Some journeys are emotional, some literal, some a mixture of both. Last summer, Will and I took a trip to Japan with his parents. It was a culturally rich, stimulating trip, but it was a journey colored by loss.
A few weeks before we left, we found out we had had a missed miscarriage at 7 weeks. Our second missed miscarriage in six months.
As we arrived in Japan, I had just stopped bleeding from the D&C. The loss was still fresh, and I felt vaguely empty and distracted, ambivalent about traveling, but thinking we shouldn't cancel the trip either.
What we found when we arrived was that Japan has space in its culture to acknowledge pregnancy loss in ways that don't exist in the United States. In English, there is no word for a miscarried baby. There are no culturally accepted ways to mourn, and in fact, very few people knew that I had been pregnant or had lost another pregnancy. We deeply felt our losses, but we didn't know how to mark them. How to honor these lives that had been. And we did not know how to move on.
"Mizuko" is the Japanese word for a miscarried baby. It translates to "water child" because in Japanese Buddhism it is believed that the soul flows slowly into a child, the child becoming more solid as they age. In this way the mizuko is somewhere on the spectrum between being and nonbeing, neither a full person nor a nonperson. I loved this conceptualization. It seemed to fit perfectly with our experience of these betwixt and between lives. These losses that were so real but also felt vague and undefined.
You can make an offering to Jizo, a Bodhisattva who will help your mizuko find a second way into being, helping it to either return to you in the form of another baby, or to find another family. There are Jizo statues all over Japan, often adorned with bright red bibs and bonnets, which are made and given as offerings. We had read in a Peggy Orenstein essay about her miscarriage in Japan that we could also leave toys with a Jizo to help our two lost babies find a way back into being. So amid our other sightseeing, we detoured to a toy store and bought small gifts. We found a Jizo statue near the main palace in Tokyo and laid two toys out awkwardly in front of it. It felt slightly alien, but good to do something tangible to acknowledge these pregnancies. It felt like a step toward moving on.
So we tied our offering to this tree, a prayerful wish that we would conceive a healthy child. The custom is that when our wish is granted we should return to the tree and find and untie the paper.
I am a person who struggles to have faith, to believe that things will work out. But somehow, this trip, which I had been so ambivalent about, felt meant to be.
It felt significant that we found ourselves in this particular country just after losing our second pregnancy in six months. A country where there is a word for a miscarried baby and rituals to help that baby find its new home. That we found this tree to leave our request that we be blessed with a child who could live.
Unfortunately, not long after returning home, we learned that we had become pregnant a third time and were miscarrying yet again. But it is comforting to think that our written wish is maybe still there, sunstreaked, dampened. Perhaps if we are lucky, we will need to return to Japan next year, or the year after that, to find the note twisted onto the tree branch and remove it because our wish has been fulfilled.
Today we welcome the New Year.
We wait. We continue to hope.