jizo. a parent opinion by angela elson

First published June 2017, Issue 7 of Lunch Lady.

In the backyard of my house, a small concrete statue of a monk stands praying beneath a bush of coral-colour tea roses. “Who’s that?” guests of barbecues sometimes ask.

“Oh, him? That’s Jizo.” I say.

“What’s with the outfit?”

They’re referring to the sweater and hat I’ve crocheted for the statue out of red yarn. Admittedly, it’s unusual to dress one’s lawn ornaments, but I feel I have good reason: “The clothes are for the baby I lost,” I say.

I was living in Japan in 2005 when I first encountered Jizo, whom I can completely oversimplify by claiming he’s the Buddhist patron saint of babies who are never born. In temples across the nation, these placid figures in knit red caps are lined up like stone choirboys, waiting to accept the toys, snacks and clothes that grieving parents leave in the hope that Jizo will deliver these supplies to their babies in the afterlife. Even then, having not yet lost a child, I thought this was a touching tribute to souls in lieu of bodies.

A decade later, I had a miscarriage at ten weeks. The sadness was terrible and made worse by those famously irrational pregnancy hormones. But even when those started to fade away, I felt this primal need to mother something, to care for the baby who would never be. Having no Western tradition to cling to, I shamelessly appropriated the Japanese one. I adopted a Jizo.

The Jizo statues I’d seen in Japan were often weathered, old and covered in moss. The Jizo I bought from the internet came in a UPS box, which lessened its mystique. But he was sweet for being made of concrete, with a smiling, upturned face above his hands pressed together in prayer. He looked like he was asking for something he wasn’t supposed to have, the way I used to beg my mother for candy.

Jizo and I were almost inseparable for the first few weeks after the miscarriage. He looked on as I crocheted his first set of clothes. We watched TV side by side on the sofa. I sat him on the counter when I cooked dinner, just to keep him close by. Did I really believe he could send messages to the baby in the afterlife? Of course not. Well, maybe. Just in case, I told Jizo to tell the baby that I loved him. And that I missed him. And that I was sorry.

In Japan, Jizo statues are sometimes adopted (often in cases of abortion) to appease the spirit of the unborn. And while the doctors had told me the miscarriage wasn’t my fault, I couldn’t help but feel like if I had rested better, slept more, vacuumed less … if I had quit my job, stayed off my feet, maybe the baby would have stuck around. And maybe I took care of Jizo to atone for this, because how could I even begin to forgive myself when my baby was stranded in the netherworld, waiting every day for a monk to bring snacks and news of my devotion? Did Jizo tell him how sad and sorry I was, how many pieces I was in? And after a while, I started to think: If my baby knew, was he even comforted by this? If he loved me an ounce as much as I loved him, would he delight in seeing me undone?

Maybe with his hands pressed together like that, Jizo was asking me to let the hurt go, to carry the memory of the baby without the pain of remembering.

Eventually, my husband and I planted a garden for Jizo in the yard. This is where he lives now, in full view of the barbecue and the friends who twist their hands when I tell them about the miscarriage as they trip over their words, mumbling apologies.

I understand why they don’t know what to say. It’s because no one talks about miscarriages, or abortions, or stillbirths, or in-vitro procedures that don’t stick or never even get off the ground. No one tells you how or even if you’re allowed to grieve if you find yourself in the grey, ambivalent company of would-be parents. Some people don’t feel the need to honour a pregnancy loss, and that is fine. But that some people don’t feel entitled to mourn someone they loved at any stage, to me, seems like a cultural opportunity to make us all kinder, braver, softer, more open.

So, when people in my yard tell me they’re sorry about my miscarriage, I say, “It’s okay.” And because I’ve found a way to grieve, it is. Maybe it’s silly to dress up a statue, but I was once pregnant with a baby. I cared for him, and I like to care for him still—to pick leaves off the coat of his proxy, to make him new clothes in the spring, to move him around the garden occasionally so that he may feel the sun, and maybe even my love.

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