Photo by me, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
“I’m sorry, what now?” My ex-husband often looks confused when I say things to him that made perfect sense in my head. “Don’t eat the placenta in the fridge.”
Really, this seemed like simple – and rather obvious – advice. Like it shouldn’t be confusing at all. Placenta probably tastes nasty, and you shouldn’t eat it, at least not in the same way you’d eat a steak , or bacon, or any other meaty type thing. If a placenta could be considered meaty.
“Why is there a placenta in the fridge?”
Oh, right, yah, that’s the confusing part. Phew. For a minute there I thought that maybe he thought eating placenta was an obvious choice and I was weird for suggesting he not do it.
“Oh, right. Cactus had her baby.”
(Cactus is not her real name. I was trying to come up with a fake name for her, to protect her privacy, and for some insane reason, “Cactus” popped into my head. So I’m going with it.)
He stared at me blankly. I know this face. It is, in fact, amused. I know that this man trusts my motives and intentions at all times, and still thinks I’m completely batty. Which I am not.
I am the kind of friend who takes your placenta home for you.
But not really willingly. I wouldn’t want you to think I’m THAAAAT generous.
Anyway, Cactus had her baby yesterday morning. Really the middle of the night. It was her first baby, so it took a while. Close to 24 hours, which isn’t necessarily the point. My job (easily the best job in the world,) was just to be there for her. To support both her and her husband. It’s a pretty nonspecific task, with an utterly undefined toolkit. I mean, you never know.
When I got there, she was in the middle of a contraction that came on while she sent her husband on a small errand. She was in the room, with a nurse, her face red and grimacing, silent, tears running down her face. In a nanosecond, I did an inventory of my tools, quickly realizing that a kiss on the forehead was the tool for this job.
She is always beautiful, and crazy strong. But never more so.
Cactus is a tough one. She makes plans. She gets things done. She is decidedly in charge. Of all the things. For my wedding, I relegated the hardest possible job to her. “Make me look good.” She did. I didn’t bring so much as a hair brush to my wedding.
And as I sit here watching her cry, the only damn thing I have to help is kisses. I am not equipped. (But I know I am.)
Leading up to this moment, I think the things that I have told Cactus the most are “you can’t control this,” and “don’t have any expectations.” Not just the birth, but the whole process of raising humans. I’m not an expert or anything, but I’ve been doing it for 16 years now. And my kid is fucking awesome.
Not just regular awesome.
Like every expectant parent, she had visions of how “it” would go. And I would say, “just be open to the moment, do what feels right and makes you happy, don’t have expectations.” True, in fact, for life in general. But especially for giving birth. And raising humans.
When I gave birth, everything that could go wrong did. You name it, it happened, and I wound up with a baby in the NICU, both of us fighting to simply live. As soon as we could, my husband wheeled me over to the NICU, and I felt the most profound relaxation I’ve ever felt. There, amongst 1 pound babies who looked impossible, shades of unlikely with tendrils of science, was my giant pink baby. She looked human and healthy and vital. And the improbable critters looked otherworldly. But I knew they’d be fine. All of them. It was, in that moment, impossible to worry about my daughter. If the blue and tendriled life forms were going to be fine, mine didn’t merit an ounce of concern.
And that moment, really, was the moment that I gave up thinking that I could know or control much of anything about how her life was going to go. That the biggest thing I had to do was be open to whatever intersection she and I stood in, and help her find the safest path to joy. That’s it.
Find the safest path to joy.
I pull my lips away from the furrowed brow, wipe a tear, and ask Cactus how she’s doing. (I can tell, from looking at her, that she’s doing amazingly. But I wanted to know how she perceived it.)
“It really hurts.”
I remember that pain. I had forgotten it, completely, until I saw her going through it. THAT’S why I only did it once. (Well, that and crippling postpartum depression, no need to repeat that either.)
My job is to help Cactus find the safest path to joy. Even amongst all this pain. And my only tool is to validate her. And help her explore all the options.
My tool kit eventually expanded to include stroking her neck and legs during contractions, so lightly that it was more like a breeze ticking the tiny hairs giving texture to flesh. Stroking her thick hair with my fingernails. Providing tissue. (I was amazed that she would even think of tissue to wipe tears. In 44 years, I don’t think I’ve ever done that. I mean, what are sleeves for?) I listened to her calmly explain everything to doctors and nurses, calmly ask questions. I would repeat both her concerns and their answers. I was a translator.
My tool kit was growing. I was going to help Cactus feel good about this, even if nothing went according to plan.
And nothing did. There were drugs (heavenly, wonderful drugs that erased pains and allowed us to watch Archer.) There were interventions to keep labor going. There was an endless parade of staff, all (but one) wonderful. It was like a real birthday party, and Cactus was the pinata.
The last remaining thing on the plan that we could “fight” for was that placenta. She had purchased special paper and was going to make a print with it. Or something like that. I’m not even sure I understand, but I am not an artist, or all that sentimental, and I don’t even like to discuss the fact that people pee, so this was well outside my sphere. I’m just here to make sure Cactus gets what she wants and feels good about what she gets.
The birth was magical. I don’t even know how people talk about birth in ways that sound intelligent, much less beautiful. All I could think of to say, and pretty much all I’ve got now is, HOLY FUCKING SHIT, THERE’S A HUMAN COMING OUT!
When I love my friends, I do it full-force. I’m kind of an all or nothing girl. I love you, or I really don’t waste my time. That said, I’m a squeamish critter, which I know people find hard to believe. I would like to install three more doors between my bed and the toilet that is only veiled by a single door in the bathroom attached to our bedroom. I would, if I could, pretend that neither my husband nor I poop or pee, so that those divine areas of sexy deliciousness are unsullied by the same foul factors that I begrudgingly bag up when I walk the dog. I don’t want to hear it, smell it, see it or even acknowledge anything.
And I am thrilled that my friends have all manner of awesome sex, and come to me to talk about the safety and the joy. Bring it on. But here’s the deal, I don’t want to see it. If I’m not having sex with it, I don’t want to see it.
The first time that her gown needed to be adjusted, I said to myself, “and now Alyssa, you will see a vagina that you are not having sex with. And it’s gonna be okay.”
It was okay. It was just Cactus, who I love. And it was all part of this process that is so awesome. Eventually, it wasn’t even a vagina anymore. It was a Hobbit door, through which a baby was going to emerge to start a grand adventure, all wrinkly and with hair in all the wrong places. (I imagined a walking stick and ugly sandals. Not gonna lie, I was a little disappointed by the absence of costumery.)
Once a vagina becomes a Hobbit door for a baby, you know you’ve gone to another place.
Once the Hobbit was out, and resting on her chest, Cactus was oblivious to anything else. A marching band of dinosaurs wearing tutus could have been dancing and she wouldn’t have noticed. Which was good, because things weren’t going well. Her husband and I watched, him getting paler and paler by the minute, as she bled and bled and bled. And the doctor called for help. And more help. And more equipment. And for an operating room. He told us that she’d be okay, but they needed to operate to find the source of the bleeding.
“I’ve got the baby, you go be with Cactus,” I said to her husband. We hugged. I promised him everything would be okay. I had no idea what that meant, but I believed it 1000000%. I always do. Things are always okay. They just aren’t always what we want or expect.
Until the doctor, with calm that seemed like it should have been that cheering marching band, said “wait, I found it.” And with the world’s quietest proclamation, Cactus stopped bleeding. We all stayed in the room, while an army of blue-clad people quickly and quietly hid any evidence that anything medical had happened. Leaving the three of us alone with the baby. And our thoughts.
Somewhere in there, a couple hours later, it was time for me to go home. Just as I was getting ready to go, the nurse came in to finally get Hobbit’s measurements and all that. So I stayed to watch.
As she finished up, and I was getting ready to leave, the nurse said, to no one in particular, “you guys wanted to keep the placenta, right?” I didn’t really listen, because I was not one of the “you guys” that wanted a placenta. I didn’t even want my own. (Though years later, it did save some kid’s life, which is kind of awesome.)
“YES,” Cactus said, with the enthusiasm that I though the doctor should have had upon stopping the bleeding.
“Well,” the nurse issued forth with authority that could not be questioned, “it can’t stay here, so Alyssa is taking it home.”
WHAT? Alyssa who won’t acknowledge that humans pee. Who is afraid of touching people. Who steeled herself to see a vagina? THAT Alyssa?
And she handed me the placenta, in a clear plastic bag. I am fairly sure that the placenta was both pulsing AND laughing at me.
“Of course, I’d be happy to.”
As these words were coming out of my mouth, I was saying, inside my head of course, “who’s saying that, give me my mouth back, why are you saying that, HELP, I’VE BEEN BODY SNATCHED, someone is saying all the right things, people, you should know that’s not me.” But before I could reconcile my love-induced postpartum schizophrenic compassion, that placenta was in my hand. Hanging precariously in a plastic bag, secured by a knot, looking up at me with a grimace that was really the umbilical cord.
“Can you put this in another bag, just in case.” The nurse looked at me suspiciously, and dutifully put it in another clear plastic bag.
“Maybe another one, I mean, just in case.” There, the placenta was in 3 plastic bags. Nothing could go wrong now.
Cactus chimed in, “I have a cloth grocery bag that you can’t see through, do you want that?”
Look, at this point, I was as protective of the placenta as I was of Cactus and Hobbit. I was going to fucking preserve and protect that placenta with the full force of my being. It was the one and only part of the birth plan that was going to go as planned, and I would protect that thing from Orks, Gollum, the devil and drunken hipsters. Nothing was going to harm this placenta.
I just didn’t want to see it.
I put it in the green bag. (Cute bag. I have to ask Cactus where she got it.) Tied it in a knot, took it home. I got home just as Brady was getting ready to wake up and go work the first part of my morning coaching shift for me. I kicked my shoes off, pet the dog, and put the placenta in the fridge.
It was safe.
As long as I remembered to tell people not to eat it.