Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Greatest Gift

It didn’t take long to dig through the topsoil and into a layer of gravel followed by a layer of sand.  My father-in-law had the shovel and I held an open red plastic cooler in one hand, like the kind you would fill with ice and a six-pack if you were spending the day out on a boat.  It was hot for June, and the sun shone brightly.  The air was still and quiet, so when flies began to show up and buzz around us, they seemed louder than usual.
As I watched the hole get bigger, I tried to trace the convoluted path through space and time that led me to this particular moment that I found myself sharing with a 65 year old man who had been a stranger to me just a few years prior.  It might have begun when I was a young girl growing up on a farm, where the cycle of life was constantly present in the birth, feeding, milking, and slaughter of dairy cows.  Or it could have been when I met my husband, who to this day tends to nurture and even delight in my more curious decisions instead of gently coaching me away from them.  And vaguely in the background is moving to the Live Free or Die State, where we get to make our own decisions about helmets, seatbelts and kindergarten.  While each of these events may have contributed in their own minor way, there are a few key events that clearly led me to this day.

Several months prior, I had given birth to a baby girl.  There’s really no way to explain the experience, so I’m not even going to try.  Suffice it to say, by the end, I was physically, mentally and emotionally taxed.  Still though, when the doctor offered to show me the placenta, which came out after the baby, I couldn’t resist.  And when she placed a pink plastic tub in front of me, I have to say I was amazed at the large mass inside that glistened blue and black and purple.  To be honest, I swelled with a little bit of pride in the fact that all of the cheese and full-fat yogurt and egg sandwiches I had binged on during my pregnancy had actually turned out a squiggly little baby AND this juicy porterhouse steak sized lump.  So it stung a little when the doctor told me that it would be ‘medically disposed of’ and before I could stop myself, I asked if I could keep it.  After all, I made it, I weakly explained.  

The nurses exchanged a glance.  ‘Oh, she’s one of those,’ they said with their raised eyebrows.  Frankly, I would have thought they had already figured that out.  Between the doula that we had hired and her collections of tinctures and salves and my five page birth plan which we mostly ignored, I thought it would have been no surprise that I asked to keep the placenta, even though it was truly a spontaneous request.  Still though, they complied and soon I was wheeled out of the room, nine pound baby girl on one side and a white plastic tub labelled ‘WHALEN--PLACENTA’ on the other side.  

In hindsight, I hadn’t actually wanted to possess the placenta for any reason.  I think I had felt vulnerable and like I didn’t have control of any part of the whole birth situation.  The baby was in charge, the doctor was in charge, but I was never in charge.  So when I saw the opportunity to make one small decision for myself, I leapt at the chance.  But truthfully, had I been shown the placenta just a few minutes later, after I had begun to gather my wits, I likely would have let it pass.  Instead though, as if becoming a parent wasn’t enough, I had also taken on the burden of managing this lifeless purple organ.  

When we were getting ready to leave the hospital, more than one nurse circled by our room to say ‘Don’t forget to grab your placenta from the fridge before you go!’  When they said the word placenta, they lowered their voices to pretend whispers that actually accentuated the word more than if they had just said it normally.  Thanks to these nurses, there was no opportunity to casually leave it behind like how leftovers get forgotten and shoved to the back of the fridge until someone finally gets fed up and throws everything in the trash.

Naively, I had pictured us leaving the hospital with big smiles on a sunny day, me in a breezy print dress, the baby nuzzled in my husband’s arms as we confidently strode off into the sunset.  Instead, they make you strap the baby into the carseat before you walk out the door so they know you do it right.  And they made me roll out in a wheelchair, carrying the white plastic tub on my lap.  

In the excitement and bustle of arriving home with our new, pink baby girl, the placenta was relegated to the freezer, next to pans of lasagna and half eaten tubs of ice cream.  Several weeks later, after the dust of adding a new family member had settled, I realized I needed to figure out what to do with it.  Unless you have been in this situation, you probably have never considered how complicated it really is.  Oddly, I struggled to decide whether the placenta was something I should dispose of immediately and never speak of again, or if it was something I should cherish and try to do something special with.

I will review each option separately.  The easiest option would be to get rid of it.  However, this is more difficult that you might think.  I didn’t really like the idea of just schlupping it into our trash cans and then waiting for a month or more until we made it to the dump.  Nor did I care for the idea of composting it, only to look out the window and see my dog carrying the fruit of my womb in his mouth like common roadkill.  The third and somewhat sketchy option didn’t appeal to me either:  rolling the placenta up in a plastic shopping bag and sneaking it into the trash outside a  Dunkin’ Donuts.  While I could probably pull it off, I feared ending up an overblown news item on, especially since I hadn’t lost the baby weight yet.

Since none of these ideas really rang true to me, I thought that maybe there was some primal instinct driving me to find purpose or use for the fading organ.  As a kid, I watched typically herbivorous holstein cows deliver slimy black and white babies only to turn around and chow down on their placentas as casually as they would eat fresh grass from my hand.  And in college, I remember learning about the valuable nutrients trapped in the placenta that new mothers can only recapture through placentophagy.  And although the economy of recycling these hard earned proteins appealed to me, there were three reasons why I did not pursue this option.  The first was that in our modern age, adequate nutrition is no more than a trip to the grocery store away.  The second was that I haven’t eaten meat in many years, although perhaps if the dairy cows made a special exception, I could to, if it weren’t for reason number three:  Freezer Burn.  In the hospital, the placenta had looked kind of special and beautiful, but I have to say that it had not aged gracefully and was now a sickly grey color underneath a thick layer of frost.  So eating the placenta, while a fine choice for others, was not going to happen.  

With throwing it in the trash out, and eating it out, I was kind of at a loss.  So I did what any other reasonable adult would do when they felt conflicted about what to do with their frozen placenta:  turned to google.  After twenty five different search permutations, all related to ‘placenta traditions,’ I actually hit on an idea that appealed to me.  I learned that in some areas of the world, there is a tradition of burying the placenta in the ground and then returning a year later to plant a fruit tree in the baby’s honor in that same spot.  This idea is really a win for everyone:  the mom doesn’t have to eat the placenta, the kid gets a cool tree, the tree gets great fertilizer and everyone gets fruit!  

By the time I learned of this tradition, the ground had thawed, the birds were singing and the time for digging holes was right.  Unfortunately though, our yard has pretty terrible soil, and the light is bad and it’s on a big hill.  If I was going to follow through with this placenta tree project, I thought I should at least do it somewhere that the tree could have a shot at a healthy, productive life.  However, my father-in-law, who lives not too far away, has a small orchard which is bordered by a christmas tree farm.  Another thing about my father-in-law is that he is a competitive gift-giver, always trying to think of the most creative, thoughtful and over the top gifts.

In the past, I had given him tote bags that I made out of chicken feed sacks, rare seeds from around the world and even a framed collection of detailed animal silhouettes that I had snipped out of white paper.  While these gifts were easily outdone, I knew that the plastic tub in my freezer held something that could never be topped.  A bonus was that it would really be a two part gift, since I would have to return a year later to plant a fruit tree that would hopefully thrive in the soil made rich by the nutrients I had worked hard to collect during my pizza and chocolate fueled gestation.  So with Father’s day right around the corner, I printed up a little blurb about the placenta tree tradition, sealed it into a card and got ready for the big day.  

I will admit that as I am writing this, it seems a little odd. But at the time, it seemed as ordinary as wrapping up a tie or ordering a book from Amazon.  The weekend of Father’s day, my husband was at work, so I took my daughter and we went to deliver the big gift.  I’m not sure how you would react to someone pulling up in your yard a half-thawed placenta in a cooler that she was  fully intending to bury it in your yard, but my father-in-law was nothing but gracious, if not a little surprised.  

So once the baby fell asleep, we headed out to a special spot in between a lilac and an heirloom apple tree and started digging.  When other cultures do this, there is probably some sort of ritual--maybe a song or a dance or at least a maraca that they shake or something.  But frankly, I couldn’t really think of anything to say.  So we stood wordlessly side by side and when the hole was big enough, I tipped the cooler up until the gelatinous, bloody mass fell in.  We exchanged a solemn glance, which I interpreted as ‘we must never speak of this again.’  Our eyes turned back to the hole and watched as he shoveled the layers of sand and soil and sod back into it.  Although the moment may have been slightly awkward, it was awkward in a kind of sweet and special way.   As far as harebrained ideas go, I would have to say it ended in the ‘weird but nice’ category.  And it was certainly better than getting arrested for illegally dumping medical waste at a rest stop.  

Planting the pear tree over the placenta.

You can check out pictures of what a placenta looks like here: