by Wayne Geiger
It was a busy day. I rushed in the front door to quickly change clothes and head back out to another meeting. I heard the sound of the hairdryer coming from the bathroom. My daughter, home from school already, was holding the cat and said proudly, “I got the cat dry.”
I was a little perplexed. “How did the cat get wet?” I asked. “You don’t know?” came back the reply. “Know what?” I said. She directed me to the basement door.
Our home, at that time, was a little small for our six-member family. It’s redeeming quality was a sizable finished basement with additional restroom.
It was like another home downstairs. Part of it served as a perfect space for our two boys while the girls stayed upstairs. I loved it too because we were able to line one of the rooms with bookshelves which was perfect for all my books.
Clutching the cat, my daughter opened the basement door and awaited my reaction. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. It had been raining extremely hard all day. Our home was located on a corner where two streets met. The phrase, “it’s all downhill from here” would have described our home at the time.
That day, there was a great deal of rain and unfortunately, it all headed in our direction. There was too much water, too fast and no way for our sump pump to handle it. In one day, our basement had become a sizable swimming pool. In our family, we refer to that time as “the great flood.”
In horror, and almost in a dreamlike state, I pulled off my dress shoes, put on some old sneakers, and ran down the stairs to access the damage. Halfway down, I felt the cold water surround my ankles.
As I continued, the water came up to my thighs and eventually just below my chest. I wondered how many steps were left and if I needed to get my floaties. After reaching the floor, the water in our basement was about four-feet high.
As I waded through the water, I had no idea what was below the surface. The water was dark, murky, and mysterious. I felt like I was in the ocean. The theme music from Jaws would have been appropriate.
Although I couldn’t see in the water, I was cognizant of what was around me. There were bits and pieces of all sorts of debris floating in the water—including tiny particles. I was bewildered as to what these particles were and then it finally dawned on me!
It was a mixture of cat litter and cat food. Days before, we had bragged about being such frugal shoppers and the great deal we had gotten on the ‘big bags’. “Why did we have to buy the giant bags,” I wondered?
Then, I witnessed a small miracle, for which I am thankful. The plastic cat box, driven by unknown undercurrents, came floating by. It was well-used, but thankfully, it was above the water. At least one catastrophe avoided (emphasis on the cat in catastrophe).
I wondered what other mysterious messes laid below the abyss. For a brief moment, I remembered the bathroom in the corner of the basement. No doubt, the toilet, like most everything else, was below the water.
I hoped my sons had remembered to flush the last time they used it. I quickly removed the thought from my mind. Now was not the time for speculation, and I did not own a decontamination suit.
The basement looked somewhat familiar—at least from the waterline up. In the first room, were the particleboard bookshelves that housed my college, seminary, and other personal books, along with my wife’s cookbooks and other personal items.
There were five bookshelves. Three of them had buckled and toppled because of the water and weight of the books. The other two remained at their post victoriously displaying several rows of books that were saved from the flood. The kid’s beta fish was also on the shelf. The little guy had missed his chance at freedom by a foot or so.
In the next two rooms, I examined my sons’ living quarters and play area. Beds, toys, chest of drawers, guitars, saxophone, handheld portable devices, gaming systems, and more were all underwater.
There was also the antique chest of drawers handed down to me from my grandparents who came to this country from Italy. The last room was a storage area, of sorts. In this room I kept some of my “extra” books and Bible commentary sets that would not fit on the shelf.
I left them packed in the boxes for safe keeping and even put a dehumidifier to keep the moisture out. Dehumidifiers are not rated for floods. Always read the fine print.
When it came time for the cleanup, thankfully, we had several friends who came to our aid. They offered some great advice and help. This was quite the process. Because everything was soaked, normally heavy books became extremely heavy to say nothing of the stench.
The immediate goal was to get it all outside and pile it in an area in the corner of the lot. A friend’s trailer, which would serve as a dumpster, would be coming soon.
During the cleanup time, both my wife and I checked out emotionally, a coping mechanism. We had to push down the intense pain in order to deal with the immediate problem. We each had our job. I worked in cleanup. She worked in restoration.
She had rescued the clothes from downstairs and the plan was for her to go to the laundromat while I pitched our belongings into the dumpster. She couldn’t handle the sight of throwing our possessions in the trash.
I’m not allowed to do laundry because of my failed attempt to wash her cashmere sweater early in our marriage. So, we each had our duty to do. Now was not the time to mourn. That would come later.
As I stood before the huge, mangled pile of my past, I held a little, reddish, brown book in my hand. Hebrew grammar was one of the most-difficult classes for me in seminary. I spent hours studying every night.
To the chagrin of my wife, I had 3x5 cards of Hebrew vocabulary and conjugated verbs taped all over the walls in my study room. My professor was Dr. Waylon Bailey and we used his textbook in class. I remember spending hours in that grammar book underlining, circling, highlighting, and adding notes.
As I held the waterlogged book in my hand, the memories came in like a flood. Unfortunately, the book could not be saved. Naturally, I could buy the book again, but I would never have the same attachment or notes.
There was nothing that could be done. I looked at the cover, flipped through a couple of pages, and with a heave threw it in the dumpster. I had dozens of books and the same number of untold stories.
The books were a personal loss to me, but not the biggest loss. The wound that cut the deepest was the pictures of our family and personal documents. My wife and I lost many of our wedding photos and pictures of our children growing up. These pictures were taken before the digital age and could not be replaced.
We also lost videos we had taken of the kids, awards, and other memorabilia that we had kept from their growing up years. To say that this was an extremely difficult time in our life would be an understatement.
The great flood taught me several lessons. Interestingly, I can now see some of the beauty that grew up out of the ashes of despair.
First, it reminded me that I cannot do life alone. During that time, I was overwhelmed, but caring friends came to our aid offering their wisdom, time, and resources to assist. I will never forget their kindness. I could not have done it without them.
The second thing that I learned was, although our waterlogged and ruined material possessions ended up in a landfill somewhere, I still have the memories. No one can remove them from my mind. The great flood is one of those landmark events in our family that we talk about from time to time and actually brought us closer.
And finally, I am reminded that things could always be worse. I am very grateful for the marvelous blessings of God. I also realize that there are many people who have suffered tremendous hardship and heartache. My story would be minuscule in comparison to theirs.
So, things could always be worse. Sometimes, it’s the little, gentle reminders of that fact. On that fateful day, when I first looked upon that dreadful scene to see the destruction and mess, I was thankful that the dirty cat box came floating by.
Wayne Geiger is the Pastor of First Baptist Grain Valley, an Adjunct Associate Professor of Speech, and freelance writer.