food. I was fine. There was nothing good I could ask my grandfather in return. I had read that you weren’t supposed to ask a person in pain how he was feeling, because it would only remind him of his pain and make it worse. I hope I asked him about baseball, about the Cardinals. The truth is I don’t remember what we talked about, except for the flood. Soon he was too tired to talk anymore.
On June 15 the floodwaters crested. The Iowa River reached a level of 31.5 feet — a five-hundred year flood, meaning there was only a one-in-five-hundred chance of the river getting that high in any given year. We woke to a town that shimmered where roads should be. We walked, at least where we could. We looked down into the basement of the student union and saw desks floating up, ten feet of water beneath them. The river had swallowed the park, the music building, the art museum. Just past the library was a new shoreline, the water in a shining sheet where we had walked two days before. We looked, and then we looked away. There was nothing we could do now but wait.
My grandfather died on the fifth of July. The waters had begun to recede, leaving a slick of stubborn summer mold over everything they touched. It was night and I was alone in my apartment, reading. My brother was the one who called me. I knew there was only one piece of news he could possibly have, but still I didn’t understand him.
“What?” I asked. I made him say it again.
It turned out that he’d been left all alone in my grandparents’ house, everyone else tending to the death, and so for a few minutes I comforted him, speaking in a soft voice and calling him “sweetheart,” my brother whom I’d held as an infant, who was now an adult man. After we hung up I sat by myself for a long time. I began to hear banging and booming in the sky. Leftover fireworks, I thought. The flood had not disturbed the town’s Fourth of July celebration, and I figured they were setting off the excess now. I remember I was angry at my parents for leaving my brother alone, and I wished I was in St. Louis to stay with him, rather than here in Iowa City, of no use to anyone. I remember congratulating myself, and then reproaching myself, for feeling so calm.
Quite suddenly an hour had gone by. The fireworks showed no sign of letting up. They must be working off a big surplus, I thought. For something to do I decided to go outside.
The sky was all split open with white light. Black clouds were churning about the treetops and lightning cracked between them, making them glow from the inside. There had never been fireworks; a giant storm was battering our town. I sat on the curb and watched it move.
My grandfather was a calm and gentle man. Even if I believed in Heaven, I would not have believed his entry would trouble it so much. But still I thought of that storm as marking his death, as I’d come to think of the flood as marking his sickness, his body filling up with cancer and shutting down. I did this even though there were over 60,000 people in Iowa City that year, each with deaths and births and marriages of their own.
And even though the flood wreaked its own, quite literal damage. My friend Jim’s apartment complex was completely destroyed. The instruments in the music building succumbed to warp and rot; the art museum ultimately had to be razed. The student union took six months to drain. No one was killed in Iowa City by the flood, but more than 600 were evacuated from their homes. The damage would have been worse if not for the millions of sandbags residents filled, so many that after our floodwaters crested, we were able to ship them downriver to keep other cities dry.
I left Iowa City the following summer. My grandmother had just died, having survived my grandfather by less than a year. My boyfriend and I had broken up suddenly and I didn’t know where to go or what to do with myself — I remember telling him I felt like I was standing in an empty room. But that summer in Iowa City was beautiful. The cicadas were buzzing; all the trees had burst back from the long winter, blinding green. Many of my most vivid visual memories of Iowa City are from that summer: a bonfire lighting the forest at the bottom of a friend’s backyard; a wren hopping on a tree; a strange blond-haired girl standing in my front yard one humid afternoon, drinking a glass of red wine.
The beauty of that summer seemed as fitting to my sadness as the havoc of the last summer had. I saw comfort in the throat of a singing sparrow; in a purple sunset, permission to leave town. It’s terribly self-centered to think of the changes in your environment as part of the narrative of your life, and it doesn’t stand up to logic. But unlike my grandfather I’m not sure any God is watching over me. A story is what I have.
I read from the Odyssey at my grandfather’s funeral. I chose a section from Book 14, where Athena removes Odysseus’s disguise and lets his son Telemachus see him for the first time since his boyhood; at first, he mistakes his father for a god. But it’s another section that I always remember: after Odysseus kills his wife’s suitors, he still isn’t quite finished. A seer has instructed him to travel far from his island home and build a shrine. He will only know he’s gone far enough when the passersby mistake the oar on his shoulder for a tool for winnowing grain. “What winnowing fan is that on your shoulder?” they’ll ask, and he’ll know his journey is really done, and now he can go home for good.