I’m Sorry You Couldn’t Stay

I didn’t know what to expect as I climbed the ancient, mossy stone stairs to the shrine. It was an overcast day, and almost no one else was visiting the temple. The gardens on the first level of the grounds were in full bloom, glowing serenely in the soft light as we walked through them.

As I reached the top of the steps, the impact of seeing layer upon layer of Jizo statues packed into a small area was overwhelming. We had the space to ourselves, and I took some time to absorb the emotion of the place. I lit a candle for our two little ones, and allowed myself to sit with the grief I felt over their loss.

In the Japanese Buddhist tradition, Jizo is the bodhisattva (an incarnation of Buddha) charged with caring for the souls of children lost to miscarriage or stillbirth. This shrine at Hase-dera in Kamakura, and similar ones across Japan, contain tens of thousands of statues in his image, placed there by families who have suffered these losses.

Unexpectedly, I found myself strongly drawn to this tradition after learning about it from a friend. Within my own culture, I had struggled to find adequate ways to come to terms with my experience of miscarriage and infertility. And so, on this trip to Japan that was very deliberately meant to help us close the door on past disappointments, I found myself at this shrine.

One of the most difficult aspects of the fertility process was the isolation and loneliness I felt. I learned over time that many of my friends had experienced pregnancy loss or fertility challenges. Even so, it was not an easy topic to raise or talk about, even with those closest to me. Spending time in this shrine, surrounded by thousands of these statues, it was clear that I was far from alone.

Later, I learned more about the tradition of Jizo in Japan, and the broader set of beliefs that surround it. A baby that is unborn, whether due to miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion, is a mizuko— a “water child.” This stems from the traditional Buddhist belief that an individual’s spirit is like a liquid, flowing into being gradually and fully solidifying in the world when a child is about seven. Likewise, the spirit begins to flow back out of the body at age sixty. Babies who are not born are caught in limbo between life and death, and on their own cannot find a path to rebirth. Jizo guides the mizuko and leads them to another way into being.

We returned to the shrine two days after our first visit, just before we were to return home and try again to start a family. This time, it was a sunny afternoon, and a large group of tourists had just poured out of a bus. The gardens were still beautiful, but this time they were full of motion and activity. I climbed the stairs again, and immediately felt that the weight of the place had lifted, that the transformation I had hoped for, but not really expected, had occurred. We didn’t linger at the shrine this time. I didn’t need to.

The years that my husband and I spent trying to become parents also felt like being caught between two worlds. We flowed through month after month in cycles of raised hopes and disappointments with no certainty that we would succeed. Although for many years I was ambivalent about becoming a parent, the longer it took to get pregnant, the clearer it became to me that I wanted to be a mother.

We are very fortunate; our story has a happy ending, and we are now parents of a two-year-old daughter. Our experience with infertility, coincidentally, lasted about seven years. It was grueling, but perhaps it was what I needed to solidify into motherhood.