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Saturday, October 19, 2013

The White Iris Story

Photo by poet Charles Fishman 

My Facebook friend, the poet Charles Fishman, has posted several photographs of white irises on Facebook this fall.

Every time he posts one, I think of the white iris story.

It happened in 1995, a bit less than a year after my father died.

My father and I were not close.

I was an abused kid, and I was not wanted.


I had gotten accepted to graduate school at UC Berkeley. After a lifetime of feeling the worthless outsider, I felt I had finally found my niche. I took the GREs – the graduate record examination – and scored in the 97th percentile. Before that I had really thought I was mentally retarded. I'm not; I'm dyslexic. But when you are an abused kid and everyone around you tells you how stupid you are because you are slow to learn to read and write, and reading and writing remain hard for you, you believe "you're stupid / slow / special / different / worthless."

My sister threw a party for my mother's birthday and invited everyone in our family. I was told to come on a given day. I didn't own a car. I arranged a ride. I got all dressed up. I was feeling a bit awkward, as I always do when I am attempting to wear fancy clothes. I was excited to see cousins and relatives I hadn't seen in years. I was honored finally to be invited to my sister's house. I got out of my friend's car and began to walk up her driveway. Her husband stepped out of his front door, walked toward me and said, "Ha, ha, ha. The party was yesterday."

My friend drove me to my mother's house. She was still partying with her sister, who was still in town. I walked into the house, looked at my mother and screamed, "How could you do that to me?"

I saw my father in his favorite, comfortable chair. He was reading the newspaper. There was no way he would have been in on the trick. He didn't have that kind of malice. Had he known, though, I'm not at all sure he would have stopped it.

That's the last time I saw him alive.


Just telling that part of the story, the part I just told, above, cost me more emotional pain than I want to feel in a single day.

To continue.


I went off to grad school. Got my MA at UC Berkeley. Moved on to IU Bloomington, Indiana, to get my PhD.

My sister phoned my first semester there. She told me that my father was dying, but that I should not return, because no one wanted me around.

The professor I was working for also did not want me to leave. She said that she was about to host an academic conference. She said she needed me to type up the program. She said if I left she'd make me regret it.

I did leave. My father died just as my train was pulling into Penn Station. No one did want me around. My aunt encouraged my mother to beat me at the funeral. I stayed to watch my father interned in the same plot as my brother Phil. Then I left.

My boss did harass me upon my return to Indiana University. Deans on campus asked me to testify against my boss. They labeled my boss "a sociopath" and felt that I would be the best person to put up against her.

In the middle of my testimony against the miscreant professor, my ear began making odd noises, and I began vomiting uncontrollably. I didn't realize it at the time, but my inner ear had burst, perhaps from the stress.

I would spend the next six years chronically ill, lose my life savings, and go deaf in one ear. I have since been operated on in a pro bono surgery by Dr. Richard T Miyamoto, thanks to the intervention of State Senator Vi Simpson's legislative aid, Rick Gudal. At the time, though, all I knew was that I could not stop vomiting, and I was having trouble staying upright


I was renting a room in a house. My landlady's stuff was in most of the house; my stuff was in my room. We shared common areas: living room, kitchen, and a landline phone.

One day I felt the vertigo coming on, and I lay down on a couch.
Suddenly I saw complete and total blackness. It wasn't the normal thing one sees when one closes one's eyes: streaks of grey and black, blobs and floaters. It was complete blackness.

From this blackness, my father approached me. I could see his entire form walking toward me.

I saw my arm reaching forward into the blackness, toward my father.

I was about to hand him something. I could see it vividly. It appeared in my vision without anything else: a translucent, ghostly white iris on a completely black background. This image was so stark and powerful it shook me. I handed my father the iris, he disappeared, the waking "dream" ended.

I was very confused. I'm more of a wildflower person, than an aficionado of garden flowers. I associated no garden flowers with my father. I could associate no significant mythology with irises. There were no personal stories attached; no memories; nothing. Yet the image itself was so powerful -- the white of the iris so striking, and the background so relentlessly featureless and black, I couldn't release it.

I called my friend and rabbi, Laurence Skopitz in Rochester, NY. (I'm Catholic, but my Rabbi was a Jew). I asked him: "Do you know of any mythology connected with white irises?"

"No," he said.

Okay, I thought, I'll just forget it.

Then, a couple of weeks later, on a Sunday afternoon, Rabbi Skopitz called me. I picked up the phone, said "Hi," and walked into the living room to sit down. My landlady had left a book on the coffee table.

My Rabbi asked, "Have you figured out what that dream meant?"

At that very moment, I opened up the picture book my landlady had left on the coffee table. I opened to a page that was identical to the vision: a translucent, ghostly white iris on a totally black background. The caption said, "The name of this flower is 'immortality.'"

I gasped.

My Rabbi said, "What? What?"


Now, I know what you're thinking -- I had seen this photo, this book, before, and just forgotten it. Sorry -- I'm a PhD and published scholar – I obsessively remember where I see things, pages, books, authors, publishers, so I can exploit them later in my research and writing.

This story is beyond an explanation, for me.
I told this story online back in 1998. One online reader immediately posted, "You're not done yet. Research the folk meaning of the iris."

I went to the Monroe County Public Library and I found a couple of books about flowers and folklore.

One book said, "The iris was the messenger between the living and the dead, especially in those situations where the love was difficult to communicate."

1 comment:

  1. One book said, "The iris was the messenger between the living and the dead, especially in those situations where the love was difficult to communicate."