Learning to look up
At 14, I was young, uncertain about many things except one:
I. Like. Attention.
The Cedar Rapids flood of 2008 came at an incredibly inconvenient time for my ego. On the cusp of starting high school, I had decided to start wearing mascara and whitening strips, a surefire sign I was ready to tear through the hallways of Xavier Catholic High with my gaptoothed smile. This was my year: 2008. The year my doubly padded training bra would finally be noticed.
Olivia’s dad drove us in silence on Interstate 80 as we took in the damage two straight weeks of rain had done to the city. 1,126 blocks completely submerged. A joke choked its way through my throat as I attempted to cope with the shock, saying how lucky I was softball would be canceled now that all of Cedar Rapids was basically underwater. It felt foreign escaping my mouth and no one laughed. We all just stared.
I followed a raindrop down the back seat window with my finger and wondered how long we would be in traffic. I was impatient and wanted a Big Mac. Eventually, the car’s mood began to thaw and I tried out my next joke on them, saying it was funny God made me study him all these years when he would later just decide to wipe out all of Cedar Rapids books in a day. This one got a bit of a laugh.
The dust settled after a few weeks and cleanup began. My parents removed me from the situation as much as humanly possible, doing all the heavy sandbagging early in the morning (12 p.m.) when they knew a developing girl like me needed rest (at least 13 hours a night). Besides, my place was required alongside the Butschis, who had drove in from Texas with two semi loads of clothes and food.
I helped unload the trucks at Wilson Middle School, distributing clothes to organized sections while reveling in my pre-Old Navy war days. Eager to please, I stood with the widest smile on my face until someone came up and asked where the baby clothes were. Off put by her cheerful attitude, I pointed her in the right direction and she insisted I come pick things out with her. I was confused. There were no hollow faces. There was just hope.
A few months later, my dad patiently sat as I explained my confusion to him, confusion over how happy the people at Wilson had been, confusion that I was trying to make tragedy out of something that wasn’t mine to make tragic. I still hadn’t seen the wake of downtown and I was, very selfishly, angry I couldn’t partake in the sadness everyone was expressing (see: how much attention I liked at 14). My dad let me rant then told me to get in the car so he could make it personal to me. We were going to see the damage that was done.
What I wanted was the world, and this flood, to revolve around me. To be able to play everyone’s sympathy card when asked what the flood of 2008 had taken from me. More than anything, I wanted to hold this flood at arm’s length while captivating an audience with how the flood devastated most, but was most devastating to me.
What I got was a giant wake up call.
I had spent all of my formative years at the Cedar Rapids Public Library. Growing up, Mary Kate and Ashley were my two best friends, along with other storybook characters that inhabited the second story floor. The giant spiral staircase, the overbearing red carpet, all tacky in hindsight, at the time was a palace to me.
And I was its queen.
My fairy tale ended when I saw what the flood had done to the library. How it had left permanent stains on the side of the building from the water that reached 20 feet high. The red carpet that now reflected the disgusting brown color of the Cedar River. Up until that point, I had been tiptoeing around destruction, dipping my toes in whenever it pleased me but now, it was real. I finally let the storm touch me.
Just like everyone else, it ripped through my soul and consumed me whole.
At 22, I am still young and still like attention. Prowling the streets of my new home 300 miles away from Cedar Rapids, I flash my problems to strangers through conversations with my mom that range on the screaming side of the spectrum, an attempt to bond over events irrelevant to Chicago dwellers. As she relays information about how close the city is to flooding, I drown her out with my own problems, an attempt to push deep in to my subconscious all the processing I have yet to do as an adult about a disaster that ravaged my hometown at a weird, transitional age for me. I nod my head as she talks to me on the phone and jump at a silence she hangs on to for too long, saying a recent breakup left me kind of heartbroken but I was doing OK because I had just bought a Diet Coke.
I wish she told me to shut up.
There are so many stories from 2008 that I’ll never know because I never asked. At the end of it all, I felt I had done my part. I had sandbagged, collected food and clothes for those who had been hit, but I never asked anyone if they were doing OK, if they were in need of a scrawny hug by an incredibly flat-chested 14-year-old girl. I just moved effortlessly through the motions and felt, like everyone else, that Cedar Rapids had become a more tightknit community for surviving such a terrible natural disaster.
Books can teach you a lot. They can teach you art, history, who kills Dumbledore, they cannot, however, teach you many life lessons: to listen, to have perspective, to understand that senior boy is laughing at you for how big your gap teeth are.
For those, you just need to look up.
• Meggie Gates is a native Cedar Rapidian. More information: notoriousMIG.com