The first time I saw Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, I was a child, flipping through the pages of a book my mother had. The entire triptych impressed me immediately, but nothing held me captive more than the right panel-Hell. The sinners, the demons, the torture, the fire. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. What Hieronymus Bosch was thinking when he put brush to oak is anyone’s guess. It came from his imagination. From his world. A vision he had. The demons, fighting. Or perhaps he was fighting his demons. Ugly things that he could not shake. Hell is a state of mind, after all. And it’s true, because I’ve been there on again and off again for months. My chest was cracked open to reveal beetles swarming out. My legs, broken off and fed to devilish imps while I watched. Lights flashed in my eyes until my corneas gave out, and vultures came to pick at the empty sockets, reaching in for my brain. Hell is what you see and feel and what you think and what you don’t want to say out loud. I never knew I had such a wild imagination until I lost my baby girl. And then I saw myself in oil hiding in a corner of Bosch’s Earthly Delights, cowering in fear of the world. I’ve been insane, in the mouth of madness, if you will. To a degree, I still am. But this isn’t the kind of thing you can say out loud to anyone in passing. People ask you how your day was, what you did on the weekend. And to them, I feed the lies they’re used to. I don’t tell them how I got a letter in the mail congratulating me on the birth of my child, months after her tiny body was incinerated, and how all the screaming and pounding on the walls could do nothing to put her back in my arms. I don’t talk about the knives and needles piercing my heart when I see the sadness in my husband’s (he father’s) eyes when he remembers his greatest love. I never bring up the conversations that go on in my mind, the voices that tell me I let her down. How I must have killed her. It was me, all me. The torture of this is beyond comprehension. I see it marked on my face, under my eyes, dark circles that hint at a lack of sleep, buried underneath grief.
I have been fighting demons for a while. It is exhausting. It’s why I hide so much. I fear that others will notice what is eating away at me, and I don’t want anyone getting in the way of my pain. It’s something that I need to feel. Often, it feels like the only thing that remains. I play the harp with serpents while watching men fucking pigs and rabid beasts ripping out the tracheas of the most beautiful singers on Earth. I live in the world of Hieronymus Bosch, but I am just about ready to finally leave.
Today, I had a sword with me for battling demons. A strength that only comes from conquering fears. If I told you in a more mundane manner, I could just say that yes, I had a doctor’s appointment with a perinatal specialist and that everything went smoothly. But it’s not just that, really. Every day, I come up with a new ailment for myself. I’ve spent several weeks convinced that my heart was failing. I could feel my heart beat race, my left arm go numb, my palms get sweaty. Other times, I am convinced my lungs no longer work. I visualize them rotting away inside of me, chunks of them falling off or in to themselves, creating gigantic holes that account for my inability to take a deep breath. I picture tumors inside my body, a cancer growing and consuming me entirely. And when I eat, I think I might just choke and die at any second. I drive and am sure someone will soon smash in to me, crippling my legs until I bleed out in a fire. It’s like that. My mind, a hell of Hieronymus Bosch proportions.
But there are things that bring me back. Love, for one. There is love still in my heart and in my life. I feel love every day of my life, even when I’m in the thick of panic and anxiety and desperation. John, my husband, keeps me grounded in reality when I really need it. I often think he fears for my sanity and I am sure he has reason for concern, but I am also equally sure that I will never really fall off the deep end any more than this painting will come to life. What was eating away at this man who imagined such things that someone else would be obsessing over centuries later? Perhaps it wasn’t so deep.
But like I said, I am getting stronger and my fighting techniques are getting better. And love, love, love. From so many who care, who know me, who know us, who even knew Maggie if only for a brief while during which I still carried her with me. I like to think if I had gotten a chance to raise her, she would not want to see me this way. So I struggle to make things better, to crawl out from under the bizarre demon world and back to the garden where I belong. Because I am not a bad person. I did not do anything to purposefully harm my child. I did not kill my daughter. The mantra I must repeat over and over again in order to stave off that demon bird swallowing a man whole and all those sinking ships. And going back to the reality of things- I went to see a perinatal specialist and I paid him $55 for a little piece of mind. Some explanation that would make Maggie’s death a bit clearer. Mainly, that it was not my fault. That I did what I could for my daughter. That I never truly wanted this to happen. How I would take it all back again and remain in hell if only she could get to grow up with her daddy. A love that will never end.
I fought those demons today. I told my mind to shut up and leave me alone. I write from a place of darkness that I know will eventually find sunlight again. My appointment was in the same hospital where I watched my grandmother suffer and die over several weeks. There used to be a fountain outside the building, but it’s been paved over and nothing has replaced the space where it once resided. It was there that my father and I sat, staring at the sky, the stars, asking them why they would taker her away from us. Her doctors told us that night that there was nothing left to do but wait. It would likely happen mid-day the following day. Go home and sleep. And we got a call at 5am and she was gone. Amongst the stars. Away from Hell.
I learned about death in that hospital. And today, I learned about it again. About the lack of rhyme or reason to any of it. How we can take precautions, but they don’t always work. But that all you can do is try and hope for the best. I cried when I heard another woman on a fetal heart machine. It reminded me of Maggie’s own little beat. But I fought my way in to the doctor’s office, covered in my armor, shirked off memories of my Mama Adilia, set aside my pain, and dealt with life. I fought demons so that I could live. It’s what we all do in our own way. Do not leave me on the edge of this blade, to be cut in two like a sacrificial lamb. I tell myself this. Dig yourself out, I say. Why do you let yourself drown so much? Don’t you see you might not have enough air in your lungs to get back to the surface? But then my husband holds my hand. My mother and my father tell me they’re proud of me. My friends make a joke and we laugh. Someone tells me they enjoyed something I wrote. My nieces call me Tia and make goofy faces. My brother and sister in law remind me that I will heal as so many others have. The right song comes on the radio. The sun sets behind the most beautiful assembly of clouds. I put my sword down because I don’t see the demons. I know they will be back. I can see them from the corners of my eyes, hiding behind shelves and underneath beds and always slightly out of reach. But I don’t care. I fought demons today, and tomorrow I will be ready for more. And some day, I won’t have to fight so hard. My mind will stop playing tricks. My pain will slowly subside. The blade will collect rust because my arms will be heavy with the love I still have, what remains.