Iris Rising

Iris grimaces and debates another day in bed dreaming of flightless birds, mainly penguins and ostriches. Why, after all, should she get up? She says it aloud to Roger Now: “I can’t.” But then she remembers a dentist appointment in three hours. There’ll be a penalty if she cancels this late. Isn’t that a reason?

At the office, the receptionist says she’ll be seeing Dr. Attar. Dr. Who? What happened to Dr. Killay? Didn’t Iris get the notice? Maybe she did; she can’t remember. Mail piles up these days.

Well, the receptionist says. Dr. Killay died four months ago.

 That is just the very thing that makes it hardest to be alive, Iris wants to say. Death. Instead she knits her lips, sits in the waiting room and reflects on Dr. Killay. She didn’t particularly like him, but after a dozen years, she’d gotten used to him. He was a bit like a toothbrush himself. Familiar. Serviceable. Tall and thin, with a rash of gray stubbles on his scalp. And by the end, less bristly. He’d finally accepted that she didn’t want the constant X-rays.

 The replacement, it turns out, is short, with a belly, chatty and with a guttural accent. Dr. Attar does not hire hygienists; he insists on doing all cleanings himself. Where did you come from? She wonders but doesn’t have to ask because he quickly tells her: from Syria, some small city close to the capital. Maybe it’s a suburb, she thinks, though she’s not sure Syria has those. He left a long time ago.

 “Things were always bad there,” he says. He shoves a tiny mirror against the inside of her left cheek, stretching it. She sees her reflection distorted in the shiny surfaces of the dental equipment that dangles above and around her. She smells the rubber of his gloves as he dives in, wielding that silver pick like a spear. She thinks longingly of the soft-spoken, pillow-breasted hygienist who worked for the previous, now-dead dentist.

 As he works, he tells her about a bus trip in Damascus when he was a boy. The driver changed the regular route, apparently under orders to take all passengers past the central square. Out the window, he saw a body swinging from the gallows, though he was so young he didn’t even know that word then. Gahhh-lows, he says. Then he tells her the word in Arabic, which sounds something like “messy” but with more syllables.

 “His mouth hung open. His neck was at an awful angle,” the dentist says as he scrapes her teeth. “His body twirled slightly and his pointed toes were touching like he was a dancer. So delicate, amid that violence.” She leans forward in the chair, riveted by his words. He catches her direct gaze and surprise washes his face. She wonders if she should blink twice for yes to show that yes of course she is listening. “Sit back,” he says, and then he’s already staring again into her mouth, talking as if to her gums. He learned later, he says, that the man was an accused spy. Still, he says, letting the word dangle. Stilllll. He scrapes in silence a moment and then adds, “that Assad family always was barbaric. I think maybe you should see a periodontist. Do you floss?”

When she gets home, she e gazes longingly at her bed but instead she goes on the computer in what used to be Roger’s office. She studies photographs and then videos, searching the squares of Damascus. Her father was a wire service editor who taught her to look beneath headlines. Now she thinks if she can find a picture that shows the suspended body, the passing bus, a boyish face pressed against a window, then she will understand something. Something, perhaps, about why the boy grew up to become immersed in sterile instruments.

About how survivors on moving vehicles are changed by death.

About how to go on.

 She stumbles upon a 15-second video of a young Syrian in his mid-twenties feeding a bird from his tongue. Sitting on a couch, he uses a kitchen knife to cut off tiny bits of a peach, chews once or twice, then sticks out his tongue, offering the morsel to the bird on his arm. The bird eats. The young man watches with a tender, amused expression. Like the Syrian dentist, he has nice teeth.

The video, she discovers after watching it twice, has been posted in memoriam; the young man is dead, has been for nine months, killed by a barrel bomb dropped on Aleppo.

M-e-m-o-r-y, 13 Scrabble points excluding any bonus squares. Iris’s mother taught her Scrabble and now, every time Iris adds a word’s points, she knows she’s invoking the comfort of childhood.

Memory, in fact, was one of her mother’s favorite Scrabble words, which later proved to be ironic. Her mother said she loved the way it sounded, reserved and formal yet dense with human longing.


Her son swings by to give her a lift to the Milagro soup kitchen. He’s been pestering her to volunteer like Roger used to, says it’s good for her. She resisted—this was Roger’s thing—and then finally, weary, relented. One time. Josh wants to drive her there himself. To prevent her from changing her mind and crawling back into bed; she knows that, though it’s left unsaid. He brings apple cider and crunchy carrots from the downtown farmers’ market, so first they sit at the wooden table and eat and drink as the light from a pale winter sun beckons at the kitchen window. Josh: a born food genius. Apple cider and farm-fresh carrots taste surprisingly good together.

She still likes to tell stories to her children Josh and Cecily, even though they are 36 and 39. So while they eat, she tells him, her baby, about the old dentist and the new one, the young Syrian man and the bird, the memorializing of war dead on a YouTube video.

“Mom,” he says. He shakes his head as if something is very wrong and says “Mom” again. He looks into his cider for a minute and then strokes one finger against the wood grain as if comforting the table.

She’s not sure what problem requires “Mom” twice but she waits. She knows that look.

“You need to get out more,” he says at last. “We could do something together. Something fun.”

But he still hasn’t identified the problem. So how can she know if this unspecified outing would be the solution?

“Mom, you know what the problem is,” Josh says as they walk to the car. “It’s been fourteen months. I know there’s no sell-by date on mourning but this isn’t healthy, you getting excited about tragic stories. You have to stop spending this much time alone. Disconnected. Fretting.”

Fretting?” What an old-fashioned word to hear from the mouth of her son, who she’s always considered a modern child.

Josh starts the engine. “Ceci and I, we’re worried. We don’t think investing so much energy in these distant stories is helping you heal.”

“It doesn’t feel like a distant story,” she says. “It feels like my story.”

“A long-ago hanging in Damascus?”

 “All of ours,” she says firmly. “That hanging led to the barrel bomb, one way or another. To go through what humanity goes through, to lose one’s life or barely survive, and then to be unmentioned? Unconsidered? That’s erasure, and that’s wrong. Besides, I’ve always followed international news, since childhood.”

He pulls onto the road. “I know, Mom. I grew up in your house, remember? But you also used to be fun. You cooked dinner for friends and kicked off your shoes and shimmied around the kitchen table. Now you’re alone a lot, gorging on heartbreak in faraway places.”

“We live in terrible times,” she says. “The world has gone mad. We can’t just retreat. That boy, with that bird, his eyes all shiny like yours are now. Honey. We need to be outraged. Write letters to the members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Give money. Demonstrate. If anything, this is proof that I’m not disconnected.”

Josh shakes his head. “Is the New York apartment rented? You could go there for a few days?”

Iris shakes her head. It’s rented, and besides, she doesn’t want to go there.

“How about we go somewhere, then?” Josh suggests. “A long weekend? Somewhere with ocean?”

How, she wonders, is that a solution?

“There’s joy and beauty out there too.”

“Leaving home takes time,” she says. “Careful preparation. Besides, the saguaro out front has started groaning. I don’t want to abandon it.”

“Saguaro?” He sighs. “Florida, maybe. You’ll feel better afterwards.”

“I feel fine.”

“Then do it for me. God knows I need a break.”

That’s true. Managing Milagro has become a stressful, consuming job, especially with two cooks and the volunteer coordinator out right now. But she doubts she’d be good company at the moment. She doesn’t like “vacations” these days—she doesn’t even exactly understand them anymore. Winter visitors think Tucson has only two seasons, warm and hellish hot, but they’re wrong; all four exist—maybe even five if one divides summer as it should be, between heat that strips the flesh and that, 15 degrees higher, which bleaches bones—and she loves the one they’re in now, right before the monsoons begin. The sweet crispness of the morning air, the crackling, bitter scent of noon heat, the way the stars skim the top of her head at night.

Besides, she’s been forced to acknowledge how quickly and irretrievably life changes. That has made her grow fonder than she ever was of routine: the predictable way light sprinkles into Roger’s office through a bit of filigree at the window, the contours of her own bed, knowing the details of her neighbors’ faces. A starchy hotel room and a sandy beach in a state that boasts Disney World holds no appeal.

“Maybe,” she says, though she really means no. She aims to change the subject. “How’s my granddaughter?”

It pains her to see Josh’s eyes cloud. He is her easy-going child. “Mellow Fellow,” the pediatrician used to call him. He is gentle, avoids conflict. “She’s good. You’ll see her next weekend,” Josh says. At a stoplight, he turns his head away from her to look out the window.

“As long as I can see Carrie, we don’t need to go to Florida.” Iris laughs, trying to tease out an answering chuckle, but he doesn’t comply.

 “Nothing about this is funny, Mom.”

 She reaches over to squeeze his arm. “Vacation. That will make you happy?” She punches him lightly, playfully, in the shoulder. “Okay,” she says finally, drawing out the last syllable. “Probably,” she adds after a moment.

As the light changes and they pull forward, she feels Roger Now kick her ankle and whisper—“Don’t be a wimp!”—even though her second husband, like her first husband and her old dentist and the young man with the peach, is dead


Iris is 71 but she’s still breathing. Things hurt sometimes but they still move. She still lives on her own; she’s still a Scrabble-playing glassblower, a mom, a retired journalist and museum employee; she’s her essential self. But she’s also a widow now, twice over if you count ex-husbands. And the biggest change of the last few months is the lack of a straight narrative flow. Wouldn’t that be nice? A happens, and then B, leading naturally to C. Beginnings. Endings. No aimless detours, stuttering repeats or sudden U-turns. A storyline one could count on. It would be logical, and kind.

These days, the rational storyline has vanished. There’s more tangling of time, more coitus between day and night, more finished moments punching through to intrude upon those still emerging, so that over-and-done has lost its meaning. Tangents shoot off, like sun rays. Memories are no longer simply memories. Sometimes they lie beyond language; other times they are three-dimensional events with real-time consequences. She misses her previous life. The new way is startling and sometimes confusing, even to her.

But also, she secretly thinks, interesting and a little beautiful. She’s become a living, layered palimpsest, old writing visible beneath the new, nostalgia given shape and form.

She considers, then rejects, the idea of pointing out to Josh that the word “dead” is loaded with false assumptions. Just look at the definitions: no longer active, no longer in use, incapable of being stirred. Obviously, lots of people thought to be “dead” by this measure were not actually, if you reflected on it.

Sometimes Roger—Roger Now as she thinks of him—pops up beside her. She sees him, or maybe feels or hears him. She doesn’t really understand how or why, but suddenly there he is: her estate-planning, ukele-playing second husband, still so logical, so romantic, so much himself. Sometimes he’s dancing. Occasionally he sings aloud to her from across a room.

This can be tricky to explain.

Strictly speaking, his presence confuses the accepted chronology. Throws off the plot. And everyone acknowledges the importance of plot. Nevertheless. It’s not like she has a choice, but if she did, she would choose including Roger Now in her days.


One moment knocked out of time and shoved onto some internal rerun reel, one long, scrunched-up moment from fourteen months ago, from eight months ago, five and a half months ago, four months ago, a month ago, yesterday and this morning: Iris, sitting in the waiting room. Iris, married, with nothing more than the usual married problems, with a more straightforward understanding of the world. Iris, a few bending corridors away from Roger, prepared to go see him in recovery. Her children Josh and Cecily know she is at the hospital but they’re not with her; it’s not only Iris who is unconcerned; no one is concerned. A simple surgery known by its acronym, UPPP, one night in ICU “that is probably overkill,” Roger says the surgeon told him in that odd phraseology. Then home the next morning. Swish, swoosh, that’s that. A matter of interest, certainly, but not of disquiet.

Which seems ridiculous in hindsight. As many things do.

In the corner sits a man with his dark-haired daughter, maybe five years old. She is sprawled on the floor, bent over a coloring book, a box of crayons spilled open beside her—a bit of optimistic color in a room vibrating with the somber quiet of padded leather chairs and blue-grey carpeting. Iris holds a magazine, “Glass Arts Quarterly,” on her lap.

Into this moment the surgeon enters and Iris rises, dropping the magazine onto the table in front of her, and he says her name—“Iris”—and already she knows that’s not good because he doesn’t know her well enough to call her by her first name in that tone of false intimacy; he is Roger’s surgeon, not hers, Roger liked him but she has no opinion, and they’ve only met once before. “What?” she wants to scream. “What the hell?”

But she doesn’t. She tries to remember his name—is it Macrae?—and she tells herself it’s her imagination. She stands there and stares at him, her breath stuck in her throat, refusing to open her mouth, refusing to let this moment go forward. Preferring to stay in a time when she can tell herself she is crazy, on-edge, wrong to worry.

“Why don’t you sit down?” he suggests. His eyes look as if they are cowering. She stiffens her legs and consciously tries to make her own eyes into swords aimed at him. After it becomes clear she will not sit, he takes her elbows into his hands and holds them as if he were holding a platter crowded with soup bowls that he needs to keep level. Somewhere in the back of her mind she’s aware of the father scooping up the little girl—“Let’s go get ice cream”—leaving behind the crayons on the floor. Even he knows the news is not good.

“Things…” the surgeon clears his throat. “I’m so sorry. Things, Iris, went poorly.”

 “What do you mean?”

 “We lost him.”

 “What. Do. You. Mean.”

The surgeon speaks in a rush then, as if blowing up a balloon, trying to force all information into a single burst of air, as if he is pronouncing everything as one word, and she has to concentrate to make sense of what he says. “It was going well, and we were removing the tonsils and he seemed fine, but then there was a flare-up, a fear of exsanguination…”


 “I’m sorry. What I mean is an errant carotid artery was in contact with the tonsil—”


   “And it got nicked and as we tried to control that—”


“Maybe a couple seconds later he had a cardiac event, and we did everything we could, but we couldn’t control it, 0ne thing piling on another, I’m sorry.

 “Piling?” Is she saying these words aloud in a voice drained of color, or just thinking them in her black-and-white brain? “No,” she says. “No. This was for sleep apnea.” She repeats those words again, as if explaining to a child, adding, “elective surgery.”

The surgeon sits on the table next to “Glass Arts Quarterly.” She remains standing, looking down as he pulls a black Sharpie pen from his pocket and begins to draw on the leg of his scrubs: the oval of an open mouth and what must be meant as tonsils. This clothing-graffiti startles her so much she loses track of his words for a bit. “Palate,” she hears. And then “anesthesia.” She is hypnotized by the sight of him jabbing at his own thigh, defacing his pants with thick marks. Then he sighs and says, “it’s rare, so rare, but…” He trails off and asks, almost shyly, “He was 74, wasn’t he?”

Five simple words, but they ignite unexpected fury within Iris, and she says, “no, no, no,” which has nothing to do with Roger’s age because, yes, he was 74. “Very virile,” she says, not quite believing she’s saying that, so she adds, “And musical. Mathematical. Hawaiian. Virile.”

V-i-r-i-l-e. Her mind slips into Scrabble, trying to prevent a freefall and connect her to her mother. Nine points, the V the only valuable letter of the bunch, though not so fortunate to pull onto your rack at endgame.

And then she stitches her lips shut and the surgeon wins: She has to sit down. Later, she will be grateful for the fury because, for a bit, it blots out the details she can’t yet bear to hear. But at the moment, all she feels is how deeply she hates him and how much she wants him out of her sight because what lie is he telling her? Why did Roger trust him? What did he do wrong?

Then he does leave, and a burst of activity, color, and voices combines with an unfathomable stillness. A nurse shoves herself into the physical space the doctor has vacated and leads Iris down a blank, mindless corridor echoing with whispered words: “He didn’t make it.” (Make what? He doesn’t need to make anything. Iris is the one who makes, who turns liquid glass into solid form.)

She’s in a room, the room. There he is, Roger, but there he isn’t. There’s a dense, quiet space around him but a blur of movement too as aides pull equipment from the room that must be needed elsewhere. A sense of the eternal colliding with the transient.

“I’m so sorry. Maybe you want to say goodbye?”

“If I could still say that, he’d be alive, wouldn’t he?” Iris asks, and the nurse shoots her a reproachful look, as if she’s been rude. The moment feels like the downward swoop on a carnival ride, with her stomach rising to meet her throat. She has an almost uncontrollable urge to spit, though she doesn’t know where that impulse comes from, or why. She tames it by speaking to Roger and then she is led away and there is someone else, some hospital official with a potato-shaped body talking about the unpredictability of life, and another nurse with black-framed glasses about what a nice man he seemed, and someone standing too close, patting her arm, and then a jumble: both a heightened consciousness of life’s layers in this exact moment, and equally its opposite, a blurry light-speed voyage back in time, to this morning, to last week, to first meeting Roger. Then Josh is by her side magically (how did he know?) holding a see-through plastic bag of belongings with a drawstring. There’s a drive home, where Cecily pulls her close as if she were the child, and then Iris is sitting with her kids at the kitchen table where, just before dawn, Roger sat remembering the last time they had sex in the water. Could that be right? She is in his chair, a cup of tea and remorse before her.

Because she should never have slipped away to the couch, not for a single night, because that hurt his feelings. Because she should have debunked the diagnosis of a sound-sensitivity disease or anything that legitimized her reaction to snoring—Roger’s snoring and her first husband Jack’s before that. Because she should have found a way to live with the sleep apnea machine and all its nighttime noises. Because she should have insisted that she be the one to change, to adjust, and then tried again, tried harder. Because she should have fully released all past grudges. Because when he said that after the surgery it would be all right, better than all right, she let him say that even though she wasn’t sure, even though she should have insisted on speaking personally to the surgeon, but she was never much of an insister with Roger, though she should have been, because this, as it turned out, was a fatal flaw.

Fatal for Roger.

She couldn’t handle his snoring, but she loved him. Should she have loved him harder so he could stay alive? Or is love ultimately futile when it comes to operating rooms?

Do you really think you can save him? Are you trying as hard as you can?

Now she’s lost that shiny ribbon of easy expectancy. She’s moved on, alone, to the front of the family line. Her convivial grandparents gone. Aunts and uncles who could advise in a pinch, gone. Complicated parents. Both husbands. Gone. No cushion exists between her and accountability. She alone must shoulder the job of making sure everything goes the way it’s supposed to, no one gets hurt, money stays in the bank, leaks get fixed, the Syrian young man and his bird are acknowledged, she has milk in the house, her kids stay happy more-or-less. She’s the new Director of Figuring It Out, Chief Problem Solver at Complex Moments, and Captain of Keeping It All Running. The lonely lioness.

Too big a job under the best of circumstances, but how can she manage it when she’s still thinking about Roger? When her timeline is so confused? As a child, she spent weeks wearing a cape that came from a Halloween costume. Sleeping in it, often. She jumped from chairs and stairs and retaining walls, over and over, and imagined she could fly. She thinks she did fly once, for a moment, when she was seven, but she could never convince her parents. Nevertheless she believed, back in the days when her years were in single digits, that she was actually a secret superhero in disguise who would one day emerge to save people from fires, falls, crumbling buildings after earthquakes.

When she grew up, she learned the truth: that problem-solving was never her strength. Sometimes not even problem-spotting. “You don’t have the best judgment, dear,” her mother used to say, kindly enough, but regularly.

She knows she still doesn’t.


Roger Now doesn’t appear to have come with Iris to the grocery store. She’s glad he’s not dead in that inert, static fashion that she used to think death happened. But it’s also true that, even though she’s nicknamed him Roger Now, he’s not exactly her “now” now, either.

A new insight, a piece of news, a joke. That would be great to share. A bit of light chatter, or even a well-tread argument over how far they’ve parked from the entrance, anything to break through the silence of saguaros blooming and roadrunners’ eggs cracking open in the prickly pear out back while she reads a story on her laptop.

Weaving down an aisle with hot sauce and spices and mustards, she realizes how bone-tired she feels in this land of artificially cold temperatures and oversized silver carts, so removed from food, from life. The piped-in music is creepy. The air smells canned. The dim fluorescent hue is the kind of lighting under which people decide to hang themselves. Not that she ever would; she’s not her father. Whenever she thinks she can’t go on, she can’t see what not-going-on would look like. So she goes to the grocery store.

But it’s unsettling to be in a place where she has no shadow.

In the checkout line in front of her stands a man in a light blue button-down shirt, a thick bomber jacket and khaki pants. He’s about 35. As he puts his groceries on the conveyer belt—milk, granola, hummus, a bag of baby carrots—she gets a glimpse of his profile. He looks responsible—she can imagine him balancing a checkbook. And friendly, with crinkly eyes. He probably has a niece who adores him, who he pushes for hours on the swings.

He angles toward the cashier, his back to her now. Without thinking about it, she leans forward. She almost presses her forehead against his back.

Even as she prevents contact, she considers it. A small break, a breath or two. Something to hold her up just as she fears she might collapse from weariness.

She longs for it.

They are waiting for the cashier anyway, so it wouldn’t slow anyone down or cause an inconvenience. What would it hurt? Who would it bother? A time-out and then everyone can continue about their business. She hasn’t leaned against anyone in months.

It’s his turn. He moves forward, and Iris moves with him. “Hi,” he says to the cashier. He has a nice voice, with a low timbre, the voice of someone with whom she could imagine exchanging friendly greetings, if not engaging in full-scale discussions. She suspects he’s the kind of person who, upon discovering milk on the shelf past its sell-date, takes the time to bring it up to the counter so no one else buys it.

Really, just the briefest of breathers would be enough. The slightest sense of the physical support of another. No words need be exchanged. In fact, silence would be preferable.

Would he be offended? Could she be charged with something? What would it be? Improper temporary resting behavior? Public violation of space?

J-e-z-e-b-e-l. Seventy-five points, including the 50-point bonus for using all the tiles.

“That’s funny,” Roger Now says. He’s arrived in the grocery store, it seems. His voice is light, though she knows he is grieving for her grief. “Come on, Iris, that is funny. Here’s your license to laugh.”

She ignores him. She’s busy trying to figure it out. Which would be the biggest burden: to deny herself a moment of respite, or to have to face the judge in some courtroom overburdened with wood paneling and benches?Or maybe—it’s quite possible—he would understand, this young man in leather and khaki. The state of the world is frightening. The need for human connection is primal.

She sucks in her breath. She tips forward and very carefully sets her forehead against his shoulder. Time slows down. At first he does nothing and she leans in a shade more. Then she feels him stiffen—she feels this through her forehead, as if it has developed the sensitivity of a guitarist’s fingertips. He doesn’t jerk, though. Neither does he speak. She feels him turn slowly, delicately, and she likes him even more for that. Her heart fills. She feels him glance over his shoulder at her. Each movement deliberate, the way you might behave if a bee landed on your belly. Stay calm. Don’t swat. Avoid a sting.

“Lady?” he says. Then again, less as a question though he still sounds puzzled. “Lady.”

 “Oh, oh,” she says into his sleeve. She lifts her head. “I’m sorry. I just…”

 He laughs gently. He pats the top of her shoulder. “It’s okay. I already have a girlfriend, though.”

“Oh, I didn’t—” she begins sincerely, and then the cashier makes a snorting sound and Iris realizes the man in the blue shirt is, of course, joking. She has forgotten how to laugh. “Sorry,” she repeats.

“No problem.” His voice is kind. “You feeling okay?”

She nods, wordless. He looks at her a moment longer and then returns to his business. Iris watches him pull his wallet out of his back right pocket. She watches him exchange a glance with the cashier. She watches him pay. He takes his bagged groceries and begins to leave. At the last minute, he turns to her. “Take care, lady,” he says.

And now in front of her, there is only a bubble of air. And off to the left-hand side is the cashier, looking at her curiously.

“Well,” says Roger Now. “Well, well.”

Unnecessarily, she pushes her groceries toward the cashier, impatient for the conveyor belt to kick into action. She doesn’t reply to her husband, but there’s an admission between them. Just three words echoing inside, an acknowledgement of the worries of her kids.

Alone. Disconnected. Fretting. 

Photography Credit: Jason Rice

Masha Hamilton is the author of five published and award-winning novels and the founder of two international literary nonprofits. She worked in Kabul, Afghanistan from 2012-2013 as Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy for the US Embassy, and in 2014-2015 as VP of Communications for Concern Worldwide, an NGO focused mainly on Africa. Her novels have been published in half a dozen languages and optioned for film.